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Swim Drills For Triathletes

by Lisa Wolf

Each time triathletes hit the pool deck, they are ready to challenge themselves and work toward the goal of getting faster and more efficient in the water. To many, this means long distance sets for endurance or speed sets for increased anaerobic development. One of the most overlooked areas in training is the use of swimming drills. Taking the time to “break apart” a stroke (and yes, sometimes that includes strokes other than freestyle) by learning to do something slowly, with specific focus, can reap benefits during a race. 

Here are a few swimming drills to spice up a workout to improve technique, as well as to provide a bit of recovery between sets. 

I concede that kicking during the swim portion of a triathlon should be kept to a minimum to conserve leg strength for the bike and run but that doesn’t mean that you should never kick during practice! These drills work on body position as well as kicking. Remember, a good flutter kick is about 12-16 inches deep in the water. Only your heels should be popping out on the downward kick. And don’t forget to kick up and down with flexible ankles. Don’t drive the kick from your thighs — it should be hip driven and snap your toes down with you knee bending slightly. The advantage of a solid kick is that it creates the balance needed to have a good stroke rhythm. 

Body Position Drill No. 1: Hands on the end of the kickboard, arms fully extended and kickboard flat on the water. Head should be down between the arms, ears even with the arms and gentle flutter kick. Lift the head up to breath. This reestablishes the correct horizontal plane for minimal drag and combats “uphill” swimming. 

Body position Drill No. 2: Repeat the same drill but move one hand to the middle of the board, the other remains at the side. Kick gently and rotate to breath. Keep the head down (ear at arm) and focus on gentle rotation to breath. See how little of your face you can keep out of the water, maybe only to the point past your nose. Repeat on the other side to promote bilateral breathing comfort. For weak kickers, fins may assist in finding the correct body position. 

Tombstone Drill: Put the kickboard out fully extended in front to look like a tombstone and start kicking. The goal is to keep the maximum amount of the kickboard in the water you can handle. It is an excellent body awareness and balance drill while stressing the legs. 

A triathlon swim is all about efficiency and stroke rate. The best way to think of this is that you want to get the maximum distance per stroke with the most efficient stroke rate to maintain “steady state swimming.” It takes practice to find the perfect ratio between the two but working on creating excellent technique will assist in getting the most out of your swim. 

Fingertip Drag: Swim with high elbow recovery and “drag” fingertips forward in the water from your exit to your entry point out in front. Relax your arm and hand in the recovery phase to keep it loose and engage the upper back muscles (traps/lats and rhomboids) to ensure you are not swimming with just your rotator cuff and shoulder muscles. 

Crossover Drill: Repeat Kickboard Drill No. 2 but swim with a single arm. If you are crossing over in front of your face during your entry, you will hit the kickboard with your hand. Focus on entry outside the shoulder and away from the board. This will decrease the chances of shoulder impingement/injury. Switch arms to practice both sides. 

Fist Drill: Swim with fists lightly clenched through the full stroke. Notice the forearm position (high elbow, or “EVF”— early vertical forearm, under water) and feel the water on the forearm. Do not drop elbow. Pull water straight back past the hip with minimal sculling. 

Breathing Pattern Drill: Swim set of 4x200, breathing every three strokes on odd 25s and every five strokes on odd 25s. You must slow down to do this drill correctly and be able to keep the pattern. Don’t forget to exhale slowly underwater so you can grab a full breath on the breathing portion. You most likely will have to hold your breath for a second or two, especially on the five strokes. 

Water Polo Drill No. 1: Swim 25s (or partial 25s) with your head out of the water looking forward. Do not swing your head from side to side but focus forward. This will help develop the neck/back muscles for open water sighting. Be careful if you have neck or lower back issues and don’t overdo this one. 

Water Polo Drill No. 2: In the deep end of the pool, tread water with breast stroke or eggbeater kick (alternating one-legged breast stroke kick) with your hands on your head or above water. This will drill will simulate the treading done at the beginning of an in-water start. Build up from 3x30 seconds to 3x2 minutes over time. 

Buoys and Turns No. 1: Practice swimming five strokes of freestyle and then three strokes of breast stroke for several 25s. This allows you to practice slowing down/speeding up if you encounter a crowded area around a turn buoy or have to maneuver around a group in a straightaway. 

Buoys and Turns No. 2: Swim four strokes of freestyle and cross your arm over your body and swim three strokes of backstroke for a 25. Not only is this the beginning of a backstroke flip turn (bonus), it allows you to practice adjusting goggles during a race with ease as well as working on mastering a fast turn around a buoy. 

Each and every swim practice should include drills. It allows you to refocus on technique at key sections of the workout. As you tire, technique begins to suffer, so taking a few minutes with any of the drills is a productive use of your valuable time. 

Lisa Wolf is a certified coach with USA Triathlon and USA Swimming. Her swimming background also includes a Level II ASCA certification and Level II certification with USMS.

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