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Maximizing your potential: 20 swim drills to improve your freestyle technique [videos]
With 20 instruction videos, this blog will explore the best swim drills to help you maximize your endurance game.
So buckle up, and let’s dive in!
- Head position in swimming
- The catch phase
- The pull phase
- The recovery phase
- The swim kick
Head position in swimming
Whether you are a pool swimmer or an open-water swimmer, it does not matter. When swimming, look straight down—looking forward, even if only a little bit, will make two things happen.
- Your head will be closer to the surface, creating more frontal drag since more of your head breaks the surface.
- You will create a curve when extending your spine, eventually resulting in pain in your lower back.
So, even though you are an open-water swimmers, who will navigate from time to time, get your head back to a neutral position, with your chin tucked in slightly, between sightings. Except for reduced drag, it allows for a more streamlined position and easier breathing.
To reinforce the correct head position, do swim drills like kicking on your back and one-arm swimming.
Head position when open water swimming
Yes, for several reasons, it is much easier to swim in a pool than in open water, mainly because of the need for navigation in the latter.
To practice the head position and navigation, try these exercises:
- Sighting swim drills: Swim a short distance, lifting your head and looking ahead every 6 to 8 strokes to get a bearing on your surroundings and confirm your direction.
- Polo swimming: Swim a short distance with your head lifted, looking ahead and focusing on maintaining good body alignment. It will help you to build the neck and shoulder muscles used in sighting and encourages you to swim with your head up.
- Zig-Zag drill: Swim back and forth in a zig-zag pattern, lifting your head to sight ahead with each turn. You practice sighting and changing direction in this drill while maintaining a smooth, steady swim rhythm.
- Straight-line swim drills: Pick a landmark in the distance and swim directly towards it, lifting your head to sight ahead every 6 to 8 strokes. It will reinforce good head position and build your confidence to swim straight in open water.
The catch phase
The catch is the initiation of your pull—when you “catch the water” and start to pull yourself forward.
What to think about when you do the catch?
Well, begin by bending your wrist and pointing your fingertips slightly downward. Palmar flexion of the wrist will start your arm movement towards a high elbow catch since you will “stack” your joints on top of each other: fingertips under the wrist, wrist under the elbow, and elbow beneath your shoulder.
This is how you do the catch in freestyle swimming,
- Hand entry: Ultimately, your hand enters the water in line with your shoulder and fingers-tips first. Aim your fingers toward the end of the pool.
- Reach: When reaching your hand forward, the palm of your hand should face downwards. With the help of your body rotation, you reach as far as possible without losing balance.
- Initiating: When your arm is fully extended, start by tipping your hand downwards from the wrist, then your elbow.
Here are three swim drills you can do to improve your entry and catch. Mix them into your warm-up, or do 4*25 meters in the middle of your set.
The catch-up is the go-to swim drill when you are out of ideas. It is excellent for improving your timing and coordination in the water.
To perform catch-up swim drills:
- Place your arms in front of you, with your hands shoulder-width apart.
- Do one stroke and recover while your other arm leads you, resting forward.
- It will create a rhythm where one arm is always extended, and the other is completing a stroke.
- Do not exaggerate the kick.
Focus on: Your elbow of the leading arm should be as close to the surface as possible (within your range of motion). And do not let it sink towards the bottom.
- Your direction
- Shoulder strength
- Timing of your stroke
- Get a feel for the catch
The Throwing net swim drill focuses on developing power and explosiveness in your freestyle stroke.
To perform the Throwing net:
- Start by swimming freestyle, imagining that you have a fishing net in your hand.
- On each recovery phase or arm sweep, throw the imaginary net forward with maximum speed and acceleration.
- At the end of each recovery phase, directly enter the catch phase, or the start of the arm pull, with your hand in the water and ready to generate propulsion.
Focus on maintaining a high elbow and keeping your hand close to your body to maximize your power and speed. Also, your strength comes from your back and extends throughout the recovery.
- A more powerful stroke.
- Entering with speed and directly committing to the catch.
The Splash swim drill supports your freestyle technique and the feel for the water.
To perform throwing net swim drills:
- Start by swimming freestyle, focusing on keeping your hand high during recovery.
