To drill or not to drill – and if so how much?

By Julian Nagi Julian

Recently I’ve read a whole host of swimming articles written by coaches & professional triathletes on whether there is value to be gained by doing drills in the pool. I’m sure the debates will rage on and on, without question opinions vary on the subject ranging from the believers to the non-believers and some people just stuck in the middle. The other 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.

What this has all lead to in my opinion is some very confused swimmers and readers out there! Even as a coach I read some of these articles and get confused by what’s written so what hope does the poor hapless triathlon swimmer have? Not much is the answer.

I think I can make it far simpler for swimmers by saying its not the easiest question to answer because it all highly dependent on the individual. If we were all the same then training would be a 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 and there’s more than one way of skinning the proverbial cat. 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 for the reader’s stems from not knowing whether the advice being handed out is specific to them or not. Some get it right others get it drastically wrong leading to unbelievable frustration. This is the most important bit – if you are serious about developing your swim stroke or have had had any of these frustrations you need to be working with a reputable coach, who ideally can film your stroke both above and below the water. They should then be able to 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 the path forwards is so much clearer and it doesn’t mean you have to spend a fortune on weekly swim sessions. My goal with every swimmer I work with is to get them to focus on the right path forwards from 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. Its worth the investment long term to start from the right place, video analysis can be a powerful tool to help you achieve this.

Only the other day I did 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. Unbelievably 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 I 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. Its doesn’t have to be that hard.

I believe athlete 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 swimmers 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. I’m always very wary of highly autocratic swimming articles that dismiss things out of hand, if a coach can make it work for the swimmer and keep them progressing then no one has the authority to say that that isn’t the right way.

Some of the hot topics or contentious issues I constantly keep reading about are:

–       Does sculling have any value?

–       Should breath to one side or both sides?

–       Is using fins cheating?

–       Should you use resistance hand paddles ?

The answer is simple, there is no one answer.

Some people will benefit hugely from sculling work, others don’t.

Some people breath better to both sides others prefer single side breathing.

Some people (especially beginners, not to the exclusion of good & advanced swimmers) benefit hugely from using fins to build water confidence  & technique.

Some people with strong, stable shoulder muscles can benefit from using hand paddles, others with weak unstable shoulder muscles just end up getting injured.

I’ve been fortunate enough to spend time with and worth 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 in open water and pool swimming), it is not a mystery thing but something which is very real when taught correctly. I’ve seen swimmers who have it naturally but I’ve also seen hundreds of swimmers who have developed it through doing sculling type drills who didn’t have it in the first place.

I have also worked with swimmers of all abilities who can breathe to both sides in open water, some that breath to one side and others who use a combination of the two. One thing is for sure is with every athlete I work with I make sure I teach them to breath to all sides with multiple breathing patterns. They then have the confidence to be able to use a specific pattern to suit the conditions they are racing in. No stone is left un-turned; we also do it in my squads regularly to help develop better stroke symmetry. Solely relying on one side breathing in my opinion can lead to stroke asymmetry, poor stroke mechanics and in some cases injuries. Its too easy to say just breath to one side when the benefits to adding a range of patterns to your training can pay huge dividends.

I once interviewed Becky Adlington poolside after filming her stroke and asked her if she ever used resistance paddles to develop her amazing catch and pull through, she said no. She couldn’t use them because they hurt her shoulders too much, that’s a double Olympic gold medalist who didnt use resistance paddles. Ive seen a lot of shoulder injuries caused by resistance paddles mainly by swimmers that use them incorrectly, use the wrong size and also introduce them to their training way too early. Some swimmers can benefit hugely but they are usually swimmers of a very high level with good stroke mechanics and strong stable shoulder muscles, a high percentage of age group swimmers don’t fall into this category. There’s no one size fits all and as coaches I believe we should be open minded in finding the right way for the athletes we work with.

Interestingly if you take at look at the images of the lady below, a recent Hawaiian Ironman qualifier, her strength is the bike and run but has 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 skeptical of sculling at first based on her own attempts and but is totally won over it by now as both her feel has increased and she faster in the water. Sculling can and does work.


Another big problem I see in swimming is people are 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 2 max to be done in any one session, the relief on his face was clear to see. Most of the time athletes are also doing drills incorrectly reinforcing poor stroke mechanics. When asked why they are doing a specific drill they also have no idea why they are doing them in the first place because, usually they haven’t been taught incorrectly or have just hand picked them from a magazine without ever knowing if it’s a good drill for them.

I’ve also heard many statements about you needing the fitness first to hold onto good technique, that’s partly true. But there are a whole host of beginner’s swimmers or poor swimmers who that doesn’t apply too. 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. Beginner swimmers or poor swimmers can still build fitness whilst doing drill work until their stroke is ready for further fitness development. Simply thrashing up and down is the quickest way to get injured or engrain poor stroke mechanics. Take a look at the swimmer below and tell me whether you think he would benefit from more fitness or technique work?

Last year I watched a series of presentations given by some of the worlds top swim coaches at the Barcelona World Championships. These coaches were selected to present because they had coached their swimmers to world records and Olympic gold medals. These were coaches at the very top of their game but one thing was clear, they all had different ways of doing things. Most of them also acknowledged through listening to each other’s presentations that there were big differences from programme to programme, specifically in how their athletes were trained. Some things worked for some, others did it a completely different way, the key thing that stood out was that the coach had worked out a way that worked for his/her swimmers.

sinky legs

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 at, by doing this you can avoid many frustrations further down the line and save yourself a lot of money. 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.

You can find out more about Julian at his website swim smooth



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