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by Kris Goodrich

March 21, 2022

Drills can help you swim faster and more efficiently

As a swimmer, I love when the coach writes DRILL on the board. I know that I can focus on my technique without worrying about my speed.

As a coach, even though I use drills in every workout, I don’t always love watching my swimmers do them. Many of them think it’s a time to tune out as well as decrease their effort. Most of the time, their drills look the same as their regular strokes.

So, what exactly is a drill and why should drills be a regular part of your swim training?

What’s a Drill?

A drill is an exercise that targets one part of your stroke at a time. For example, if you swim with your forehead out of the water, your coach might give you a tennis ball to hold under your chin as a way of reminding you to keep your head down.

Drills often sacrifice one part of your stroke to focus on another part. When working on backstroke rotation, you might swim one arm with a pull buoy and neglect your kick so that you can take the time to feel your rotation in the water.

Why Drill?

When you swim, you create neural pathways in your nervous system that help you do the movements. As a beginner, you had to go slow and think about each movement as it was being learned. As a proficient swimmer, those pathways are automatic, and you don’t have to consciously think about each movement as it occurs.

That can be a good and bad thing. It’s good because you don’t want to have to think of every step every time you repeat a movement. Can you imagine swimming freestyle having to think “Catch, bend, push, lift, rotate, breathe,” etc. for every stroke?

But not having to think through every step can be detrimental to your swimming when the movement pattern is either incorrect or inefficient because you’re repeating and imprinting it on your nervous system when you do it the wrong way.

How can you use a drill to fix a movement pattern you’ve done wrong hundreds or perhaps thousands of times? It takes mindful, purposeful swimming in a progressive manner. Using drills in your workouts mindfully over time can help you make changes to your strokes and get faster and more efficient.

Drill with Purpose

Instead of writing DRILL on the board when I coach, I now write DWP, or Drill with Purpose. To my swimmers, that means I should be able to tell they’re doing a drill. I should be able to see the drill and tell them what it is. They should know why they are doing it and what part of the stroke it’s focusing on. If your drill looks like your regular stroke, you’re most likely not doing it correctly.

First, when doing drills, slow down. Just like when you learned to swim, you had to go slowly to focus and should be doing the same with the drill. Use videos of yourself swimming and mental pictures or words to help you understand the change you’re trying to make. Communicate with your coach to see if you’re doing it correctly or need to adjust. Take your time as you swim to think about just that one thing. It’s easy to get lost in all the technical details. Picking one at a time means you can narrow it down and focus on change.

Drill with Progression

Swimming is a complicated and technical sport. You perform different movement patterns with different body parts. You move in an unfamiliar environment (as compared to being on land). You have different rhythms happening at the same time. And you still must remember to breathe!

If you dumb it down in the beginning, you still need to incorporate it back into your regular swimming. How do you do that?

  • Pick a single movement pattern to begin. Take backstroke rotation as an example. I like to work with my swimmers on kicking with fins to work on rotation. They’ll do several lengths kicking with their arms by their sides, rotating each shoulder out of the water. The focus is on the rotation only. They don’t need to worry about their catch, right arm, left arm, coordination with kick and pull, etc. They can spend time learning how the rotation feels, how much they should rotate, where their body position should be, etc., all while keeping the drill simple and focused.
  • Make it progressively harder. Keeping to the example of backstroke rotation, my swimmers will need to keep the great rotation they learned in their first step as they add the arms back in. Still trying to keep it as simple as possible, I’ll have them add only one arm at a time, so our next series of drills could be one-arm backstroke with fins, thinking about rotation as they pull and recover. Now, over repeated lengths, their focus is switched to connecting that pull timing to the rotation they created earlier.
  • Put it together but keep it slow. They’re still not to their full stroke yet, and things have gotten a lot more complicated! Now they need to coordinate both arms and the rotation and the body position and the kick. Following the backstroke example, 6-kick switch is a great drill. They’re swimming the full stroke, but over repeated lengths, they can take their time during the six kicks to make sure they have used their rotation to make the switch from one side or arm to the other. They’re getting close to full swimming but still have some time to take it slow and focus.

Drill with Patience

Patience is important when trying to improve your stroke. Here are some things to keep in mind.

  • Repeat, repeat, repeat. The movement you’re trying to fix didn’t come from doing it a single time or even a hundred times. It’s going to take repeated, focused drills over time to make a lasting correction to your stroke. When I started learning to put the early vertical forearm into my freestyle stroke, a conservative estimate would be that I focused on it for a whole swim season. It was easy to drill and remember to do the technique, but then we would have a hard practice and I would be tired, and my coach would be yelling that my left arm had reverted to my old stroke.
  • After spending time on your drills, swim the full stroke. Use your coach’s eyes from the deck to give you feedback or a friend on deck to video your stroke. Do you see the result you were looking for? If so, that’s great! But what about when you’re tired or under stress? It may be too soon to move on to the next fix just yet. Warm-ups and cool-downs are a great time to work on changing movement patterns. Incorporate your drills into both and do them weekly. Reevaluate with your coach or video after some time before moving on. Not quite ready to move on? Continue working on your drill progression weekly. Make it a recovery workout that you do at least once a week to help set those new movement patterns.

Try This Drill Workout

Your goal as a swimmer is usually to be faster or more efficient in the water. Making small changes in your technique can lead to big changes in both. A coach on deck is a great help to know what your stroke deficiencies are and how to work to improve them. Now when you see DRILL written on the board, think of it not as a time to slack off but an opportunity to improve!

Drill Workout


1000 mix of kick, drill, and swim


Main Set (backstroke rotation drill focus)

8 x 25s kick and rotate: kick with fins, arms at side, rotating each shoulder toward chin

4 x 100s freestyle @ pace, rest interval 10 seconds


4 x 25s kick and rotate, rest interval 10 seconds

8 x 25s one-arm backstroke with fins (when your arm goes in, your opposite shoulder should be up; when you finish the pull, the shoulder of that arm should be up; do this drill with your nonstroking arm at your side)

4 x 100s freestyle @ pace, rest interval 10 seconds


2 x 25s kick and rotate, rest interval 10 seconds

4 x 25s one-arm backstroke, rest interval 10 seconds

8 x 25s 6-kick switch, rest interval 10 seconds

4 x 100s freestyle @ pace, rest interval 10 seconds


2 x 25 kick and rotate, rest interval 10 seconds

2 x 25 one-arm backstroke, rest interval 10 seconds

2 x 25 6-kick switch, rest interval 10 seconds

4 x 100 @ pace, rest interval 10 seconds

  #1 25 backstroke, 75 freestyle

  #2 50 backstroke 50 freestyle

  #3 75 backstroke 25 freestyle

  #4 100 backstroke



200 Choice


Total workout: 3800 yards/meters


  • Technique and Training


  • Drills