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6 Fundamental Swim Drills for Beginner Triathletes

swim drills for triathlon beginners

Whether you are a coached or self-taught swimmer, it’s important to “go back to the basics”  and focus on proper technique in training. Giving extra attention to proper form will help correct stroke errors, improve efficiency in the water, and minimize injury in training

With freestyle (aka front crawl) being the most common stroke used in triathlon, here are 6 drills for you to incorporate into your daily training as a beginner triathlete. 

1. 6-Kick Switch

Many beginner triathletes maintain a very flat position in the water while swimming, which places significant strain on the shoulders and increases drag. This drill allows the body to rotate quickly from side to side on its axis and helps avoid spending too much time in the prone position. 

To perform, push off the wall in a streamline position and take one stroke, rotating to your side for 6 kicks. One arm will rest above your head in the water and the other arm at your side (at the water’s surface) while kicking.

Make sure your head, hands, hips, and heels (4H’s) are in a straight line as you take a quick breath, continue with the next stroke, and quickly rotate to the other side for 6 kicks.

It is important to maintain a small and steady kick for this drill, which can be very challenging for beginner triathletes. If you are having difficulty keeping your feet and hips up while rotating on your side, you can use fins to assist as you work on body positioning in the water. 

2. 3-Stroke Glide

triathlon pool swim drills

This drill – also known as 6/3/6 – is a progression from 6-Kick Switch above. It’s easy to revert back to “flat swimming” when you’re tired. 3-Stroke Glide allows you to rotate your body more effectively in the water, creating a more streamlined body position and increasing efficiency and speed with your strokes. 

With a 3-stroke glide, push off in a streamline position and take your first stroke, rotating to your side while aligning your 4H’s, and kicking for 6 kicks. Then take 3 long, smooth strokes before rotating to your other side for 6 kicks. Repeat for the duration of the lap. 

3. Finger Tip Drag

The purpose of Finger Tip Drag is to maintain good body position, proper rotation, and balance during the recovery phase of your stroke. It also allows you to practice a high elbow recovery, which sets up proper hand placement for the entry phase and leads to a stronger pull-through under the water. 

To perform, swim freestyle with a focus on high elbows. With each stroke, lift your elbow and drag your fingertips across the surface of the water as you move forward. Maintain a good rotation as you initiate your catch and pull-through. 

4. Catch-Up Drill

This drill is key for beginner triathletes as it helps to slow down your strokes, focuses on hand entry, and assists with proper body position and balance in the water. It also allows you to glide more efficiently while taking fewer strokes per length and improving distance per stroke (DPS). 

Swim freestyle, one stroke at a time, until the arm in the recovery phase “catches up” to the arm resting out front in the streamlined position. Keep your shoulder up near your head with your elbow high before entering the water. Once entering the water, place your hand next to the lead arm, shoulder width apart, as if you are riding a bicycle. Then initiate the next stroke. 

Take your time with this drill. Focus on long, smooth strokes while maintaining a good feel for the water as you glide through each stroke. Utilize a small steady kick throughout. You may hold a kickboard out in front of you for assistance. 

5. Single Arm Recovery

time crunched swim

Focus on maintaining your body position while initiating a single-arm pull.

Stroke with one arm while the other arm is outstretched in front of you. Make sure to rotate your hips and shoulders as you focus on the entry and catch phase of your stroke. Breathe on the same side as your stroking arm. Swim a full lap with one arm before switching to the other. 

Once you master this drill with one arm resting above your head, progress to placing your resting arm at your side while the other arm strokes. This is more challenging and creates instability, which allows you to focus on better balance and rotation in the water. 

This swim drill is incredibly important to practice for when you become tired during a race and begin to shorten (or tighten) your rotation. 

6. Fist Drill

This drill teaches you how to improve your catch by grabbing the water with both your hand and forearm. 

With this drill, swim freestyle with high elbows and closed fists while maintaining a steady kick. By closing your fists and reducing the surface area of your hand, this reduces your “feel” for the water and forces you to focus on catching and pulling through the water with your forearms. Once you open your hands and swim normally, you will instantly feel a stronger catch, pull, and follow-through in your stroke.

Remember to maintain high elbows with this drill. You may also use tennis balls instead of fists, if preferred. 

Mastering Swim Technique

All of these drills are great to incorporate during warm-up and can even be added to your warm-down routine or within the recovery phase of sets.

When performed slowly and intentionally, drills serve as good reminders for proper technique and set the tone for a successful workout. Mastering these skill sets will allow you to strive for better swim efficiency and increased speed in the water.

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allison leather triathlon coach
Allison Leather
Triathlon Coach at Organic Coaching | Website

Allison Leather is a USAT-certified triathlon coach with Organic Coaching. She specializes in coaching Olympic and Long Course IRONMAN 70.3 and IRONMAN athletes of all levels. Additionally, she worked as a collegiate swim coach for 8 years and has experience teaching adults how to swim as well as open water swimming. As a coach, athlete, wife, and mother, Allison understands the commitment it takes to be an endurance athlete while maintaining a good work-life balance.