Swim Drills

Swimming is 70% technique and 30% fitness needed to maintain form. Swimming drills are exercises done to help improve your swim technique. These drills are modified versions of the freestyle stroke and focus on a specific part of freestyle technique such as breathing, kicking, balance or arm positioning. 
Yes, they do take up valuable “training” time and athletes often wonder if it’s beneficial to do fewer drills and more swimming. The answer is my favorite… that depends. As a rule of thumb, if an athlete has a half IM time under 34 minutes, a distance pace of 1:40 per 100-yards or a “swim golf” score of sub 80, then they have reached a point of diminishing returns and their time would be more valuable spent working on improvements on the bike and run. 
Swim Golf

Swim at a moderate pace for 50yds/m, counting each stroke (every time your hand enters the water). Record time in seconds. Add your stroke count to your time. For example, you swim 50m in 50 seconds, taking 24 strokes the first length and 26 strokes the second length for a total of 50 strokes. 50 seconds + 50 strokes = 100 Swim Golf Score. Your golf score is a measurement of efficiency, repeat from time to time as a gauge for improvement.
It's great to throw in a swim golf set before and after a technique session to see if you've made any improvements in efficiency.

Length Drill Series

1. Catch Up Drill + hand lift
2. 3/4 Drill
3. Side Kick

Catch Up or Touch and Go

Push off the wall with both arms extended. Take a full stroke with one arm bringing it back to the forward position before the other arm starts its pull. Repeat this all the way to the other side of the pool. Maintain good head and spine alignment. This is NOT how you want to swim so use this drill sparingly for getting the feel of your arms out front. To progress this, lift the lead hand towards the surface while waiting for the recovery hand. Next, move onto the 3/4 Drill

3/4 Drill or the Archer

Start your pull when the recovering arm has just passed your head (3/4 of the way through the recovery cycle). Pause while swimming on your side with the arms positioned like an archer. This extension teaches you length and front quadrant swimming. Front quadrant swimming is not always possible in open water but a great skill to possess. Next, move on to side kicking.

Side Kick

Without a kickboard, kick on your side with your lead hand forward in a glide position, and opposite hand at your side by your thigh. Toes pointed, ankles relaxed with short, quick kick. Try not to turn head more than necessary to breath. Exhale slowly and smoothly. Fins are recommended for this drill.
Start by doing the length of the pool, then begin to switch every 6-8 kicks.

Catch Drills Series

1. Penguin Drill
2. Finger Drag
3. Fist Drill

Penguin Drill

This drill aims to correct cross over. Swim the length of the pool trying to put your hands wider than the shoulder on entry.

Finger Drag

With each arm recovery, drag your fingertips across the top of the water. This helps you really rotate your torso to get your elbow high enough to keep your fingertips in the water. Drag your fingers until your arm is almost fully extended before you start the pull.

Fist Drill

Swim with your hands closed in a fist, or with a tennis ball in your hands. This encourages a better 'feel' for the water. Imagine there is a barrel over the water and you have to reach over it (high elboe). Then feel the connection with your forearm in the water, like it's a paddle. Because you’re decreasing the surface area of your hands, the rest of your arms will have to step up and pull more water.
When you return to regular freestyle, your hands will feel really big! It’s important to keep the same mechanics as the drill to get the most benefit. Fancy fingers is a variation where you add 1 finger at a time to build feel of the water. This should be your go-to drill and can be done at every session!

Single Arm Drill

Push off the wall with both arms extended in front of you with your hands touching, eyes on the bottom of the pool. Swim using only your right arm with other arm extended (beginner) or at your thigh (advanced). Alternate arms each 25. Keep a strong kick going and focus on the pull portion of the stroke.


Alternating freestyle and backstroke for the indicated number of strokes—for instance, “free 6/backstroke 5.” Feel the stretch and strong arm pull as you propel yourself from your front (freestyle) onto your back (into backstroke) and when you go from back to front again. Try to be tall and aligned as you rotate from front to back to front.

Vertical Kick

Push away from the wall and keep yourself in a vertical position. Hands at shoulders. Use a flutter kick to keep your head above the surface. Kick for short intervals. Beginners can keep hands under water, moving in a sculling motion.

Kick (Regular)

Arms on a kickboard as your feet to propel you, arms extended, face down. Breathe as you would during a freestyle stroke by turning your head to catch some air. Focus on “pushing” your chest down while keeping your legs & hips up toward the surface as you practice balance & kicking technique.

Swim Session Intensity

Session CategorySession Goal
Aerobic Endurance continuing at low intensity for an extended time 
Speed the ability to make efficient movements with the arms (not overall swim speed) 
Strength the ability to overcome the resistance of the water 
Muscular Endurance ability to continue at race pace/moderate intensity for an extended time  
Power (VO2Max) ability to sprint at high power for a short time 
Tactics drills to improve your swimming technique 
Technique drills to improve your swimming technique 
Active Recovery easy, low intensity sets to help recover the body from harder sessions  
Testing CSS test or 1K TT performed once every 6-8 weeks  

Aerobic Endurance, Strength, and Speed are the foundation for your swim fitness.  These must be well established before we work on power or muscular endurance. That’s why we spend considerable time in our offseason and base period working on the basics along with technique.  You’ll see power and muscular endurance sessions, along with tactical sessions pop up as you get closer to race day and both testing and active recovery will be sprinkled throughout.  

Swim session intensity can be measured qualitatively and quantitatively and coaches use a variety of descriptors to indicate the desired intensity.  Sometimes intensity may be indicated in the workout title (along with workout goal), such as Easy (Aerobic endurance) Race Pace (muscular endurance) or Technique.  Or you may see a zone, RPE or the word “CSS” in your workout description.  This chart can help you better understand the intensity of your swim workouts.

Swim Session Goals

To get the most out of your training, it is critical to understand (and follow) the purpose of each session. Each of your workouts will fall into a category.  The categories are:
ZonesDescriptionRPERest IntervalPace
1– Easy  Easy 1-2 as needed Technique or recovery 
2– Light Aerobic Steady 3-4 10-30 sec CSS + 10 sec - 140.6 pace  
3– Moderate Aerobic Mod Hard 5-6 10-30 sec CSS + 5 sec. - 70.3 pace 
4– Threshold Hard 7-8 30-60 sec CSS or Threshold - sprint tri pace 
5– Above Threshold Very Hard 9-10 30-60 sec Fast as possible 

For many triathletes, swimming can be the most challenging discipline to get faster. These same athletes have a tendency to swim nearly the same pace for all training. Despite hours in the pool, they only see small gains in speed. CSS (critical swim speed) training is a simple way to help an endurance athlete understand pacing, while also improving swim fitness and endurance.  This also serves as a method to test our swim fitness throughout the season.