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Swim Speed Secrets: Drills

These are drills are taken from four-time Olympian Sheila Taormina’s book Swim Speed Workouts.

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These are drills that appeared in the swim training plan in the April 2013 issue of Triathlete, taken from four-time Olympian Sheila Taormina’s book Swim Speed Workouts. Taormina also has plenty of useful videos and tips on many of the drills on her website


Standing Scull Drill

During this drill, you’re working to feel the water grip your forearms and the palms of your hands so you understand what it means to gain traction on the water. To position for the drill, stand in the pool, chest deep (bend knees if necessary), with the arms 4 to 5 inches below the surface, parallel with the bottom of the pool. Direct your upper arms outward, slightly wider than shoulder width; your upper arms remain stable in this position throughout the drill.

Begin with your elbows bent and your hands/forearms in front of your shoulder pitched at a 45-degree angle so your palms face away from each other (the thumb is the low point, the pinky the high point). Working from your elbow only, press your hands/forearms away from each other (this is the out-sweep motion), gradually straightening your elbow, until your hands are 8 to 12 inches wider than shoulder width. At the end of the out-sweep, quickly reverse the direction of your hands/forearms so your palms face each other at a 45-degree pitch (pinky is now the low point and thumb the high point) and press inward, rebending at your elbow (this is the in-sweep motion). In-sweep until your hands/forearms are in front of your shoulders, and then reverse direction and repitch for another out-sweep. To reap the benefits of this drill, be sure to keep your upper arm stable, working from your elbow only. This drill builds coordination and strength at the elbow, which is important in all three phases of the underwater pull.

Horizontal Scull Drill

The same hand/forearm in-sweep and out-sweep motions as the Standing Scull Drill, but now you lie in the water, face down, upper arms set in the high elbow catch position, as you work down the length of the pool.

To being horizontal sculling, push off the wall in a streamline position, then surface, keeping both arms in front of your head. Reach your upper arms forward by lengthening the muscles that surround the scapula. Your upper arms should be raised, arced outward 3 to 4 inches wider than your lateral body line, and rotated/twisted slightly so the elbows point up. Hold your upper arms stable in this high-elbow position for the duration of the drill.

Tarzan Drill

Swim your normal freestyle stroke, but keep your head above water looking straight ahead the entire time. Your stroke will be a bit choppier/shorter, and your turnover will increase. The drill is great for building strength and natural turnover, and for developing the underwater pull, because you must hold the water properly in order to move forward while keeping your head above water.

Dog-Paddle Drill

Simulate the freestyle stroke but keep your head above water and your arms under the surface of the water during the entire exercise. Don’t recover over the water as you would during a normal freestyle stroke. Instead, after you finish near your hip, slide your hand/forearm under your body, close to your body, back to extension in front of your head.

One-Arm Drill

On this drill, one arm remains stationary while the other arm pulls. The purpose of one-arm stroking is to concentrate on the underwater pull on one side without worrying about the timing of the full stroke. Hold the stationary arm at your side or in front of your head. It’s more challenging to leave the stationary arm at your side; try it when you feel strong enough and can coordinate the breath and core drive properly.

You can focus on any element of stroke technique during one-arm drill, such as (1) the arcing motion of your upper arm as it goes into the high-elbow catch, (2) the pitch of your hand/forearm during the diagonal phase of the stroke, or (3) the hand pitch directing toward the hip for the finish.

One-Arm with Kickboard Drill

Similar to above, but place the nonstroking arm on top of a kickboard. This drill provides another angle from which to work all phases of the underwater pull, especially the high-elbow catch.

Place your nonstroking hand flat on top of the middle of the kickboard. With your head out of the water, look straight forward and stoke with the working hand/arm, concentrating on catching and feeling the water. Occasionally look at your hand and forearm as they enter the water to ensure they make their way to the high-elbow position. As you stroke, feel your way into the catch by arcing your upper arm 3 or 4 inches outward as you direct your hand/forearm gradually down, all of this taking place in front of your head alongside the kickboard. The catch is not an abrupt choppy motion. A strong, thoughtful feel for the water should accompany the mechanics of the pull at all times.


Place your hands on the pool deck slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, your body chest-deep in the water. Keeping your legs from pushing off the bottom of the pool, use you upper body strength exclusively and press to a straight-arm position. Please note that as you begin your press-out your forearms should be parallel with the water level or deck, elbows pointing behind you so you engage the muscles surrounding your scapular. Many people erroneously point their elbows up, with the forearm perpendicular to the deck surface, as they press out, which places unhealthy stress on the shoulder joint and fails to engage the muscles surrounding the scapula. After pressing to a straight arm position, lower the body back into the water, chest deep, for the next press-out.

Tubing Technique

Setting the high-elbow position: Place your hands between the plastic handle and nylon strap. Cinch the strap around your hands such that you can hold hands flat and open, with straightened fingers; no cupping of the hand. Raise your upper arm to shoulder height and arc 3 to 4 inches wider than lateral side of body line to position slightly wider than shoulder width. Rotate/twist upper arm slightly so elbow points up. Extend forward by reaching with the muscles that attach to the scapular. Keep your wrist straight and flush with forearm, and bend at the elbow to direct forearm and fingers down.

Pulling back: Press back with forearm and hand, fingers pointing toward ground simulating the high-elbow catch phrase. As the hand/forearm passes under your head, the diagonal phase begins. Squeeze your upper arm toward your armpit, as if squeezing a balloon. As upper arm squeezes, pitch your hand/forearm 3 to 5 degrees inward to direct under your body. Your elbow remains pointed out, with your upper arm outside the later edge of body. Once your hand passes under you belly button, the finish phase requires that you pitch 3 to 5 degrees outward to direct your hand toward your hip. Straighten elbow/arm at finish but don’t lock out.

Recovery:  After finishing the pull, return your hand/forearm to the starting position via a low route. Don’t simulate the overwater recovery phase of the freestyle stroke, as tension from the tubing may rebound too forcefully and cause injury to your shoulder.

Triceps-Only Exercise:

This exercise, which is a tight, short motion, trains upper arm strength and the finish phase of the freestyle stroke.

To do the exercise, bend at the waist just as you would to do full pulls on tubing. Begin with your hands just in front of the outside edge of your hips, alongside your upper thigh, fingertips and forearms pointing vertically toward the ground. There should be a 90-degree bend in your elbows. Your upper arms should be against the sides of your body, and they remain stable in this position throughout the exercise; this requires great stability strength in the shoulders and core, and for many people this is the most difficult part of the exercise.