Swim Drills vs. Swim Volume

If you can swim 1,500 meters faster than 26:00, then consider focusing on volume.

Lately there's been a lot of fuss over swim drills. People have been saying that swim drills are the hot new thing on the market. New? They've been around for decades. When I was coaching high school swimming in 1989, we were doing drills daily. Every workout had a drill set in it, even if it was only a 500-yard, weak-side breathing swim.

Swim gloves for fist drills? These gadgets are unnecessary. Get a tennis ball, hold it in your hand and start swimming--now that's a real fist drill. I've coached athletes who've started from scratch and those with college swim backgrounds; both practice swim drills. Swim drills are important and I practice drills three out of every four times I get in the water, just to refine my stroke. I've been doing this for years.

When volume makes more sense than drills

Here's the problem: Unless you have someone watching you, to keep an eye on form, the drills can do more harm than good. Swim drills are helpful, but there's a point of diminishing returns. In my opinion, there's a point or pace where swim volume might make a lot more sense than drills.

So what is that point? Some coaches would tell you that it's about 1:50 per 100-meter pace, and I would agree for the most part. That would give you around 1:10 for an Ironman-length swim, 35:00 for a half IM, or 26:00 for an Olympic-distance race. If you're slower than that, you should focus more on swim drills.

There's no doubt that drills have their place, but if you want to get faster you need to swim more. More than you're currently doing and more than you think you should. I spent an entire winter swimming more than I ever have. I had a few of my experienced Ironman athletes do the same thing. We all became better swimmers. Could we have accomplished this by swimming drills day after day? No way.

How do I know? We tried that and it didn't work. Like I said above, UNLESS you have a qualified swim coach (someone with swim coaching experience -- not someone who read a how-to book on swimming, like your cousin Dwight) watch you do the drills, then you don't know if you're doing them correctly.

If you have someone standing over you with a video camera recording your workouts and you then analyze your technique after each workout, then sure, it'll work to a point. But the fact is, most people don't do the drills correctly.

The more you swim, the better you get

Which brings us back to volume: The more you swim, the more adaptive you become and the better your feel of the water becomes. It's just like riding your bike downhill; you learn how to lean into a turn, how to accelerate out of turn, etc.

Swimming is the same way. The more your hand enters the water and you get your forearm over the barrel, the better you'll know what it feels like to 'grab' water and pull yourself through it. The more times you get in the water, the more natural it becomes.

Take two swimmers of the same ability and have one swim a volume approach and the other swim one drill after another; the volume-based swimmer will win the race in the long run.

Next time you swim ...

Tips for increasing your swim volume:

  • Swim sets steady, not fast. This means swimming with a good clean stroke, without rushing.
  • More swim volume equals more aerobic base. This means you have more fitness.
  • The more fit you are as a swimmer, the better you'll feel on the bike and run.
  • A 1,500-meter race will seem like nothing compared to that big swim set you did.
  • More swim strokes means more times to look at your stroke and see what you're doing wrong/right.
  • Think about your stroke on every entry, catch, pull and finish.
  • Do your drills in the middle of your 4,000-yard workout, don't make them your entire 1,500-yard workout.
  • Do your volume swimming in the winter when you can't bike as much OR when you're injured.
  • Injury problems: Too much swim volume can lead to shoulder/back issues, so be careful!
  • If you want to get to the front of your age group, you need to get out of the water in the front.
Essential drills to do every time you're in the water:
  1. Fist drill - swim four strokes closed fist, four strokes open palm
  2. One-arm drill - literally, watch your catch and pull while swimming with one arm.
  3. Heads up swim, underwater recovery, AKA doggie paddle - Focus on the catch, nothing more.
  4. Swim golf - More of a swim set to figure out your optimal strokes per length. Swim 50 yards (two lengths) and count your strokes and your time. Add the two together and you have your golf 'score.' If it takes you 50 strokes and the swim took you 50 seconds, then your score is 100. The lower your score, the more efficient you're becoming.

  5. However, BEWARE, once you start learning how to manipulate the golf score you could end up digressing. I see swimmers all the time who try to swim 28 strokes, and have a swim time of 50 seconds (78 golf score). They'd be much better off swimming 34 strokes, with a 44 second swim (78 gold score). Personally, I'd give up strokes for speed on most days. Yes, I'm swimming more strokes, but don't I want to get there faster? Isn't that the point?
So, if you want to improve your swimming (and who doesn't?) and you can swim 1,500 meters faster than 26:00, then consider swimming more volume. You can focus on drills every time you swim, but if you really want to swim fast, you need to improve your endurance, and the only way to do that is to swim more. More than you think you should, and more than you think you can.


Mike Ricci, D3 Multisport head coach and USA Triathlon Level III Certified Coach, was selected to write the training programs for both the short and long course USA World Championship Teams from 2002-2005. D3 Multisport has a variety of services ranging from one-on-one coaching to training plans for specific events and races. Visit www.D3Multisport.com for more information or e-mail Mike at mike@d3multisport.com.

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