On deck coaching with the University of California Santa Barbara Triathlon Team.
In my last article, Swimming Simplified, I wrote about the fundamental principles of streamlining, rotation, and balance in freestyle swimming. I also described Brett Sutton’s action-oriented mental cues, “press and push,” and how they can enhance a swimmer’s technique, power, confidence, and speed.
In that article, I detailed an exercise that I call “two-touch,” when I use it, and the benefits of its application. Beyond two-touch though, I almost never have my squad do swim drills as a team. Similarly, outside of basic instruction, I do not have my athletes do isolated kick work.
The kick, as I coach it, is not primarily intended for propulsive drive. Rather, I train athletes to develop a kick that is streamlined (or contained within their streamline shadow) and therefore not a liability. A functional kick helps a swimmer with timing and flow. As such, rather than devoting time to isolated kick training, I have my athletes do functional kick work within the broader freestyle swim training.
Swim drills are a tool. Used well, they can be an asset. However, their misapplication can harm stroke mechanics and undermine quality swim training. Simply doing swim drills won’t make you a better swimmer. Swim drills must be executed with focus and purpose, and they must be prescribed with reason, precision, and a plan.
I typically give individual athletes specific drills to do during light, recovery swim sessions. When I give a swim drill to an athlete I talk him through the intention of the drill, how it will help him, what to focus on. At first, I have him do the drill while I’m on deck so that I can watch, give coaching, and provide feedback. After that, the athlete is free to do it on his own.
In addition to two-touch, I find the following drills to be the most helpful and effective.
Front Quadrant Long Pause
Front quadrant long pause (fqlp) is a variation on two-touch. This drill looks more like standard swimming than two-touch. In many regards, fqlp is freestyle swimming at it’s best. In this drill the swimmer touches her thigh at the front of the leg below the speedo and pauses. This is the “long pause.” The pause is executed while the swimmer is in the sideline streamline position at full extension in the long axis of the stroke. As such, the name “long-pause” has two meanings, one for the pause itself, and the other for the swimmer’s position along the long axis of the stroke. During the pause element of this drill I actually have my athletes internally say the word pause to reinforce its execution.
The action at the front of this drill is what really distinguishes it from two-touch. Whereas in two-touch the athlete “holds his front” until the recovering hand touches the lead hand, in fqlp the swimmer initiates the “press” when the recovering hand is entering the water. Done correctly, this part of the drill ensures that the swimmer is “holding his front” while swimming what is otherwise a standard freestyle stroke.
This exercise is helpful for swimmers who aren’t finishing their stroke or for those who aren’t putting enough power into the finish of their stroke. One-arm out can also help to reinforce the feel of getting into a fully extended sideline streamline position.
For the duration of the one-arm out drill, the swimmer leaves one arm in the fully extended position at the front of the stroke while taking strokes with the other arm only. I have my swimmers alternate the stroke arm after each length of the pool for short course. For long course I have them go 25 one-arm out, 25 smooth, switching the stroke arm after each 50.
As with two-touch and fqlp, in one-arm out the swimmer finishes each stroke by touching the thigh at the front of the leg below the speedo. The swimmer moves through the standard recovery, entry, set, catch, pull, and finish (or, place, press, and push). The athlete takes a normal breath on the stroke arm side on every other stroke. The athlete should power through the finish of each stroke and attune to the feel of extension and reach that is generated through the lead hand at the front of the stroke.
This drill is helpful for swimmers who are struggling with mechanics in the first third of their stroke. This part of the stroke is often called the set and catch or the press. One-arm down is a tough drill to do. The athletes on my university team call it ‘one-arm drown’. Wearing fins can help with the mechanics of this drill. For swimmers who “drop their front,” slide through the catch, or drop their elbow in the catch, this drill can help them to get the feel of holding water through the catch phase (the press) of the stroke. One-arm down helps with coordinating the flow of rotation, balance, catch and drive in the stroke.
In one-arm down, the non-stroke arm remains at the swimmer’s side. The swimmer moves through the full stroke and recovery with the other arm (stroke arm) and breathes every other stroke on the non-stroke side. The timing and execution of the breath is what makes this drill so challenging. If the swimmer can breathe and relax when extending the stroke arm at the front of the stroke, this drill becomes more fluid and smooth. Being smooth, fluid, and relaxed in one-arm down allows the swimmer to execute the press and push more effectively.
Swim drills can be a powerful way to improve an athlete’s form, focus, and confidence. More importantly, when applied with reason, precision, and a plan, these exercises can enhance an athlete’s internal sense of body awareness. In contrast, as with all training, swimming drills no purpose or direction can steadily undermine an athlete’s fitness, mechanics, confidence, and focus. When used in small and deliberate doses, these swim drills can take your training to the next level.
View Coach Mateo Mercur’s full profile here.