What Should I Do in the Off-Season to Improve My Swim

This time of year, the question on many triathletes' minds is "what's next"?  The off-season is a time to focus on limiters, and for many triathletes, that means time in the pool.  The excitement and enthusiasm of new goals to be achieved and the commitment to maximizing improvement, can lead us to plunging deep into the water with a mindset of “more is better.”  Not that this is bad, but it all depends on the what the definition of “more” is.  More lengths of the pool will not necessarily get you the results you are looking for; however, more focus on mindful swimming will go a long way towards helping you improve your swim.

In this article, I will discuss a sequence of recommendations on how to apply a focused approach to the off-season and help you achieve the desired results come race day.

Flexibility and Strength Work

Ensure that any pre-existing injuries or functional movement issues have been identified and possible root causes of problematic areas addressed through flexibility and strength work.  If the body can move through the swim movement patterns correctly in a controlled environment such as in the gym or at home, then the application of function to form will help tremendously. For example: If you are lacking range of motion to extend the arm fully above the head, this will have a direct impact on your freestyle stroke when swimming. Strength work will help to maintain (or in some cases) rebuild the body to ensure that your structure remains strong. Just like building a house where we must make sure that the mortar that connects the bricks is strong, it is necessary to ensure that the connective tissue - the ligaments, muscles and tendons that support your skeleton - is strong.

Form Work 

This entails work on technique, and this means drills, drills and more drills.  It's time to throw away the watch and focus on doing the drills slowly and purposefully.  Specifically, focus on drills that will work on reducing drag and increasing propulsion in the water.  A good suggestion is to select 3 or 4 drills for the session and intersperse short segments of freestyle between each drill. Example: 50 drill/25 free or 100 drill/50 free. By doing so, this will help to connect the dots between the drill and the desired outcomes of the stroke. All the drills can be performed using long fins and once comfortable, they can also be performed without.

Drills for Reducing Drag - Balance and Alignment Drills:

1.  Kicking on Back:  Hands and arms outstretched above the head. Focus on keeping the hips high in the water and your head in a neutral position. Relax your breathing.

2.  Kicking on Back with Rotation:  This drill helps focus on good body position and works on your long axis rotation. In a horizontal position on the back with arms by the sides, rotate your body to the side 90 degrees. Hold the position momentarily (3-5 seconds) before rotating on to your back and then on to the opposite side.  Let the hips lead the rotation and focus on keeping the head in a neutral position. Take your time and relax the breathing.

3.  Kicking on Stomach:  Start with your hands in a torpedo position (hands clasped above your head, elbows straight). Complete this drill on the surface of the water, aiming to kick slightly below the surface. Keep your head aligned so that your ears are between your shoulders. Focus on exhaling continuously when the head is in the water. Lift head to breath.

4.  Kicking on Stomach with Hands by Sides:  Start face down in the water, head in neutral position aligned with your spine and hands by your sides. Complete small compact kicks. Rotate to breath to the side. Lead with the hips and focus on rotating as one unit. Aim to keep the lower goggle in the water and exhaling throughout the rotation.

5.  Side Balance with Single Arm Extended:  Begin on your side with lower arm stretched out and reaching forward. It should be just below the surface of the water. Aim to press the ear on to your shoulder.  Head can be in a neutral and aligned position in the water with eyes looking slightly towards the lead hand. Belly button should be facing the side wall. Exhale while the head is in the water and then when turning the head to breathe, aim to have one goggle in and one goggle out of the water (since this is the ideal position for your head when you are rotating to breathe). Top arm is by your side. Use a regular kick while paying attention to keep the legs straight and not bending at the knee. Do one length of the pool on one side and then switch to the opposite side.

6.  Shark Fin: Begin this drill in the Extended Side Balance position. Slowly slide your upper arm to a shark fin position and then return it to your side. The shark fin position will challenge your balance and will also help you become comfortable with the high elbow recovery that will set you up for your hand entry.

