Friday, May 02, 2014

To Drill Or Not To Drill, That Is The Question!

#Julian I've edited this down slightly as it was a touch long - give it a read and let me know what you think. We'll probably run it next week. Adam #

A couple of weeks ago on the blog we explored the benefit bilateral breathing can bring to your swimming. It was one of our most read posts ever and it generated a huge response!

This week, Swim Smooth Coach Julian Nagi takes on another much debated question in swimming, whether you should perform drills when you swim:

Recently I've read a whole host of swimming articles written by coaches and professional triathletes on whether there is value in doing drills in the pool. Without question opinions vary on the subject ranging from the believers to the non-believers and others somewhere in the middle. Another thing constantly under scrutiny is what percentage of your swimming should be given over to doing drills in the first place. I've also read some coaches completely dismissing certain swimming fundamentals completely out of hand.

Side kicking is designed to work
on your stroke alignment.
What this has all led to is some very confused swimmers out there! Even as an experienced coach I read some of these articles and not understood the arguments made so what hope does the poor hapless triathlon swimmer have? Not much is the answer. 

Should we regularly drill as swimmers? Actually, this is not the easiest question to answer because it is highly dependent on the individual. If we were all the same then training would be simple and the format for training would be standardised. But thankfully we live in a world where individuality is rife. What works for one person doesn't mean it will work for the next - it is our challenge as coaches to be smart enough to recognise individuality, develop it and find the right way for the athletes we work with. That's part of the challenge of being a coach. 

I think the confusion stems from not knowing whether the advice being handed out is specific to you or not. It might be right for you but equally it could be drastically wrong and lead to huge frustration.

If you are serious about developing your swim stroke you need to be working with a reputable coach, who ideally can film your stroke both above and below the water. They should then identify the right blend of technique and fitness work that will help you develop as a swimmer and move you towards your race goals.

Once you've seen yourself swim and understood what it holding you back in your stroke, the path forwards is so much clearer and it doesn't mean you have to spend a fortune on weekly coached swim sessions.

My goal with every swimmer I work with is to get them to focus on the right path forwards from the word go, I also like to build the picture of how we will develop their stroke moving forwards - it doesn't just happen in one session. It’s well worth the investment to start with a video analysis of your stroke, it’s such a powerful tool to get you focused on the right things and immediately heading in the right direction.

[Ed: Shameless plug, info on how to invest in a session with Julian or your local SS coach is here:]

Only the other day I had a video analysis session with a lady who was being coached on-line and was being sent complicated drills to do, she didn't know whether she was coming or going. Her coach was giving her these drills without ever having seeing her swim and there were lots of them! All of this resulted in her dreading going to the pool because nothing she did felt right and her stroke was a mess. Once we had managed to de-clutter what was going on inside her head, I gave her a few simple drills and she was away. She actually couldn't believe it could be that simple and got quite emotional poolside because of the frustrations she had had with her swimming. It just doesn't have to be that hard!

Another big problem I see in swimming is people doing endless drills that are not specific to their stroke. Only this week I coached a guy who said he was doing 10 drills per session! He left our session with a plan containing only 3 specific drills in total and only two to be done in any one session, the relief on his face was clear to see!

Most of the time athletes are also performing drills incorrectly which only reinforces poor stroke mechanics. When asked why they are doing a specific drill they normally have no idea, they just picked it out from a magazine without knowing if it's a good drill for them. 

I've also heard many statements about you needing swim fitness first to hold onto good technique and whilst that's partly true there are a whole host of weaker swimmers who that doesn't apply to. Some of these swimmers have such drastic problems with their stroke that by simply making them swim more to build fitness would do more harm that good when they need to be doing drill work to help correct these faults and build their swim confidence.

Take a look at this swimmer and tell me whether you think he would benefit from more fitness or technique work? :

I believe athletes of every level from beginner to pro should incorporate sensible drills that help improve their stroke and just because you're a pro doesn't mean you have great stroke mechanics, I've coached enough of them to know this. The amount of drill work will be specific to each swimmer’s ability, physiology, stroke mechanics, time of year and race goals. Its a given that early season is the time to identify stroke flaws but then as the season progresses the amount and balance of technique work to fitness work will change, that's not rocket science - we don't need to see swimmers "drilling themselves to death all year" and that's certainly not our goal. It's the coach's job to put together the pieces of this jigsaw puzzle for the athlete. If a coach can find a drill that works for the swimmer and the swimmer can see or feel the benefit then its job done.


There’s a sub-debate here and that’s whether you should perform sculling drills. I've been fortunate enough to work with swimmers such as Becky Adlington, Kerry-Anne Payne and Duncan Goodhew. The thing they all have in common is the belief that sculling adds huge value to a swimmers "feel for the water” (both for open water and pool swimming). It is not a mystical feeling but something which is very real and objective when taught correctly. I've seen swimmers who have good feel for the water naturally but I’ve also seen hundreds who have developed it very well through sculling type drills who didn't have it in the first place.

Sculling helps you engage with the water correctly at the front of the stroke.

If you take at look at the images of the lady below (a recent Hawaii Ironman qualifier whose strength is the bike and run) who spent time with me really developing her swim. The first picture shows her lack of catch and pull. The second image is her 10 weeks after I taught her how to scull properly to initiate the earlier bent arm. She will be the first to admit she was sceptical of sculling at first based on her own attempts but is totally won over by it now as both her feel has increased and she is much faster in the water. Sculling can and does work! :

I hope in writing this its clear that there is more than one way of doings things, you need to find the right method for you as an individual. Working with someone you trust and believe in is the key to succeeding with your swimming. You also need to start with a full analysis of where your stroke and fitness is currently, by doing this you can avoid many frustrations and wasted effort down the line. Also learn to trust your intuition, if something doesn't feel right then you might not be doing something properly or it may not be specific your stroke. 

So the answer to the question to drill or not to drill is... of course you should use drills! But make sure the ones you use are specific to your stroke and used in moderation. Also make sure you fully understand why you are doing them and whether you are doing them correctly. If you're not sure then find a coach with a proven track record who can help and take the guesswork out it.

Cheers! Julian

Julian Nagi is a Swim Smooth Coach based in Acton, London.
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