The Key To Coachless Swimming

  • By Dan Bullock
  • Published May 9, 2012

Over the last few years I have been honing a range of skills and drills that can be performed on your own and in some way will let you know if you are doing them correctly. This also ties in nicely for those who came into the sport as adults and might need the reassurance that all the drills and training they are putting in are valid and constructive.

I usually teach from the point of view that a drill restricts a bad habit, reinforces a good habit or interrupts an ingrained pathway. If I am on poolside then I can supply immediate feedback as to how effective the new movement is. If a movement can also let the swimmer know if it is correct or effective then so much the better. For the swimmer who is performing the movements without a coach it is often hard to be sure what they’re doing is right.

It is hard to be sure that some of these new movements are accurate since new can feel weird or mechanical and therefore incorrect. Despite reassurances that weird, clumsy and harder are not necessarily bad, it can be hard to convince new swimmers that what they are doing is correct. The fact that early swim improvements are usually more tiring since they call previously unused muscle groups into action doesn’t help. The body not being sure of how to complete the new movements also tends to send too much strength and effort in order to ensure the new movements are completed. Only with repetition will the body eventually relax into the movements and complete it with the least amount of effort. A request I often receive is for swim drills or certain swim movements which provide feedback directly to the swimmer. This is a good thing to help ensure you are performing the movements correctly during the times when you don’t have a coach present. The following are a few of my favourite coachless drills. For some of them you’ll just need a lane in the pool and for some you’ll use traditional swim kit in a slightly different way to help feel what correct movements are. For adults improving technique later in life this is not easy. With some of these drills we can accelerate the feel for the water as you learn what bad movements are, feel what good movements are or feel movements which are over compensated/restricted with kit for example.

Swimming The Black Line
The first drills are highly effective and need no equipment. At a quiet time in your pool attempt to swim down the black line on the bottom of your lane. Keep the hands pulling down the black line. Keep the body also on top of the black line. Set up a good catch with fingertips pointing down to the line and send the water backwards so you react and go forwards. Elbows will pivot wide of the line to make this happen. A slight sweep through the stroke will keep you moving forwards with little lateral pressure on the body forcing snaking. A sweep that is too wide or too far across the body will encourage snaking. This is possibly why you are not swimming straight in open water. Try a few of these strokes with your eyes closed. If you continually drift you should get your stroke checked out by a coach, as something will be off balance. Add a central snorkel to allow more time to view the pathways of the hands.

Vertical Tricep Extensions
These are performed in the deep end of the pool and focus on symmetry and balance. Put your hands flat on the pool deck in line with the shoulders, body vertical and close to the side of the pool. If deep enough try to get the arms straight, you will be submerged. Use the lats and triceps to pull the body up. Imagine you are pulling yourself up a cliff face. This movement engages the swimming muscles and takes you through the full swimming arm movement (albeit in a butterfly double arm movement) with an all important pivot at the elbow. Perform four or five of these each time you get to the deep end for 1000 metres. This is a great long steady aerobic fitness set with a frequent technique reminder. Fatigue will build from the efforts needed in the triceps to lift the body. You do not need to swim this hard.

Glute Kick
This involves legs only kicking performed with hands cupping your backside and you’ll feel the strong glute/top of hamstring contraction when the correct straight leg upsweep is engaged. If you continue to pivot at the knee (up and down) then the glutes stay soft as the larger hamstring muscles are engaged. Just a few metres of this kicking style at the start of each length is needed to learn the movement. In time it will slowly feed into the full stroke. With your big toes tapping against each other to a fast rhythm will mean it is harder for the toes to be dragging to the bottom of the pool. Swimming with the big toes consistently touching, especially when you pull or swim in a wetsuit, is the only true way to let you know you really are not kicking. Thinking you’re not kicking just because you have a wetsuit is on will not really be enough to stop the legs flapping around.

How quiet is your front crawl? It is important to listen to yourself as you swim. Try to her your body sliding through the water with as little drag as possible. If you’re tired or not keeping hydrodynamic you will hear a change in the way you swim.

Finger Trail
It’s important to force the tips of the fingers through the surface of the water as the arm recovers close to the side of the body to ensure you are nicely rotated. The finger drag drill is perfect for this and will remind you to keep your fingers close to the water at all times during recovery.

Turn The Clock Off
When swimming repeats turn the clock off. Try swimming eight lots of 50 metres and have someone time you and give you 10 seconds of rest between each set of 50. Work on similar pacing and stroke counts because these will deliver consistent times. At the end check to see if your times for each 50 are similar.

Backwards Swimming
This needs some form of swim equipment or extra space in the lane for safety considerations. Backwards swimming in this case is literally backstroke but face down, attempting to travel feet first. If you can paddle yourself in the reverse direction with an awareness for the catch position then normal front crawl suddenly gets really easy. Add a pull buoy otherwise the temptation to kick takes over which will hinder progress.

Paddles and Fins
Paddles are great for working on sculling technique but do this with no straps attached so you work harder to use the water pressure to push the paddles to the hands. Fins are also useful and a personal favourite is to swim five strokes with the feet pointing down and five normal to start to feel excessive drag and to then feel a tremendous burst of acceleration as the correct kick mechanics engage. By deliberately destabilising your front crawl the body will work harder when we remove the negative stimulus.

Another drill to try is swimming with one paddle on your left hand and one fin on your right foot. The core should work harder to keep you stable with this swim equipment configuration in place. Once you remove the equipment the rotation should feel more stable due to the body working harder in the off balance position.

Related to this style of front crawl try swimming with just one hand clenched or just one paddle for focusing directly on the hand pathways under the body. With one hand either enhanced or diminished in shape/size the normal hand can feel stronger as if it is holding more water.

With both fins and paddles on simultaneously we create an artificial sense of speed that helps the brain process the accelerated movements. Once removed it will feel easier to swim accurately without the fins and paddles as the stroke feels like it is in slow motion.

Swim Mitts
Swimming with swim mitts when sculling will be a uniquely dull sensation. With the mitts the hands will feel clumsy offering a diminished feel for the water. Take them off and it is like someone peeled several layers of skin off. The heightened sensitivity will ensure you really feel the water. Briskly rubbing the hands lightly across the pool deck will have a similar effect. The tingling sensation in the hands helps you feel and hold more water.

Pull buoy
Swimming catch up with a pull float between the legs will isolate each arm cycle and remove the leg kick. If the pathway of the arm pulling under the body is not good then the stroke will feel really unbalanced and can result in the swimmer rolling onto their back.

Another pull buoy drill is to place it between your ankles for a really tough core workout because you work harder to keep the stroke balanced and the float in place. You will also feel the legs swaying behind reacting to the pathways of the hands. If the arm pull is accurate then the leg sway will be minimal. You can accentuate this movement with a technical pull paddle with the middle finger only option. This will help you to ensure you push through to the back of the stroke. If you cheat and exit early you will feel the paddle pull away from the hand.

With some standard swim equipment and some awareness of your body, swim progress can be accentuated through making use of some of the above skills and drills. Factor some of these movements into autumnal long steady swims that I refer to as Technical Endurance. Keep the fitness high with long steady swims but maintain technical accuracy with frequent technique reminders or creative use of your swim equipment.

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