Specific Swim Stroke Drills for Triathletes

An important part of any swim program is adding variation and using swim aids at times in each session, rather than just swimming constant lap after lap freestyle. The swim programs I set always contain some other ‘form stroke’ such as backstroke and breaststroke, and for those swimmers that can cope – butterfly. This helps use different muscles and assists in balancing out the workload. Even if you are not great with the technique of these other strokes, changing from working the freestyle muscles every workout will still help you. Another important component is the inclusion of hand paddles (small or medium), finger paddles (small half-moon shaped paddles), pull buoy, fins and kick-board during your training week.


There are many swim drills available for all strokes. For triathlon and multi-sport, time is at a premium, so I like to focus mostly on freestyle drills and utilise them in most swim programs – these drills are drills that will make the most difference to correct the general stroke mistakes that I have seen adult swimmers make. For beginners or weaker swimmers, I’d recommend you use fins with some of the following drills, especially the drills that require you to swim on your side or drills where a side element is involved and momentum drops away, and a kick is needed to keep moving. Particular drills below have fins in brackets after the heading – for the harder drills we recommend you use fins.


Catch up Free Style
Pushing off the wall at the start of a lap. With both arms out the front, take a stroke with one arm leaving the other arm outstretched until the stroking arm re-joins the outstretched arm (shoulders width apart). Then do the same with what was the outstretched arm once the stroking arm catches the outstretched arm. Alternate the sequence for the remainder of the specified distance. Breathe bilaterally if possible – once to each stroke.

Polo Drill – Water polo style free
With your head out of the water, swim with a shorter, faster stroke rate working on keeping your head straight, looking ahead.

Fingertip Free
During the recovery phase, keep elbow high by dragging your fingertips slowly through the water until just past your head, then enter hand into the water as a normal stroke – don’t rush this.

One arm free – arm out front
One arm out front and the other arm stroking, enter the water in the catch phase at shoulder width apart and work on breathing every two stokes trying to roll your body with your head at each breath. Breathe on your stroking arm side.

One arm free – arm at side (fins)
As above but have the arm that was out front is now at your side while you’re stroking with the other arm. Breathe on the side where the arm is at your side – this is a harder variation and works more on body roll.

Three/Three/Six Drill (fins)
A combination of one arm where you do three strokes one arm (lead arm hold out front), three strokes the other arm and six strokes normal free – alternating in that sequence for a set distance. This is best done with a bi-lateral breathing pattern.

High elbow drill (fins)
Usually with fins – push off the wall on the side – one arm out front, the other by your side, your head position should be ear down on outstretched arm with mouth clear of the water.
Take a slow stroke with the arm from your side – count to four or five as you run your thumb from your thigh to armpit, staying in contact with your body the whole time, keeping a high elbow. Once the arm gets to your armpit role back to a position flat in the water and at the same time take a half stroke while rolling to the other side with what was the stroking arm taking the front position. The sequence is repeated the same for the other side, alternating for the set distance.

Clenched Fist
Swimming with a clenched fist is like having a ‘blindfold’ on your hands. Swim 25 metres fist/25 metres normal – see how much better you ‘feel’ the water when you open your hand back up. This drill also teaches you to use the rest of your arm in the freestyle pull more efficiently.

There are a few variations and degrees of difficulty. Generally, I like to use the scull drill, which has you lying supine – face down in the pool – and with open hands, place your arms out in front of you. As you push off from the end of the pool make sure your head is down in the water and kick is kept to a minimum (just kick enough to maintain balance). Most of your propulsion will come from the hands and forearms making a sculling movement of fast repeated figure eights out in front of you.

You should feel constant pressure against the palms of your hands and forearms. It’s a bit like sweeping the water inwards using your open palms and forearms facing each other, and then outwards by doing a quick rotation from the elbows down, reversing the palms and forearms so they now sweep the water away to each side of you. The faster the action the more pressure you will feel against the forearms and the more ‘alive’ they will feel when you swim freestyle.

Hip, Shoulder, Enter – wide (fins)
This drill aims to have your recovery arm following through close to your torso by brushing your hip with your index finger on the way past your hip at the start of the recovery stroke, and then the top of your shoulder before entering the water. Make the hand entry quite wide, i.e. thumb enters shoulder width. The timing throughout this drill is similar to the catch up free drill in that pushing off the wall to start, your lead arm remains out the front of you until you enter the water with your recovering hand.


Nick Croft

Nick Croft is a former professional triathlete, Australian Triathlete of the Year and two-time winner of the Noosa Triathlon.
With 19 years coaching experience under his belt, Croft provides online training programs for athletes of all ages and abilities through www.mscsport.com.au and runs Noosa Tri Camps in Noosa Heads, Australia.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Sign up for the mailing list

Enter your details below to stay up to date with whats going on.