- When your hand is entering the water, turn your palm facing forward instead of back towards you.
- Focus on keeping your hand close to your body, and maintaining a high elbow, maximizing the size and impact of the splash.
- Carry out the rest of the stroke as a regular freestyle stroke.
- Getting a good feeling for where to enter the water.
- Shoulder mobility and strength.
- And most important, splashing your buddies!
The pull phase
When the catch phase is over, you are in the pull phase of your stroke. This is where you take all that good torque and utilize it to gain speed, pulling yourself forward in the water.
How to do the pull in freestyle swimming
During the catch phase, we talked about how to “stack your joints”. And this will now come into effect.
So, starting from the catch, we will focus on how your hand and arm travel through the water.
- From the catch: You have just caught the water in your hand, and it is time to generate power going from reaching to pulling.
- Get your arm into it: With a so-called Early Vertical Forearm, you have created a much greater surface to push water with than just your hand.
- Use your back: Use the body rotation to include the big muscles of your back. It is not about the arms!
- Extend: In the last part of the pull phase, use your triceps to extend your arm. Small efforts will add up to lots of distance gained over time.
That said, add at least one of the three swim drills below to work on the pull phase of your stroke.
Swimming with paddles
Paddles are a common element in swim training. And if you are into swimrun, it is a given even during racing.
When using paddles, you create a more noticeable resistance in the water that helps to improve your catch. The added resistance also makes swimming an excellent strength training exercise.
However, start slowly and with good technique and gradually increase the distance and intensity of the swim drills. And before getting too tired in your shoulders, remove the paddles for a portion of your swim training to avoid overuse injuries.
Other ways to swim train with paddles:
- Threshold sets: Swimming freestyle or other strokes at a high-intensity pace, using the paddles to build endurance and improve your technique.
- Kick sets: Swimming with paddles while focusing on your kick, using fins or a pull buoy to isolate your legs and build strength.
Upside down paddles
This is a somewhat weird swim drill. When doing the “upside down paddles” swim drill, you do not attach the paddles. Instead, you hold them, upside down.
And it makes you use your whole forearm as a paddle in pulling, not just your hand.
To perform the “upside down paddles” swim drill:
- Place your paddle holding it in your palm with the tip of the paddle resting on your forearm.
- Swim with the paddle tight in your hand.
- Feel the paddle press against your forearm during the swim—that way, you are doing it right.
- Focus on keeping a constant force during the entire length of the stroke.
3-2-1 swim drill
The 3-2-1 swim drill mainly focuses on the catch and pull phase timing in the freestyle stroke and helps to increase the distance covered per stroke.
To perform the 3-2-1 swim drill:
- Start by swimming freestyle, but with one arm passive and forward while you swim with the other arm.
- With your passive arm forward, do three strokes with your other arm, then switch.
- After that, take two strokes with each arm and last, take one stroke with each arm.
- Breathe on the last stroke of each cycle.
- Maintain moderate kicking throughout the drill to help maintain balance and forward momentum.
Focus on getting a good long body position and working on timing, so you do not twist too much.
- Not breathing, you can focus on your stroke.
- Timing of the catch and pull.
- Getting more distance per stroke.
The recovery phase
The recovery is the part of your stroke that starts when your hand exits the water and ends when your hand re-enters the water.
Nothing you do above the surface of the water will propel you forward. And since that is the case, you want that part of your stroke to be quick and not create excessive drag.
During the recovery phase, you should, well. Recover. That said, relax from your shoulder down to your fingertips. An easy way to stay relaxed throughout your arm is to think about having a loose wrist.
It is easier said than done. But practice makes perfect, so do not skip this part of your training.
What to think about during the recovery
Your elbow should lead the exit of your hand from the pull phase, with your hand tagging along. So, your elbow is in front of your hand for as long as possible.
Try to relax your fingers and wrist. Tensing up in the lower part of the extremities will create tension further up.
Start your exit and recovery slowly. At the last part of the stroke, “throw” your hand forward, accelerating throughout the recovery phase.
Below we have piled up five fantastic swim drills to practice the recovery phase. Even though these drills look a lot like each other, they differ slightly in their technical difficulties.
