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Technique and Training

Five Fun Drills for Improving “Feel for the Water”

Using your senses for maximum efficiency

Terry Heggy | January 5, 2015

Aquatic sports are the only competitive activities where the same medium (water) provides both the platform for your propulsion and the forces that slow your progress. In other words, your arms and legs use the water to move forward, but the water’s resistance is slowing you down at the same time. Therefore, the better you manage your body’s relationship with the water, the faster you’ll go.

Even if you know what the perfect stroke should look like, you won’t achieve it without feedback on how you’re doing. Your coach provides this feedback during practice but in a race it’s up to you. The fastest swimmers constantly sense how their entire body (hands, feet, head, etc.) is moving through the water and make immediate adjustments to maintain the best orientation of their limbs and torso. This is known as having a good “feel for the water,” and you can develop it, too.

Most swimming stroke drills are designed to teach a specific skill. “Feel” drills, on the other hand, are designed to teach awareness and adaptation, which can be applied across all strokes. Here are five fun ways to fine-tune your senses for maximal propulsion and minimal drag.

1. Hand Jive

Experiment with different hand configurations and pay attention to resistance, turbulence, and the other sensations your fingers experience. Your goal is to constantly feel whether your hand/forearm units (i.e., your “paddles”) are oriented properly. Paying attention to your hands allows you to immediately notice and correct any problems while you swim. Because these drills are about developing sensitivity in your hands, they don’t require you to move your entire body. You can do them while swimming, standing, or even soaking in the hot tub!

Hand jive drills include swimming arm motions with:

  • Hands in a fist, or holding a tennis ball in your palm
  • Fingers bent, or in a claw position
  • Hands knifing through the water with the pinkie finger leading the way
  • “Live long and prosper” Vulcan salute, or all fingers spread wide

Follow each hand jive session by performing strokes with your hands in the proper configuration. Pay close attention to the how the sensation is different from the distorted motion you had made before.

2. Concrete Galoshes

When you anchor your feet onto something while pulling, you can feel how much force your hands are applying. If your hand and forearm are catching the water properly, you’ll feel more pull against your feet.

You can anchor yourself by hooking your toes over a lane rope, wrapping your feet around a pool ladder, having a buddy hold onto you, etc. The best option is to use stretch cords if you have them—that way, you can tell how much power you generate by observing how far the cord stretches.

3. The Wonder from Down Under

Also known as reverse sculling, the Tasmanian Hula provides a challenging way to improve your understanding of the way propulsion works. Side benefits include strengthening forearms, shoulders, and core muscles.

The “Taz” is performed floating flat on your back with your toes out of the water. Your hands do an inward and outward figure-8-style sculling motion to propel you in the direction of your feet. (This can be done with hands besides your hips, or extended above your head.) It’s good exercise, but the primary idea is to sense how subtle shifts in the angle of your hands change the amount of thrust.

If the Taz isn’t your cup of tea, treading water also offers a great way to experiment with sculling. Just tread water without moving your legs and focus your sense on how the water feels as your hands move through it.

4. Cowabunga, Dude

Surfing on a kickboard (submerging the kickboard, standing on it, and propelling yourself through the water with your arms) provides the dual benefit of challenging your hand/forearm paddles to develop good propulsion and feeling how changing your body profile reduces drag forces. Moving one knee behind the other and lifting your feet higher presents a small area for water resistance—and teaches you to always be aware of your posture and alignment.

5. Feel the Force, Luke

This drill requires a safe environment and application of common sense to avoid injury. But swimming with your eyes closed can really help you hone your senses to detect alignment distortions. Without visual distractions, you are more likely to notice the water’s drag forces, and adjust your body to reduce them. Repeatedly pushing off the wall with your eyes closed and trying small shifts in posture is a great way to improve your streamline, because you can feel the additional pressure created when you lift your head or let your hands come apart, etc.

As you improve your ability to correctly sense the way you interact with the water, you’ll improve power, reduce drag, and be able to catch your stroke flaws and immediately correct yourself when your form starts to slip.

USMS Wave Seperator

About the Author—Terry Heggy

Terry "Speed" Heggy has been swimming for more than 50 years. He won his age group in the 10K Open Water Championship in 2006, competed in the National Championship Olympic Distance Triathlon in 2014, and qualified again for USAT Nationals in 2015. He's the head coach of Team Sopris Masters in Glenwood Springs, Colo., and is a USMS-certified Level 3 Masters coach and an NASM Certified Personal Trainer.

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