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How to combine drills and full-stroke swimming

How to combine drills and full-stroke swimming

To make the most of drill work, says top US swim coach Andrew Sheaff, you need to organise your sessions in a systematic way. Here's the how and why…

To make the most of your drilling, you need to organise the practice of drills and freestyle swimming in a systematic way.

Why do you need to include drills in swimming?

The value in drills is that they can ‘push’ a triathlete towards different ways of moving. Drills can open the door to change by helping you ‘feel’ and experience new ways of swimming. However, you need to step through the door with freestyle swimming to create actual change.

In other words, you need to take the sensations you feel during the drills and actually apply them when your swimming freestyle. If you can’t do that, then the drills aren’t going to do anything for you!

There are several strategies that effectively combine both activities. I’m going to describe each of those strategies below, as well as provide a sample session to illustrate the concepts.

Alternating sets

Perform a series of drills, then a series of freestyle swims. You perform all of the drill work and then all of the full-stroke swimming.

The advantage of this approach is that you get a lot of concentrated focus on the drills and then the freestyle swimming. The downside is while you may ‘open the door’ really wide, the door starts to close over time as you get further and further away from the drill.

When you’re first learning the drill, this can be a great strategy as it allows for concentrated focus. However, it’s not as effective for transferring what you learn into freestyle.


Alternating repetitions

This approach differs from the first strategy in that there’s a constant and consistent switch between performing the drill and performing freestyle.

The benefit here is that you get a lot more opportunities to ‘open the door’, and then step through it.

It can be frustrating at first because you’re always changing what you’re doing, making it harder to get into a groove. However, this frustration is actually a positive outcome as it indicates you’re learning.


Within repetition

Instead of taking a break between repetitions, you’re going to move directly from the drill to freestyle swimming. You can either make this transition once within each repetition (see the 1st example), or you can make this transition multiple times (see the 2nd example).

The benefit is that there’s an immediate transition from drill to skill. This can help some triathletes transfer what they’re experiencing during the drill into freestyle.

This strategy is effective when used for longer swims with a focus on building endurance, as it allows you to do some extended swimming while still getting technical reminders throughout.



Progression over time

When starting out, you want to perform a lot more repetitions of the drill relative to freestyle swimming. You need to spend some time learning how to do the drill, and you want to get the door open as wide as possible.

Then you take a shot at executing the skills during regular freestyle. Over time, it will take a lot less work to ‘groove’ the skills with the drill, and you’ll need more time practising those skills during freestyle.

Top image: Getty Images

Profile image of Andrew Sheaff Andrew Sheaff Swim coach


Andrew Sheaff has been helping people improve their swimming for over 20 years. He’s worked with everyone from children learning to swim to Olympic medalists to masters triathletes and swimmers. He specialises in helping triathletes improve their swimming skills through online coaching. He is also the author of 'A Constraints-Led Approach to Swim Coaching'. For more information about improving your swimming and to work with Andrew, please visit www.masteringflow.info or www.youtube.com/@masteringflow.

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