The finger drag swim drill supports your body position, arm entry, and hand placement in the freestyle stroke.
To perform the 3-2-1 swim drill:
- Start by swimming freestyle, but instead of reaching forward with your hand, keep your hand relaxed and drag your fingers through the water until they reach your hip.
- As you drag your fingers through the water, focus on feeling the water with your hand and point your elbow to the sky.
- Again, lead the recovery with your elbow, not your hand.
Focus on the feeling that you are dragging your hand on the surface. And use your body rotation to get more mobility.
The zipper swim drill is a great exercise to improve the recovery phase in freestyle swimming and your body rotation and balance.
To perform zipper swim drills:
- Imagine that you have a zipper that runs along the whole side of your body. And imagine closing that zipper during your recovery.
- So start by swimming freestyle, but instead of reaching forward with your hand, focus on reaching down and out to the side as if you were unzipping your body.
- Keep your core tight, and do not lose your balance. Initiate your rotation at the hip, not the shoulder.
Thumb in armpit
The “thumb in armpit” is another excellent exercise to improve the rotation during the recovery phase in freestyle swimming. It also helps to increase shoulder mobility and balance in the water.
To perform “thumb in armpit” swim drills:
- Start by swimming freestyle.
- During the recovery phase, when your elbow and hand are in line at your armpit, put your thumb gently into your armpit before continuing forward.
- Once your hand is in position, quickly extend your arm and continue the stroke.
- Rotation will make it easier to place your thumb in your armpit. And that body rotation is what we are after in this drill.
- Remember: Elbow leads the hand.
Three touch drill
The three touch swim drill focuses on your body position and swim efficiency. It also helps get a relaxed recovery, which gives you smoother and more effortless swimming.
To perform three touch swim drills:
- Start by swimming freestyle.
- During the recovery phase, take the time to give your bum, shoulder, and head a light tap.
- Do not stress it – take your time between every touch.
Focus on being relaxed, and do not tense up during the movement of your arm. That will lead to you losing balance.
Draw the pig
The Draw the pig swim drill is a fun exercise that Mikael Rosén taught in one of his sessions. It is an excellent drill to work on your balance and mobility in your shoulders.
To perform “draw the pig” swim drills:
- Start by swimming freestyle.
- During recovery, stop in the middle and point straight up to the sky or ceiling.
- Keep the rotated position.
- Draw a little pig, and do not proceed with your hand before the pig is done.
Think about keeping a tall posture in the water and balancing while drawing the pig.
The swim kick
The swimmer’s power output (the force exerted to move forward) and the water resistance in front of the swimmer (the force to be overcome) primarily determine swimming performance.
However, an effective kick can enhance streamlining and decrease frontal drag, even though it only accounts for a small portion of forward propulsion.
The swim kick also impacts open-water swimming as it can help with balance, stability, and body positioning, which is critical when the swimmer may encounter choppy or unpredictable conditions.
What to think about when kicking
Point your toes. Bend your ankles so your toes point towards the back of the pool (or where you came from). Also, slightly point your toes in towards each other. Think of it as your big toes staying close together.
Kick from the hip. Use your hip flexors and glutes to kick, not your lower leg.
Time your stoke. Kicking down should be timed with your diagonal hand starting the catch phase for a 2-beat kick (and the 4- and 6-beat kick).
Try implementing some kicking during your warm-up or as separate swim drills during your next workout session.
Kickboard swim drills are essential to enhance your kick technique, develop leg strength, and improve swim efficiency.
As the name implies, you need a floating device. The kickboard is typically rectangular in shape and made of foam, but you can use a pull buoy. Depending on the swimming drill, use it by holding on to it with both hands (or just one hand) and kicking with the legs.
To perform kickboard swim drills:
- Hold the kickboard in front of you.
- Hold your head just above the water, looking forward.
- Kick from the hip.
- Try having your hip close to the surface. So you have to have an active core. Do not let your lower back arc.
Swimming with fins
Fins, or flippers, are a fantastic swim tool and indispensable when doing swim drills for the first (1000!) time. And by providing additional propulsion, fins help kick technique and swim speed. Except for that, you usually get a better position in the water and therefore become more streamlined (efficient). Which in turn allows you to go on for longer, building both strength and endurance.
