Swim Technique Drills to improve your swim and shave minutes off your time

Swim Technique Drills to improve your swim and shave minutes off your time


Ironman PB Best Swim of 45 minutes. Previous Swim Record Holder at Ironman Malaysia and Ironman South Africa…Ex National Elite Swimmer : 16 minute 1500m Personal Best time.

If a survey were to be taken amongst a vast majority of triathletes (both long distance and short distance) asking what discipline they battled with most and which one they wished a dramatic improvement upon, I would be bold enough to say it would be the swim.

I also need to ensure that before we go any further with this piece on swim drills, that you as readers make a clear distinction between a competitive pool swimmers stroke and that of an open water swim triathlete. A competitive swimmers stroke technique is in most instances, inch perfect. They have a controlled environment (singular swim lane with anti-turbulent lane ropes) in which to compete it. This ensures that any technical stroke work they do in training is precisely carried over into competition. Triathletes on the other hand do not have a controlled environment in which they participate. Factors such as on the day open water swim conditions (wind chop, waves and currents), wetsuits, fighting for swim space and course navigation and visibility all play a part in a triathletes swim technique during any competitive triathlon swim they may undertake. Swim Drills and technical work in the training pool will most definitely put you on the path to a better swim  and faster times but you do need to take heed of and adapt to on the day open water race conditions. Additionally, if you do opt for a swim coach to assist you in implementing these drills and technical stroke correction work, try and secure one that is familiar with the sport of triathlon and the rigours of the washing machine swim. A “Triathlon” Coach is more adapt to assisting you than would be a pure Competition Swim Coach


We have highlighted 4 basic but very effective swim drills that you can attempt and incorporate into your weekly swim training sessions. I would suggest setting aside the warm-up or cool down period (recovery) of your swim program schedule to practise the drills in.


  1. Finger Drag Drill


A high elbow recovery is paramount to an effective long arm stroke reach when swimming. If your elbow drops during the recovery phase (when arm is out of the water), you will not get the far reaching arm distance you require for an efficient and conservative swim stroke. What we are aiming for is a relatively slower turnover of both the left and the right arm stroke pulls as opposed to the wind-mill type fast action that requires more energy output but is far less efficient. A lack of shoulder flexibility and movement may hinder you when trying out this drill so make sure you also incorporate some dry land stretching before each swim session. This will also greatly reduce the cause of any possible injuries long term because the arm movements are more relaxed

What to do:  Allow the shoulder part of the arm to brush past each ear with your finger tips ever so gently, running across the surface of the water until your arm is fully extended. Drop the hand into the water, pull and repeat the process for both left and right arms. The stroke rate slows down using this swim drill technique so bump up your kick rate or put on some swim fins to aid the forward propulsion. It does take a little getting used to but used effectively, you will enhance your swim stroke and efficiency because of the longer stroke reach and slower turn-over rate.

Sample Drill Sets: 4 x 50m of finger drags with 20 seconds rest after each one/or 8 x 25m with 15 seconds rest after each one – 1 length finger drag – 1 length normal until all 8 are completed/or 200m-400m easy swimming warm up or cool down with a high elbow action and finger drag continuously

NOTE: A wetsuit will probably hinder the shoulder movement somewhat when swimming in the open water but this specific drill will pay out some long term stroke improvement dividends if mastered completely.


2. Closed Fist Swim Drill


The hand plays a big part with the initial first catch of the water during the arm pull action. That is why you see so many athletes frantically trying to avoid getting sunscreen or Vaseline on their hands at races by using plastic wrappers to apply these same lotions. You need to be able to” have a feel” for the water on the fingers when your hand enters and starts the pull action. A loss of or incorrect grip of the hand on the water will result in a poor and weak swim pull arm action which then results in a poorer swim technique. The forearm plays a big part when it comes to gripping the water and using that grip to propel you forward. The forearm is a neglected area when it comes to the “feel” for the water. If we get a proper feel for the water and grip using our forearms as well, no doubts your swim stroke and pull action will be more efficient. The stroke will be stronger and that means faster.

What to do: You apply the normal swim action of left and right arm swimming, only this time you clench your fist and swim with a “closed” hand. This is going to ensure that you use your forearms for forward propulsion and not the fingers and palms of your hands. Initially it is really difficult with even the proficient swimmers having to concentrate hard to ensure that they come to grips with swimming minus the use of their hands. Practising this technique continually will allow for a general improvement in the swim catch and pull motion. Strength gains are also significant.

