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The Evolving Swimmer: Drill It

Drills get a bad wrap but they actually bring focus and break up the monotony of a swim workout.

Welcome to Part III of “The Evolving Swimmer” series. Missed Part I & II? Click here.

Rarely do I complete a swim workout that doesn’t include a few drills. Drills address specific components of your stroke. Designed to improve your swim mechanics by breaking down the freestyle into elements. Drills help improve weaknesses and achieve better balance. They train your body to feel the water.

The goal, of course, is to perfect individual elements of your stroke so you can put them all together into a fast and efficient freestyle.

Key swim drills target one or more of the following areas:

  1. Balance
  2. Efficiency
  3. Strength
  4. Propulsion

Side Swimming

[If you do no other drill, do this one!]

What to do:  Rotate to left side with left arm under your ear extended straight out in front. Right arm straight down your right side. Unless taking a quick breath, rotate your head and face so you are looking straight at the bottom of the pool. Your head should be level and against your arm. Legs stay straight. Keeping legs as close together as possible, flutter kick gently for propulsion down the lane.

What’s important: Keep your body as streamlined as possible. Think of slipping through a crack in the water keeping your body as narrow as possible. To breath, rotate like your body is on a skewer rather than lift your head, even if you are close to being on your back. Switch sides each length.

Six Beat Slide

What to do:  Same as side swimming drill above except after six small flutter kicks, rotate to the other side while maintaining a streamlined rhythm for the next six beats. The arm that is by your side enters the water (either over head or underneath) with hand pointing ahead as it takes over the underwater position. The other hand exits to take its place on the side of your body that is out of the water. Keep rotating sides down the lane.

What’s important: Try to maintain flow even when alternating. Stay parallel with the surface like there is a rod extending from your head to your feet. If you’re not moving smoothly down the lane, you are not streamlined. Likely because you’re lifting your upper body or your legs are separating and knees are bending creating serious drag.

One Arm Drill

[I love this drill!]

What to do:  Only use one arm to freestyle down the lane with other arm straight in front. Breathe to the side of the rotating arm. Switch arms every other length. During the pull (the portion when your arm is underwater pushing the water behind you), make sure you keep your elbow high and hand is pushing water behind and not down.

What’s important: If you have trouble moving through the water, it’s because you’re lifting your upper body and your legs are sinking. You should feel more emphasis on the pull, however, if you’re doing this right it should not feel difficult. If it’s exhausting, you know you need to work on balance (see next two drills).

Kicking Drill

What to do:  If you’re struggling with balance (legs are sinking; lifting head to breathe), don’t use a kick board to practice kicking. Put both arms out in front as if each hand is on a railroad track (don’t link hands together like they used to teach us). Keeping your body level, kick down the lane as if there is a board underneath you. When you need to breathe, insert a one arm drill for 1 or 2 strokes before putting your face back in the water. You should be looking straight down or just barely in front.

What’s important: This drill reinforces body position, especially with your head. If you’ve been lifting your upper body, this drill may feel like you’re swimming downhill and that’s good. Think of your chest as pressing toward the bottom of the pool.


What to do:  On your back, keep your body stiff with your arms extended down your sides. Moving from your wrists, use only your hands to flutter in the water creating propulsion down the lane. Like you’re drawing a mini “S” underwater.

What’s important: You are reinforcing a streamline body position. It’s hard to move through the water unless your body position is good. It also increases comfort level in water as you practice keeping your chin up and head back. Think of your head as the tip of a rocket. Relax your head back and you’ll create less resistance. This drill is a good workout too!

The Tapper

What to do:  As you freestyle and your arm exits the water with high elbow (right as it’s about to circle to the front), take that hand and tap the water behind you. For example, as my right elbow begins to exit the water behind me, left arm is out front, I rotate so that my belly button is facing the right wall, take my right hand and tap the top of the water quickly behind my back. Then complete the stroke and as my left arm exits behind, I shift on to my right side and my left hand quickly taps behind my back.

What’s important: This skill is tricky and takes a little practice. In order to stay parallel with the water, you’re forced to rotate rather than lift your body. This encourages hip rotation which is so important for speed. Pretend your upper body is swimming downhill. The drill is impossible to execute if your lower body sinks.

Check out the fantastic articles on my favorite on-line resource,  These articles will go into more depth on the importance of balance, breathing, body roll, etc.

It is my personal preference to avoid using swim “accessories” most of the time. If my legs are really tired from previous hard workouts, I might use a pull buoy between my knees for the final meters of my swim. Don’t use a pull buoy at the beginning unless you want to feel like a total slug when you remove it.

I don’t like any false sense of flotation because efficient swimming depends on rhythm and timing without these gadgets. I’ve never used hand paddles, fins or snorkels. This is a personal preference. If you decide to use them, do so sparingly and under the guidance of a swim coach who can target their use to benefit specific areas of your stroke.

Until next time, take the plunge!

"Ability is what you're capable of doing. Motivation determines what you do. Attitude determines how well you do it." Lou Holtz


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