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by Matt Donovan

April 8, 2019

Try putting yourself in different situations to develop these two key areas of swimming

There’s one thing that no coach can teach but is talked about all the time: a swimmer’s feel for the water. It’s the same thing as a baseball pitcher’s “stuff” or a dancer’s grace. You know it when we see it, but it’s almost impossible to explain and even harder to teach.

Think about the sense of feel for a second. You know what your favorite pillow feels like, but now think about what words you would use to describe that to someone who has never seen that pillow before. You’re probably thinking about words such as soft, smooth, warm, squishy, comfortable, cotton, silk, etc. All great words but how does any combination of those words let that person know what you’re specifically talking about?

Feel cannot be described, and it cannot be coached through words. The closest thing a coach can do is to put a swimmer in different situations to try and experience it firsthand. It may take multiple attempts to get this (and not everyone will develop a good feel), but when it clicks the change is immediate and powerful.

Here are five drills you can do to train your body to better feel the water. Most of them will feel extremely awkward, which is exactly the point.

With feel comes another important element of swimming fast: balance. You want your right side moving in the exact same manner as your left (as long as the technique is correct). Experienced swimmers can feel when they’re not balanced in the water.

Alternate Breathing Patterns

This drill is especially effective if you only breathe to one side on freestyle.

Do a few 25s freestyle breathing to your nondominant side. If you breathe every three strokes, try every two or four. Mix it up, and see where the imbalance lies.

You can also do a false breath—roll to your nondominant side as if you were about to take a breath, but do not take your face out of the water for air. You’ll gain the benefit of a more balanced body roll without throwing off your rhythm or tempo.

OK Drill

Make an “OK” sign with your thumb and pointer finger around a plastic golf ball with holes (golf training ball). When you initiate your pull with your other three fingers, be certain that they’re pointing toward the bottom of the pool. Start with the ball in your nondominant hand and then switch after a few 25s. Focus on how the water feels on those three fingers. If you’re pulling correctly, you should feel a connectivity from your fingers to the tendons in your forearms to the muscles around your shoulder blades.

One Fin and One Paddle

You can do this drill at a faster pace to mimic conditions you’d feel on race day.

Start with one paddle and both fins. When you improve your ability to feel the water, take off the fin that’s on the same side of your body that you have a paddle on (swim with a left paddle and right fin or right paddle and left fin). The propulsion from the downward phase of the kick with your finned foot (especially if it’s your dominant leg) will help you gain awareness of how your hand is entering with the paddle on your nondominant side. Alternate which hand you have a paddle on and perform this drill again.

Opposite-Foot Track Starts

With permission and supervision from a coach or lifeguard, step up on the blocks to work on your starts, but switch the position of your feet. If you normally have your left foot forward and your right foot back, switch them and try the start in this reverse manner. (Be careful not to lose your balance.) You’ll feel the difference immediately. Everything from going down to grab the block to the legs pushing off the block to how you enter the water and get into streamlined position will feel drastically different. We often think in terms of being right- or left-handed, but we for sure have right- or left-leg dominance as well. Be aware of this not only on the block but when pushing off the walls for turns and in kicking.

Swimming with Drag Shorts

Find an old pair of nylon soccer shorts and put them on for a few 50s after warm-up. The shorts will get you to feel drag in a much more pronounced manner. We wear tech suits to reduce how much drag we experience when racing, but feeling drag can be a very effective training tool in practice.

Final Thought

When doing these drills, try to feel the imbalance in your body, make mental notes, and do your best to correct. Whenever possible, have someone film you. This will always make analysis much easier. If a picture says a thousand words, then a video says much more.


  • Technique and Training


  • Freestyle