Swim Drills vs. Swim Volume

triathletes in the swimming pool
January 24, 2009

Mike Ricci


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Lately there has been a lot of fuss over swim drills. With the introduction of Total Immersion a few years back, people have been saying that swim drills are the hot new thing on the market. New? They have been around for decades. When I was coaching high school swimming in 1989 we were doing drills on a daily basis. Every workout had a drill set in it, even if it were only a 500 yard weak side breathing swim. Swim gloves for fist drills? Do we need all these gadgets? Get a tennis ball, hold it in your hand and swim down the pool, now that is a real fist drill swim.

I have coached athletes who have started from scratch and I have coached athletes who have had college swim backgrounds. I have them both practice swim drills. I think swim drills are important and I practice swim drills three out of every four times I get in the water, just to refine something in my stroke. I have been doing this for years. Here is the problem: Unless you have someone watching you, to keep an eye on form, the drills can be more harm than good. Swim drills can be good, but there is a point of diminishing returns. You see, I think (and of course this in my opinion) that there is a point or pace where swim volume might make a whole lot more sense than swim drills. So what is that point? Some coaches would tell you that it's about 1:50 per 100m pace. I would agree with that for the most part. That would put you around 1:10 for an Ironman length swim, 35:00 for a HIM, or 26:00 for an Olympic distance race. If you are slower than that, you should focus more on swim drills.

I most definitely think drills have their place, no doubt about it, but if you want to get faster you need to swim more. More than you currently do and more than you think you should. I spent the entire winter swimming more than I ever have. I took a few of my experienced Ironman athletes and did the same thing with them as well. We all came out on the other side as better swimmers. Could we have done this by just getting in the pool and swimming drills day after day after day? No way. How do I know? We tried that already and it didn't work. Like I said above, UNLESS you have a qualified swim coach (someone with real live swim coaching experience - not someone who read a how-to book on swimming like your cousin Dwight) watching you do the drills, then how do you know if you are dong them correctly? You don't. If you have someone standing over you with a video camera recording your workouts and then you have the time to analyze your technique after each workout, then sure, it will work to a point. But the fact is most people don't do the drills correctly.

Which brings us back to volume: The more you swim, the more adaptive you become and the better your feel of the water becomes. It's just like riding your bike downhill; you learn how to lean into a turn, how to accelerate out of turn etc. Swimming is the same way. The more you are entering your hand into the water and getting your forearm over the barrel, the better idea you will have of what it feels like to ?grab? water and pull yourself through it. The more times you get in the water the more natural it becomes. Give me two swimmers of the same ability and have one swim a volume approach and the other swim a drill till you are bored to death approach, and I can tell you that the volume based swimmer will win the race in the long run.

Points to remember if you going to up your swim volume:

  • Swim sets steady, not fast. This means swimming with a good clean stroke, not rushing anything.
  • More swim volume = more aerobic base. This means you have more fitness.
  • The better you will feel out of the water on the bike and run. The more swimming fit you are, well the rest of the race just got a lot easier.
    A 1500m race will seem like nothing compared to that big swim set you did.
  • More swim strokes will mean more times to look at your stroke and see what you are doing wrong/right.
  • Think about your stroke on every entry, catch, pull and finish.
  • Do your drills, but just do them in the middle of your 4,000 yard workout, don?t make it your entire 1500 yard workout.
  • Time considerations for volume swimming ? it?s good to do this in the winter when you can?t bike as much OR when you are injured.
  • Injury problems: too much swim volume can lead to shoulder/back issues. Be careful!
  • If you want to get to the front of your age group, you need to get out of the water in the front, there is no doubt about it.

Lastly, a few drills I find essential and do every time I get in the water:1. Fist drill ? swim 4 strokes closed fist, 4 strokes open palm2. One Arm drill ? literally, watch your catch and pull while swimming with one arm.3. Heads up swim, under water recovery. AKA doggie paddle. Focus on the catch, nothing more.4. Swim Golf: Not a drill as much as it's a swim set to figure out your optimal strokes per length. Swim 50 yards (2 lengths) and count your strokes and your time. Add the two together and you have your golf 'score'. If it takes you 50 strokes and the swim took you 50 seconds, then your score is 100. The lower your score, the more efficient a swimmer you are becoming. However, BEWARE, once you start learning how to manipulate the golf score you could end up digressing. I see swimmers all the time who try to swim 28 strokes, and have a swim time of 50 seconds (78 golf score). They would be much better off swimming 34 strokes, with a 44 second swim (78 gold score). I have toyed with this golf score this winter and I can tell you I would give up strokes for speed on most days. Yes, I am swimming more strokes, but don't I want to get there faster? Isn't that the point?

In conclusion, IF you want to improve your swimming (and who doesn't?) and you are a faster than 26:00 swimmer for a 1500m, then start thinking about swimming more volume. You can focus on drills every time you get in the water, but if you really want to swim fast, you need to improve your endurance, and the only way to do that is to swim more. More than you think you should, and more than you think you can.

Coach Mike Ricci is the Founder and Head Coach for D3 Multisport.  His coaching style is ‘process-focused’ vs. ‘results-focused.’ When working with an athlete, their understanding of how and why they are improving is always going to take precedence over any race result. Yes, there is an end goal, but in over 2 decades of coaching, experience has shown him that if you do the right work, and for the right reasons, the results will follow.

Coach Mike is a USAT Level III Elite Certified Coach, Ironman University Certified Coach, and Training Peaks Level II Certified Coach. He was honored as the USAT Coach of the Year.

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