Drills for Increasing Propulsion - Rotation and Reach Drills:

1.  Kicking on Side with Rotation (6-1-6 and 6-3-6 Drill):  The 6-1-6 drill starts off in the Extended Side Balance position with the lower arm stretched out and reaching forward.  Every 3 kicks (or 4-5secs) you take the top arm that is by your side and you complete one stroke.  As you enter the hand into the water and reach forward, the opposite hand (which was the lead hand) is used to pull and rotate you on to the opposite side. Hold the position on the side before completing the next single rotation. The 6-3-6 drill is the same as the 6-1-6 drill however, instead of completing one stroke, you complete three strokes prior to rotating on to the opposite side.

2.  Single Arm Freestyle:  Focusing on the lead arm reaching forward. Opposite arm by side or in front of the body.

3.  Single Arm Uncoordinated ‘Unco’ Drill:  Similar to a single arm freestyle. Keep one arm at the side and breathe only to that side. Focus on keeping the lead arm reaching as you rotate to breathe. Eventually this should go from feeling ‘un-coordinated’ to feeling long and smooth in the water.

4.  Single Hand Paddle:  Perform any of the single arm drills (as noted above) or freestyle with a single small hand paddle. Pay attention to the hand that has the paddle on it as you reach and rotate.

5.  Fingertip Drag:  This is performed as a freestyle stroke. Start the fingertip drag as soon as the hand exits the water and starts the recovery.  Focus on a high elbow recovery position and allow the tips of the fingers to skim the surface of the water throughout the recovery.  Draw an imaginary straight line (that is aligned with the shoulder) with the middle finger as you extend the lead arm.

Counting Strokes per Length

The caveat to this is that you are also looking at your time per length. Don’t be mistaken that less strokes equates to more speed (i.e., anyone can do less strokes if they are merely ‘gliding’). Find your current sweet spot that is your fastest time combined with the number of strokes and work on getting your stroke count down while hitting the same time.

Use a Tempo Trainer

If you have managed to get into a habit of gliding and need to know how to get rhythm into your stroke, the Tempo Trainer by Finis is a great little device that you can place under your swim cap. Determine what your current stroke rate is and then work on increasing the tempo over time. This will help eliminate dead spots in your stroke.


Keep sessions short and, if possible, go more frequently.  Doing shorter sessions more often such as 4 sessions x 30 min vs 2 sessions x 60 min equals the same total volume of 2 hours of swim time for the week. The benefit of the frequency is that the body does well to remember what it needs to do when it is not fatigued. Swimmers often talk about “the feel of the water” which comes with being in the water frequently.

Fast and Short

Going fast before building duration and durability is in direct contrast to running where I would not necessarily recommend this approach. Since swimming is a very technique focused activity and is gravity free, short, fast sets will help engrain the patterns that are being practiced. Examples might include 10 x 25m or 10 x 50m with adequate recovery between each repetition. Focusing on long sets for the endurance benefit will tend to cause the body to revert to bad form habits especially once fatigue sets in. If the concern is that you are competing in an event that you aren’t sure you can do the swim distance, my advice is at this time to not worry. The efficiencies gained by the type of work that you are doing in the pool combined with the additional bike and run training will provide the endurance you need come race day. Maybe you can already run 3 miles, this is a lot longer than the endurance needed for a 1000 yd swim… what’s holding you back is the technique and not the endurance.

Field Testing

Establishing benchmarks helps you to see where you are at any given time and to see if you are making the desired progress. A good test at this stage is to time a 50 meter and a 200-meter maximal effort and retest every month.  Additional benchmarks can be established to include number of strokes per length x time completed (example 15 strokes x 25 seconds = score of 40), average time for 5 x 100m with 15 seconds rest between each repetition, time for a 100 m pull or kick only, or no kick. The tests are limitless and can help provide motivation and guidance as to where opportunities may still lay.

This post was written by Coach, Karen Allen-Turner. 
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