Does it feel like something is standing between you and a streamlined swim style? Some people look so effortless in the water, but here’s a secret - they worked hard to look like that. And you can, too. These five fundamental swimming drills will help you swim faster for less effort, leading to better race results and more fun during training.
Swimming is a technical sport. That’s a challenge but it’s also a golden opportunity to master the skill. Once you tackle the points of your swim stroke that are holding you back, you can bust through the plateau and start moving forward. Break your swim stroke down, focus on the basics, and then put it back together and you’ll swim faster for less effort.
Most improvers will come up against a common challenge in front crawl: for example lack of good rotation, a poor recovery phase, or a weak catch. Freestyle drills (like the five we outline below) will help you identify your biggest challenge and focus on it so you can transfer your new improved skill back into the full stroke. You won’t need to do these drills every time you swim, but they’re a great addition to your warm ups or your technique sessions.
Here are five key drills for beginner to intermediate swimmers to use in the pool or open water.
Drill #1 Slow Your Stroke Rate
Ever noticed how the strongest sportspeople look like they’re putting in the least effort? Think about rowers who pull with strong, but slow strokes. They’re don’t frantically swipe at the water in an attempt to move more quickly. They know it’s power, not turnover, that makes each pull worthwhile.
It’s the same with swimming. To go faster, you need to slow your stroke rate down. Think about how much water you move with each pull, instead of how often your turn your arms over. Remember, your streamlined shape is disrupted every time you take a stroke, so it makes sense to minimise how often this happens.
The most stable part of the front crawl stroke is when your arm is out of the water, so focus on a calmer recovery phase and smoother entry into the water. Whilst one arm is out of the water, the other should be generating force by pulling as much water as possible. Try this drill with a pull buoy between your legs if you find your legs dropping when you slow your stroke rate down.
Disclaimer: there will come a time when you need to focus on increasing your stroke rate, so you can pick up the pace during a race. But until you’ve mastered the art of pulling more water with each stroke, focus on slowing your cadence. You need to know how to go slow before you can go faster!
Drill #2 Closed Fists
Swimming with closed fists might sound crazy, but this is one of the oldest and most enduring swim drills - and for good reason. Once you commit to it, you’ll see how effective it is for improving your pull. By eliminating the opportunity to use the palm of your hand to catch and pull the water, this drill shows you how it feels to use your forearm and gets you into great habits.
Closed fists is simple: swim as normal, but keep both hands in a fist instead of with your fingers outstretched. By removing the surface area of your hand, you’ll be reminded that you should always use your forearms for the pull phase of the stroke. This will also encourage a higher elbow recovery.
Added bonus: when you unclench your fists, it will feel like you are swimming with giant hands! Get ready to feel a bit boost of power once you return to swimming with open palms.
Drill #3 Sculling
Sculling is a basic drill which can be adapted to tackle various weaknesses in your stroke. It’s a great drill to add to your warm-ups, or to help you swim down at the end of a session. Sculling helps you develop a better feel for the water, improve your catch, and help you identify the best angle of your hands.
Sculling simply means moving your hands in small half-circle or figure-of-eight movements. It’s one of the first skills swimmers are taught in order to learn how to tread water or stay afloat.
If your main challenge is the point of hand entry into the water, swim with your head out of the water and scull with your arms straight out in front of you.
If you want to get more power in your catch phase, angle your arm slightly below the surface of the water and scull your hand down until your arm is at 90* to your body.
During any sculling drill, you should keep your legs, body, and head in a normal swim position. Using fins or a pull buoy might help with this.
Drill #4 Hand-Drag or Trickle-Fingers Drill
Hang-drag drills are a great way to increase the speed of your hand through the catch and pull phase and encourage more awareness of the recovery phase of the top arm, which will ultimately translate into more power.
Swim your normal front crawl stroke, but pay attention to the arm which is usually out of the water. Instead of your normal recovery (in the air), drag that hand through the surface of the water. You can either keep the hand rigid and drag the fingers and palm through the water, or keep the hand relaxed and “trickle” the tips of the fingers across the surface of the water.
The aim of this drill is to keep your awareness on the recovery phase, rather than just letting it happen as an afterthought. By slowing the stroke down, the pull of the underwater arm will develop. And when you return to normal front crawl, your arm recovery will feel faster and more effective.
Drill #5 Catch-Up Freestyle
Catch-up is one of the first drills swimmers will learn to do, and it’s still as useful as the day it was invented. Add it to your warm up, use it for recovery during hard sets, or as part of your swim down. It isolates each arm movement, helping you to break down each phase of the stroke and concentrate on proper mechanics. Doing catch-up will help hand entry, catch, and pull, and encourage you to pull more water to create more distance per stroke. All of which will translate to faster swimming for less effort.
Leave one arm outstretched and touch your hands lightly before pulling with the arm which was outstretched, leaving the second arm out in front. Or you can do single arm catch-up, by leaving one arm outstretched constantly (only swimming with one arm). If you do this, try half a length with each arm until you get used to the movement.