What makes a “good” drill?

    Phrases such as “Oh, this is a great drill!” are commonly heard around the pool deck, but what makes a drill or set of drills great?  Drills tend to be viewed as great if they cause a specific desired shift in technique or if they exaggerate (therefore highlighting) a specific skill or approach to the swimming stroke.  However, since there are many views on proper swimming technique, one person’s trash drill can be another person’s treasure.  A drill is not a tonic, but rather, an opportunity to experience a given set of sensations, sequence of movements, or positional awareness.  A drill may be very effective for an individual because it targets an aspect of swimming that is a particular weakness for them, or because they think that it will lead them to the stroke that they think they ought to have.  However, unless you have only one single missing component in your approach to swimming, a single drill will not suffice to help you develop your optimal form.  Also, in many cases, “we don’t know what we don’t know” – in other words, we may be predisposed to embrace or reject a given drill because of what we don’t know we need.

    In my view, the drills I utilize are “great” drills – but not as stand-alone tonics.  The drills were selected because they convey specific stroke components or sensations (for example: Float and Paddle – the sensation of the torso dictating the arm motion), or because they cause skill integration (speed play is one potent example).  

Great swim coaches understand the proper use of the proper drills at the proper time. Like a great chef, they can layer the flavors and orchestrate the sequence for optimal digestion. By introducing drills in a specific sequence, and with measured doses, we are attempting to make your development and transition to new levels of swimming smooth and effortless – you just have to be willing to follow along.


Put Down the Drill and Pick up the Hammer

As my title implies, I will address the often repeated swim coaching advice to not work on technique through drilling, rather, just swim hard. What many of these coache have in common, in my opinion, is that they rebel against the classical view of “proper technique”. I understand this. When confronted with schools of instruction that put forth Michael Phelps freestyle stroke as the optimal, and then focus on drills that ingrain “long and strong”, many coaches (correctly in my view), reject that line of reasoning for most open water endurance swimmers. For their rejection of this view of technique, however, they outwardly offer little antidote beyond the hammer (and a few toys) and thus throw the baby out with the bath water. To me, they imply that drills are either: a) irrelevant to the open water distance swimmer, or b) irrelevant for the purpose of enhancing an athletes condition. Let me be clear, for all athletes and to varying degrees, the hammer works: training CAN improve technique, and in some circumstances it IS just as simple as cranking out some more — humans are ADAPTATION MACHINES, we do it very, very well. But we CAN optimize our adaptation with proper application of training technique.

What is Proper Technique?
Coach of Ironman Hawaii and ITU world champions, Coach Brett Sutton sums his view in a sentence: “the more I point out that technique is not the major concern, the more doubters I seem to create”. Though his words imply a rejection of technique, hand speed is one thing that I gather from his recent blog that he might see as vital, and indeed, this is something that is “drilled out” of athletes who take the classical “long and strong” view of “proper” mechanics. Coach Sutton describes a swimmer who is killing it in workout – “Steve was looking like a whirling devil” – this is a good thing, and he knows it.

Coach of elite triathletes Paulo Sousa puts his view succintly in 140 characters or less: “Technique goes a long way in swimming, but it’s nothing without fitness. Working on your fitness works on technique.The opposite is not true.” This makes me ask though, what technique improvements is coach Sousa looking for? I have to believe that with the level of athletes that he has coached, that like obscenity and the Supreme Court, he “knows it when he sees it”. And he probably has a sense of how to cultivate it via a workout. But if it can be quanitified, it can become part of the training regimen.

If I were a betting man, I would bet that both coaches Sousa and Sutton would see effective hand-speed as a worthy technique, and one that can and should be trained in the context of a conditioning set. So, what aspects, besides hand speed and endurance can make someone successful in open water, and ALSO be part of a sucessful conditioning regimen? I would love to hear their thoughts on this, but for me and mine, it’s:
Free and plentiful air exchange,
Ability to sight,
Ability to turn the legs on and off at will,
Ability to change speeds as the race demands (if swimming in a pack especially).
And above all, TIMING: The ability to synchronize the movement of the head, hands, arms, legs and torso (and breath).

