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5 Swim Tips and Drills to Help Improve Your Stroke

As we move into Week 2 of swim month, here are some swim tips and drills to help you get the most from your stroke mechanics as well as your workouts.

Of the three sports in triathlon, swimming is the most technical and often the hardest to master, especially as an adult. These tips and drills are designed to help make things a little easier. If you haven’t already, be sure to check out the Benchmark a Better You swim month workouts: Week 1 is here and Week 2 here.

1. Underwater Pull/Initial Catch

Early Vertical Forearm (EVF) is a popular term used when we talk about getting your elbow up during the underwater pull phase of your stroke. You want a big surface area that acts as your paddle, which is from your fingertips to your elbow, and you want to hold onto the water with this “paddle” for as long as possible. To do this, it’s helpful to get your elbow up after you enter the water by using “EVF.” 

Drill: Underwater Recovery

Start with one arm reaching forward and the other arm by your side. Now at the same time, your forward arm starts the initial catch/pull phase while your other hand slowly reaches forward staying near your body and getting into its ready position to pull. Your focus is on the arm that is pulling and working on the initial catch/ “EVF.” 

Think about using your own personal “paddle” to really grab a hold of the water and keep your fingertips pointed towards the bottom of the pool. Your arms never come out of the water for this drill, so it is like a doggy paddle but you are reaching fully forward and pushing the water all the way back. You can put a snorkel on during this drill if you don’t want to think about when to breathe. Otherwise, take a breath when you normally would.

2. Breathing

There are a few things to think about when you are breathing. First of all, you want to keep your head in a neutral position (facing the bottom of the pool and eyes slightly forward) and only move your head when you are getting ready to breathe. When you breathe, turn your head to the side, but try to keep one goggle under the water. This will help ensure that you are not turning your head too much. Also, once you get your breath and your head is back underwater, start to slowly exhale through your mouth and nose. Holding your breath might cause more strain on your body, so try to be as relaxed with your breathing as possible. 

Drill: Kickboard Freestyle

Grab your kickboard and fins for this drill. Push off the wall holding your kickboard at the bottom. Start to swim freestyle, but start and end each stroke by holding onto the kickboard (so take a stroke with your right arm, grab the bottom of the board, and then take a stroke with your left arm). Every three strokes, take a breath to the side and think about keeping your bottom goggle under the water. After you get your breath, put your head back into the neutral position and slowly exhale until you are ready to take your next stroke. 

3. Hip Drive

While some people might think that you swim freestyle flat and on your stomach, you actually swim on your side because of the constant body rotation and you are more hydrodynamic through the water on your side. Focus on starting your rotation with your hips and driving each hip towards the bottom of the pool (alternating right then left). Your rotation doesn’t have to be a 90-degree angle, but more of a 45-degree angle. When you want to increase your arm tempo, think about rotating your hips faster. 

Drill: Body rotation

This drill is done with your hands by your side and you can use fins and a snorkel so that you only have to focus on your rotation. All you are going to do is kick and rotate your body side to side. Think about driving each hip towards the bottom of the pool one at a time. This is also a great drill to work on your body position. You can play around with your head position and see how that affects the rest of your body. Try to keep your head down, eyes slightly up, and keep your hips on top of the water. 

4. Big pull and lat engagement

Watching a lot of triathletes swim, I have noticed that they swim short, meaning small pulls instead of long and full pulls. You want to make sure that you are using your personal “paddle” (fingertips to elbow), and pushing the water all the way past your hip. Another thing to think about is engaging your lats to make sure you are getting a strong pull. Your lats will help with your initial catch and continue to help through your entire pull. 

Drill: Hold Your Paddle

Instead of putting your paddles on your hands with the strap, you hold the top of your paddle with your fingers so that your palm and wrist are on your paddle. Swim regular freestyle with your hand on your paddle and feel how you are forced to really grab a hold of the water, engage your lats, and push the water all the way back past your hips. Swim a 200 holding your paddle and then a 200 without the paddle, trying to get the same feeling as when you were doing the drill. 

5. Open-water sighting

It is very important for triathletes to learn how to sight for buoys in a fluid and effective way. When you are in the open water and trying to swim in the straightest line possible, you want to sight for buoys often. I tend to sight every four to six strokes, therefore, it’s important to make sure that I’m doing this in a way that does not have a negative effect on my stroke.

In order to sight, look forward by bringing your eyes out of the water and then turn your head to breathe in one motion. If you are getting ready to breathe to your left side, then look forward and sight as your right arm is starting to come out of the water. Begin to turn your head to the left to breathe to the side as your arm goes into the water.

Drill: Pool Sighting

The best way to practice sighting for buoys is to sight in the pool. Put an orange cone, or something like it, at the end of the lane and practice sighting every few strokes. The more you practice, the better you will get, and the faster you will swim in the open water.