Sample Drills: do short (25m-50m) repeats when practising this drill to ensure that you give it 100% in the arm pull action. It’s a tiring drill so rest well between each of the fist swim intervals


 3. Water Polo Head-up Swim Drill            


Open Water Navigational Skills go hand in hand with churning out faster swim times during triathlon events. If your swimming skew with stop and starts and with no sense of accurate direction, you will always battle during the swim, with minimal chance of really improving your overall swim times. The lesser experienced and novice triathlon swimmers will always find a need to stop dead in their tracks while swimming a course, lift their heads to see where they are going and where they need to head towards. They then proceed to start swimming again only to repeat this entire process a good couple of times during any one of their swim events. It goes without saying that this style of swimming will be slow as the momentum gained while continuing to swim over the distance before they stop and lift their heads is completely nullified. You cannot expect to swim faster by stopping and starting all the time. The fastest swimmers are able to continue at speed, lift their heads to pinpoint direction and then proceed to swim without any drop in their swim pace. Can you imagine how much time you would save if you could just keep that momentum going for the duration of the swim? How do we get that right? Water Polo Head-up swim drills, that’s how

What to do: it’s easier said than done for a weaker swimmer. Shoulders need to be very flexible and supple, you need to keep the body afloat by lifting the chest up and kicking down hard in to the water. The weaker swimmer will battle in the early stages but that is why we practice. You need to start off with short distances to get this drill 100% spot-on….swim 5 strokes whilst breathing normally, then lift the head and look directly in front of you for an additional 2 strokes. Then drop the head for another 5 strokes and so on. The fitter you become and the more you practice, the longer you will be able to keep your head up for (5 strokes up 5 strokes down/10 strokes up 10 strokes down). Any open water swim training must also incorporate this drill when possible. This is one drill that needs to almost become habitual. The Elite swimmer will often lift his or her head out of the water in a swimming pool out of pure habit. They don’t slow down their swim pace aand are able to do this quite easily.

Sample Drills:

Swim 5 strokes normally/2 strokes head-up for 8 x 25m/rest 20 seconds after each one. Goal: Try and maintain your normal swim pace for the intervals when doing these water polo head lifts.


Swim 400m continuously with 5 to 10 second periods set aside for the head-up swim drill. Open water training will involve the same type of sample program only for use over longer periods of time. The most important aspect of this technical drill is to complete it without slowing down the swim pace. Practice makes perfect!



4. Avoiding Dropped Elbow Swim Drills: Single Arm Catch-up 

This is a common problem amongst the weaker/novice triathlon swimmer. Most of them will tend to drop the elbow as they start the backward pull resulting in a loss of power during this cycle of the arm pull action. The arm will then lend itself to being a lot straighter (see middle diagram). A straighter arm during the pull action requires a lot more force and effort to complete the pull thru which will definitely tire the swimmer out a lot quicker. The last illustration shows a high elbow being maintained with the correct arm pull action (arm is bent for better power transmission) for a more efficient, easier arm pull action. By keeping the elbows higher and by bending the arm more, your stroke efficiency immediately improves which long term, will lend itself to quicker times, especially over the longer distance swims.

What to do: How do we practice this type of arm pull action? We do 1 arm catch-up drills. A swimmers snorkel (see finisinc.com – last diagram) would be best for this type of drill as it allows you a clear view focus (head remains still and straight) of the arm during the entire arm pull action without the need to breathe to the sides. We start off with one left-arm only and one right-arm only drill (1 length) where you pay special attention to the stroke pull using the 1 arm at a time. The opposite arm will remain straight at all times (see diagram below) while you complete the pull with the other arm.

Sample Drills: Do 8 x 25m or 4 x 50m/ rest 10 seconds after each one. Left arm first then swop to right arm. Keep the intervals short so maximum effort and concentration can be adhered to during each arm pull action. If you do not have access to a swimmers snorkel, then do these drills by holding your breathe each time for 5 arms pulls (left arm only) at a time, then breathe normally for 3 arm pulls, then repeat by holding for another 5 breathes with special attention being paid to physically watching the arm, making sure the elbow is kept in a high position and that the arm is bent during the pull action. A hard kick is also important during this drill to ensure forward propulsion. If you battle with the drill at first, then add fins to the mix. A set of hand paddles can also be used to ensure that this type of drill is done with maximum effect.


We don’t want to spend too much time during each session on the above mention drills. As said, use your warm up and cool down periods to incorporate some of these drills into your weekly training sessions. You need to brain train your swim stroke in the pool (by using these swim drill techniques) to ensure that  good stroke form is maintained during an open water triathlon swim. Don’t stress too much about the absolute perfect swim stroke, the basics are all you need in triathlon and with some nips and tweaks, you are sure to be swimming faster and shaving seconds, if not minutes of your swim times



Glen Gore

Editor and Marketing Manager Triathlon Plus SA


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