What is Proper Training?

In my opinion, both Brett Sutton’s and Paolo Sousa’s view of what constitutes “technique work” is crucially limited — at least in terms of giving guidance to the world at large who hang on their tweets and blogs. Instead of separating “drills” from “toys”, and “training” from “technique”, they seem to force a choice between the two. I maintain that there is NO DIFFERENCE between proper training and technique instruction, even at the far faster than 1:30 per 100 meter level of performance. But when we start calling things “drills”, some coaches get very rigid, for myself, rather than throw out the drill, I throw out the term: I prefer to call them “activities”. “Proper Training” is providing the appropriate stimulus to the body at the appropriate time. Things that can provide technical stimulus are many, and include the staples that it seems that coaches Sutton and Sousa favour:
Higher volume sets (in excess of 5k in a session for an arbitrary mark).

However, if you look past drills that are largely inappropriate such as the chicken wing, head-touch, finger-tip drag, and perhaps catch-up free (I dislike catch-up, many coaches favour it take your pick) — there are many more that can enhance you abilities.
To name but a few:
Breathing pattern work,
Kick sets,
Complex drills that combine kicking and pulling in various combinations,
One-arm freestyle.

All of these, and others are potent and useful, and can be used to condition as well as improve technique. Heck, going a 5,000 straight swim is technique work if you use it properly (don’t let yourself fall to pieces, or why not negative split it?). GOOD COACHES contrive stimulating workout activities, often without even having that as their objective. Good coaches use tools and drills like pharmacueticals, they get the DOSE-RESPONSE relationship right.
Rejecting “technique work” as being synonymous with “do slow 25s while having your coach correct your stroke” is a limited view of training, conditioning, and skill development. It’s also pretty darn low in terms of effectiveness.  It absolutely, positively time that we got past having a classical, 100 meter freestyle-centric view of “proper techinque”. But that’s not all. It’s also time that we stopped looking at “conditioning” and “technique” as two separate entities. They are inextricably linked and the best of us have always acknowledged that on a sub-conscious level. Perhaps it is time that we started to acknowledge it consciously.


A Position of Strength

Passive Technique Versus “Corrective” Approach

One of the foundations of what we call “Passive Technique” is the notion that telling a person what they are doing wrong, i.e., identifying “stroke flaws” is ineffective in many cases, and quite often counter-productive.  Instead we rely upon building “physical vocabulary”, that is, isolated micro-motions that make up the components of an effective swimming stroke when put together.  We believe that humans tend to build upon whatever movement foundation they have, their existing library of motions, garnered from years in the terrestrial environment.  

By introducing small isolated movements through the use of drills we can expand that library, and moreover, by using these simple sets of motions we can provide the aspiring swimmer with something “do-able”.  In other words, we can build from a “position of strength”.  The converse, what we call the “corrective approach”, focuses first on telling the athlete what they are doing wrong, and/or attempts to correct something verbally that is happening amidst a complex set of dynamic motions.  But it is so incredibly diffficult to achieve this correction within the context of this set of dynamic movements, most iindividuals fail — even if the coach has identified the “right flaw”.  For years, I thought that I came up with this concept.  My trip to the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale Florida last week made me think that maybe I had heard it somewhere before…

Tell the Swimmer What He or She is Doing Right

Dick Hannula, a coach of olympians and scores of nationally ranked swimers, has a spot in in the International Swimming Hall of Fame featuring an article that he wrote about drill-based technical development.  One quote from that article struck me as very compatible with my way of thinking: “Tell the swimmer what he or she is doing right.  Minimize or eliminate telling what is wrong”.  I attended a clinic featuring Coach Hannula when I was in my late teens.  I recall vividly that his resume impressed me not simply because of the quality of athletes that came out of his program (very high), but by the quality that went into it (very normal).  Coach Hannula tooks ordinary athletes and developed them into much better ones.  He espused the virtue of creative workouts, drills, he even invented his own paddles (the “Hans Paddle”).  

