Call this one the "Rocky" drill if you prefer. This involves tying a piece of surgical tubing around both your ankles, with about 12 to 15 inches of slack in between. What's this about?
I don't remember where I heard this maybe in a Rocky movie but it seems that perhaps boxers do a drill where a string is tied between their feet, and the object is (for whatever reason) to keep their feet from ever moving too far apart. It's a balance thing.
The boxing footwork drill is my way of accomplishing the same thing, but for a very specific type of swimmer (fairly neophyte) and for a specific reason and only for a given period of time, i.e., until the problem is solved.
Newer swimmers often have a particular problem, and they don't necessarily know that they have it without watching a film of themselves swimming. It involves a "crossover" or something resembling a crossover of the arm that is opposite the side on which the swimmer takes a breath.
In other words, if you breathe on your left side, you're going to effect that breath lift your mouth out of the water at the same time your right arm is extended in front of you performing its "catch." A "crossover" or "overreach" describes that catch occurring across the body's centerline.
In other words, instead of your right hand entering the water right in front of your right shoulder, it will enter the water on the left side of the centerline of your body and even as far over as in front of your left shoulder.
Sometimes the crossover is the problem. In the case about which I'm writing this article, the crossover is a symptom of another problem. When a newer swimmer has just figured out how to properly breathe during the freestyle stroke, it often happens that rotating the neck to take a breath involuntarily causes the body to jackknife at the waist. When this happens, the swimmer's torso is now at an angle from the direction the swimmer intends to go, and the swimmer's bottom half is angled in the opposite direction to compensate.
Up above, I said that this involves a crossover or something like it, and by that I mean that while the arm is crossed over in relation to the direction the swimmer is traveling, it isn't necessarily crossed over in relation to the body, which is to say that the arm may or may not be crossing the centerline of the body, but it certainly is crossing over to the other side of where the body should be oriented if the body wasn't jackknifing (whew).
How does the body compensate for wiggling down the pool like a worm? What invariably happens is that, as the jackknifed swimmer breathes, his legs splay way apart from each other. This is where the surgical tubing comes in. If that tubing grows taut, the swimmer finds out in a real hurry that there's a problem. He'll stop dead in the water. The only way to keep this from happening is to kick appropriately, without a hitch and without a big splay. The only way to effect that is to stop bending at the waist while taking a breath.
When you've more or less got that down when you can swim with the surgical tubing attached then there's a second drill that will get rid of your hitch altogether.
This involves specifically omitting the use of an implement of any sort. It's the good old one-arm pull, while kicking, with the other arm straight out in front of you the entire time. The trick is in what happens with the other arm, i.e., the one you're not pulling with.
When you've really got your stroke down, and you have no hitch, that arm always stays straight. If you've got a hitch in your stroke you'll have a tendency to draw that arm back a bit to right yourself once every stroke, almost like doing the sidestroke. If you do that you've got a hitch you've got to get rid of, and forcing yourself to keep that arm perfectly straight during your one-arm drills will cause to you swim without the hitch.
You can accomplish the same thing simply by using a pull buoy, or by swimming with an innertube around one's ankles (or by using both at the same time). Any of these implements will keep you from a leg-splay.
My fondness for the drills described above is that they don't keep you from kicking. Rather, they help fix a misaligning hitch while integrating your kick into the drill instead of isolating and deleting the kick during the drill.
Dan Empfield is the publisher of the triathlon Web site Slowtwitch.com