One of the tools that swimmers and swim coaches deploy to improve are drills. Designed to target specific parts of your stroke, mixing in focused freestyle drills to your swim practice will help improve technique.
The right freestyle drills encourage you to be more efficient in the water, help you break bad swim habits, and encourage better body positioning.
While the variety of drills are almost endless, here are six of my favorites, including some quick pointers and video demonstrations where possible.
Let’s get after some freestyle drills.
Closed Fist Freestyle Drill
This one is a classic, and one of my all-time favorite freestyle drills. Doing it is fairly straightforward: Ball your hands up in a fist and off you go.
The smaller “paddle” that your hand creates when in a fist will encourage you to be more aware of the placement of your forearm, remind you to hit that early vertical forearm, and increase your stroke tempo.
Mix the drill with regular swimming to help transfer some of that early vertical awesomeness to your stroke. You could do this mid-length (i.e. 12.5m closed fist, 12.5 swim), alternate 25s, or drop 25s closed-fist in the middle of a 100 or 200 swim (i.e. 100 swim, 25 closed fist, 75 swim).
Super Slow Swimming
Another one of my favorite freestyle drills, super slow swimming is a way to force yourself to really think about your technique and body position. It’s a drill that I’ve leaned on when my stroke starts to feel sloppy.
The drill’s name should give it all away: Fight against the natural urge to swim fast and swim with super slow, deliberate technique.
The drill will encourage you to maintain an even stroke tempo (otherwise your body will sink between strokes), kick consistently to keep your hips up, nail your hand entry, and focus on a clean and powerful pulling motion.
Toss a pull-buoy between your legs if you want to specifically target the pulling motion. Do the drill with fins and paddles to over-emphasize the kick and pull. Play around with the drill, increase your “stroke awareness,” and improve that near-mythical feel for the water.
“The only way to really work on technique is to swim very slowly and really think about every little thing that you’re doing.” – Ryan Lochte
Overkick Freestyle Drill
One of the common boo-boo’s that swimmers make when swimming freestyle is having their feet and legs corkscrew behind them when breathing.
Overkick free drill is all about kicking with extra intensity while maintain a chill arm tempo. Aim for kicking with 2x tempo while pulling with 1x tempo.
Over-emphasizing the kick helps you solidify the connection between the kick and pulling motion and encourages a straighter, fuller kick, which will help cut down on those criss-cross ankles.
I love throwing a few 25s or 50s of this drill in my warm-up and before the main set to fire up my legs and heart rate.
The Singapore Freestyle Drill
The Singapore Drill is a freestyle drill that Florent Manaudou and his CN Marseille teammates stumbled upon in Singapore while preparing for the 2011 World Championships.
Swim freestyle with one arm normal, the other as dog paddle.
James Gibson, Manaudou’s coach at Energy Standard, notes that the drill looks simple enough to perform but that it is “difficult to master.”
The drill is designed to help emphasize a strong early vertical forearm, encourage swimmers to really focus on proper body positioning (“Coordination, recovering with one arm underwater can feel strange but it makes the athlete really think about what they are doing and how their body is moving”), and hit proper hand position.
Below is a video of Manaudou performing the drill.
Single-arm freestyle is another classic drill we learn from an early age. Unfortunately, for most swimmers, the drill is done sloppily, with their hips fish-tailing and hand entry landing all over the place.
But when done slowly and properly, single-arm freestyle is a killer freestyle drill that can be done to attack just about every part of your freestyle stroke.
This is why Nathan Adrian, Olympic champion in the 100-meter freestyle and long-time fixture on the US National Team, loves this drill so much.
“My favorite drill is putting on fins/paddles/snorkel and going through one-arm free progressions. You can work on pretty much every aspect of your stroke in this way,” he says.
Adrian notes that this drill should be used to emphasize powering your stroke from your trunk, so “if you are doing this correctly your lats and abs should be more tired than your forearms/triceps.”
Adrian’s additional tips for this drill include:
- “Body position/head alignment must be good. These are your foundation so if you can’t complete this drill with a good body line and steady head position work on that before progressing to this.”
- “Steady legs. It is easy to overthink about what is happening with your arms and get lazy with your legs. Keep your legs moving steady and consistently the entire time.”
- “Go slow and take plenty of rest. Nothing bothers me more than coaches that put in new or really difficult drills on tough intervals. There is a time and place for that. It is not, however, when trying to perfect a new skill.”
Finger Drag Freestyle Drill
Finger Drag drill, performed by Swedish sprint legend Sarah Sjostrom below, is another free drill to add to the toolbox. Done properly, the drill emphasizes a high-elbow recovery, relaxes the shoulders, and keeps your hand from sinking too much on the catch.
“We use finger drag to offload the shoulders but also to encourage great movement patterns,” says James Gibson, Energy Standard head coach, who calls the finger drag drill his favorite freestyle drill of all time.
Unlike Zipper Drill, which is also designed to encourage/force a high elbow recovery, Finger Drag allows for a looser and more relaxed shoulder during the recovery. (Zipper Drill is where the swimmer “zips” their side with their thumb during the recovery, usually causing impingement in the shoulder.)
Finger Drag is great for swimmers who want to learn to relax unnecessary muscles during the recovery, a higher elbow recovery, and want to start the pulling motion with a higher hand entry.
Tips for Making the Most of these Freestyle Drills
- Balance drills with regular swimming to maximize transferring what you are trying to improve to your regular stroke. For example, swim five strokes with closed fists, five strokes with open palms. Or do 25m drill, 25m swim. Drills are only effective if they are being used to help you swim better.
- Get feedback, whether from your coach or by video. Doing drills improperly is counter-productive. Make sure that you are hitting the drill properly with the feedback of your swim coach, or video yourself doing the drill to see if you are doing it correctly, and adjust accordingly.
- Try drills at speed. Drill work tends to be done slowly and methodically. But you can also do it with speed and vigor, whether as part of your warm-up or even as a function of your regular training. Closed-fist free, overkick freestyle, and freestyle with dolphin kick are examples of drills to try at speed or as part of your warm-up.
- Take enough rest to do them properly. Drills are supposed to be technical. Take the appropriate rest to master the new skill. As Adrian notes, “Nothing bothers me more than coaches that put in new or really difficult drills on tough intervals. There is a time and place for that. It is not, however, when trying to perfect a new skill.”
ABOUT OLIVIER POIRIER-LEROY
Olivier is a former national level swimmer and the author of YourSwimBook, a logbook and goal setting guide designed specifically for competitive swimmers.
It includes a ten-month log book, a comprehensive goal setting section, monthly evaluations to be filled out with your coach, and more. You will learn to be more consistent in practice by evaluating and tracking the things that matter most to your swimming.