Years later, when I was outlining my thoughts about drill-based instruction (what we call Passive Technique) I had the thought that our primary job as coaches was to let people know where their strengths lie, and use those strengths as a foundation for their forward progress (both literally and figuratively). Whether this notion sprang from my own mind as a result of my experiences devising drills or whether it bubbled up from the recesses of my memory of the clinic with Coach Hannula, the ultimate source was the same: witnessing the effects of the power of drills in developing effective movement patterns, and also witnessing the paralyzing effect that  “verbal correction” or “flaw identification” can have on so many athletes.  I am more than happy to give credit to Coach Hannula for first articulating this notion … perhaps I will get to make a pilgrimage to visit him next time I am in the Pacific North West.  I will most certainly be purchasing a copy of his book “Coaching Swimming Successfully“, and then probably have to go back and add some footnotes in our own site!

Marginal Gains [or how to be a faster triathlete without training]

Goggles that fit you properly so you don’t have to stop and empty them

Goggles that don’t fog so you can swim straight and not have to stop to clear them. This means an anti-fog product that works OR buying new goggles for big races.

Ability to swim in a straight line so you can get done faster.

Increased awareness in the water so you can recognize opportunities to draft.

Ability to dolphin dive


Knowing how a wetsuit should fit and how to put it on. They fit your torso, not your limbs, and should take 10 minutes or more to really get into them properly.

Knowing how to take a wetsuit off. 10-15 seconds. You can be violent with them, just avoid fingernails.

Take it off asap after the swim. Don’t wait to get to your bike, step to the side and get it off. It’s easier the wetter it is. (and then you don’t have to run in a wetsuit)

Tires – Flat resistant tires can cost you 1mph or more compared to the fastest tires you can buy.

You might not want (or need) to get into your bike shoes with them already attached to the bike, but you should be able to get out of them without unclipping. Reach down, unstrap and slide your foot out. Start this ¼ mile from transition the first few times. Practice, practice, practice.

Wheels – Race wheels can be purchased for less than $600 that will give you 99% of the gains of $3000 worth of Zipps.

Bottles on the bike can be minimized and placed properly to cut drag.

Aero helmets are about as good as race wheels for far less money.

Practice biking after the swim.

If it is not too hot, tape the vents on your aero helmet and use a visor instead of sunglasses.

Cable housing should be as short as possible and routed neatly close to the frame.

Bike Fit.

Tire pressure should match rider weight and conditions. That max pressure printed on your tires is not what you are supposed to pump them up to.

Tight fitting one piece tri suit, or two piece if you prefer. Tight fitting is key, nothing in the pockets. In fact, no pockets is probably best.

No socks. Train that way.

Proper gearing. 53-39 is Tour de France gearing. You probably need a compact. It’s ok.

Know how to change a flat in less than 7 minutes. Know how to use your front derailleur to pick up a dropped chain.

Clean your drivetrain.

Latex tubes.

Embrace tough conditions and challenging courses. These things will separate athletes: first by those who plan better and then by those who train better.

Consider your crank arm length. See bike fit.

Make sure your brakes work well. When it is time to slow down for a tight turn, you want to brake as late as possible. Strong brakes help with this.

Shave your legs.

Practice transitions.

Bike easy to run hard. Or bike for show, run for dough, if you prefer. Extra energy is best utilized on the run, Wind resistance squares with speed, so the bike will tend to minimize the differences between athletes of differing strength, while the run will accentuate those differences.

Reads this: http://www.findingfreestyle.com/?q=node/147

Some alternative to tying your shoes. Lace locks, etc.

In transition, grab and go. Everything you want to wear or consume can be put on or situated while running.

Practice running off the bike.

Ignore your legs coming out of T2. Follow your breathing and cadence. Stand up straight. Your pace may surprise you.

No clothing changes. Bike in what you swim in and run in what you bike in.

Know the course, both where the turns are and where the hard parts are.

Shave your arms.

Run the tangents.

Have a cooling strategy. Know how your body responds to heat.

Warm-up for races.

Smile. (It works for Chrissie)

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