To perform swim drills with fins:
- Kick from your hip when using fins (or kicking in general).
- Refrain from overreach, and do normal short rapid kick.
- Focus on using your big muscles around your hip.
- Having a tight core.
Some of the best swim drills to use with fins include:
- Drill sets: Try performing swim drills such as catch-up, thumb in armpit, or zipper drills while wearing fins to improve your technique.
- Kick sets: Focus on kicking with the fins for an extended period, working on developing leg strength and endurance. For example, swim 5*200 with 30 seconds of rest.
- Speed sets: Swim at a faster pace while wearing fins, working on developing swim speed and endurance. For example, swim iterations of 25 hard, 25 relaxed. Resting every 50 for 30 seconds.
Kicking on your back
As an alternative to regular swim kicks, turn over and kick on your back. In this position, you can focus on the kick, and be less disturbed by your breathing technique.
To perform kicking swim drills on your back:
- Arms forward and chin down.
- Keep a streamlined position.
- Kicking from the hips.
- Hips close to the surface.
Kicking on your side
Swim kicking on your side is a great drill, as it helps to get a sense of rotation while kicking. You also have a more relaxed spine while swimming.
To perform kicking swim drills on your side:
- Start by floating on your side, using a kickboard or buoy for support if you need it.
- One arm forward, and look down towards the bottom.
- Kick as normal – with or without fins.
- Do not lose balance and tip over to your stomach or back.
- Focus on pointing your big toe toward each other.
When talking about rotation in swimming, we are talking about your ability to rotate around your mid-axis. With a good rotation, you will utilize your mobility and put yourself in as strong a position as possible.
When rotating, your neck should be relaxed and neutral so that you always look down towards the bottom of the pool. This will also help you be more streamlined and, thus, create less frontal drag.
Benefits of a good swim rotation
Easier. Your body rotation enables both your catch and recovery phases.
Powerful. It will be much easier to utilize your (big) back muscles when you rotate.
Longer. Rotation increases stroke reach in the catch phase, allowing you to travel further with each stroke. Ultimately saving energy.
A pull buoy has many benefits and is a great way to learn how to rotate your body. It can be used as part of a swim workout and in conjunction with other swim drills.
To practice swim drills with a pull buoy:
- Place the pull buoy between your legs, just above your knees. This will help you float and maintain a higher body position in the water.
- Start swimming freestyle, focusing on keeping your legs stationary and relying solely on your upper body to generate propulsion. The pull buoy should help keep your hips and legs elevated, allowing you to focus on your arm stroke, body rotation, and breathing technique.
- During the swim drills, concentrate on keeping your head and body still, using a steady, controlled arm stroke, and rotating your hips with each stroke to maintain balance and generate maximum power.
The timing in your rotation is, of course, critical to get an efficient freestyle stroke. So the better you can coordinate the kick and the catch, the better you can swim. Those swim drills will help you understand how your body moves through the water.
To practice rotation timing swim drills:
- Put on one of your fins and one of your paddles. And wear them diagonally. Super-weird, we know.
- Then swim freestyle as you would without gear on.
- Focus on finding the timing of your hand and kick.
Other swim drills that are great for practicing your rotation include single-arm swim drills, the catch up, and finger drag drills.
The 6-3-6 swim drill is a freestyle drill designed to improve your body positioning, rotation, and stroke technique in the water. It is also a great kick exercise.
To practice 6-3-6 swim drills:
- Starting on your side with one arm forward, the other resting along your side.
- Do six kicks on the side.
- And on the sixth kick, roll over to do three regular freestyle strokes.
- On the third stroke, roll over to your other side, and repeat.
Focus on driving your body rotation from the hip. Also, try to roll quickly from side to side to keep the momentum.
The DeMont swim drill is named after Olympic gold medalist and world record holder Rick DeMont. It is a freestyle drill designed to improve your timing.
To practice DeMonte swim drills:
- Start your freestyle stroke with both your arms alongside your body.
- Start your next stroke when your arms have completed a “reverse catch up”.
- Feel free to use your rotation!
- Focus on rotation and the feeling of how your body rotates around your centerline.
- Be fast in your recovery, so do not stop yourself before the next stroke.