3 Drills for Stronger and Smoother Open Water Swimming
There’s no doubt about it, swimming is a highly technical activity. Much like golf, there are myriad ways to screw it up. Add in open water, and the whole scenario becomes that much more complicated.
Taking your open water swimming to the next level requires you to break the complicated motion into its parts. This better facilitates its mastery. That’s where drills come into play. Try these three drills on for size to improve your open water skills this year.
Drill #1: Swimming With Bands
Swimming with bands is a powerfully simple tool for developing strong open water skills. It is your regular freestyle stroke, but instead of kicking freely, your ankles are bound together. You can use something as simple as a bike tube to accomplish this.
Once you have the band on, you should not be able to kick at all - making it much more challenging to maintain your body position. Swimming with bands should be performed in short sets just like you would with drills to see the most benefit.
Why Swim With Bands?
Sustaining your momentum in open water requires an excellent catch and pull and the ability to maintain body position in a constantly changing environment. Many great open water swimmers maintain high arm turnover to help battle through the chop. If ever there was a drill that addressed all these variables, it would be swimming with bands.
Three Levels of Swimming With Bands
Getting started with bands can be a little intimidating, especially if you are a newer swimmer. It may legitimately feel like you are dragging your legs along the bottom of the pool the first time or two. Try one of these three progressions to ease your entry into the world of bands.
- Level One: Get started by using the band in combination with a pull buoy, and only do 25s or 50s. Try a set of 10-20 of these with a rest period around 20 seconds. Be mindful that you do not lose your strong finish when your turnover naturally increases with this drill.
- Level Two: Once you’ve mastered the pull buoy and band, ditch the buoy for a more difficult effort. Once you master this level of the progression, you will see a nice correlation in your freestyle swimming abilities.
- Level Three: Maybe you mastered swimming with just bands, or maybe you just have a really excellent catch and superb body position. To up the ante, tie a towel around your ankles or place a sponge between your ankles for more resistance. This is sure to give you the extra challenge you desire.
"Sustaining your momentum in open water requires an excellent catch and pull and the ability to maintain body position in a constantly changing environment"
Drill #2: Unco
Unco is short for uncoordinated, which is exactly how you will feel during this drill. It's a one-arm drill, performed with one arm by your side while performing a full stroke with the other arm. Breathing should be away from the stroking arm and on every stroke. Fins are recommended unless you have a highly propulsive kick.
The key to the drill is to make sure you rotate your body fully to the dead, non-stroking side. The rotation within unco is critical. Get it right and your stroking arm will recover easily over the top of the water. Stay flat on that dead side and the arm recovery will be tough!
"If you struggle to coordinate the drill at first, don't worry, that's normal. Actually, that’s the whole idea and simply highlights that the timing of your stroke may need some work."
It’s tempting to avoid this rotational aspect of unco. But the key to ensuring you totally nail it is to focus on dipping that non-stroking arm and shoulder down into the water. An excellent mantra for unco is: “Stroke and dip. Stroke and dip.”
If you struggle to coordinate the drill at first, don't worry, that's normal. Actually, that’s the whole idea and simply highlights that the timing of your stroke may need some work. When you get it right, it will be smooth and rhythmical.
Why Use Unco?
The founders of Swim Smooth call this the “King of Drills” and rightfully so. It delivers a whole lot of bang for your buck. If you're not sure what to work on in your stroke, it’s hard to go wrong with unco. Almost any swimmer will benefit from it.
Unco is great in that it helps you put all the elements of your stroke together, making sure everything works with the right timing. No other drill does this. Maintaining excellent timing as you battle it out in the open water is crucial to having a great swim.
Try it out. Before you know it, you will begin seeing the magic of unco unfold into better timing and smoother swimming.
Drill #3: Doggy Paddle
The doggy paddle drill (or “long dog” in some parts of the world) is one of the oldest drills in the book, and arguably one of the greatest. This drill is simply your regular freestyle stroke with 100% of your arm recovery underwater.
It is best practiced with a pull buoy to ensure the legs don’t provide any assistance. Doggy paddle is a powerful tool for developing an excellent catch, rotation, and feel for the water.
Why Use Doggy Paddle?
In open water swimming, it’s what happens under the surface that makes the difference. Having a strong catch and pull will set you up for success, and the doggy paddle drill is excellent for honing in on both skills.
The underwater recovery phase forces you to develop an early bent-elbow catch. In fact, it is nearly impossible to do the drill with a straight-arm catch if you do it correctly. Improving upon your catch and rotation will help you slip through the water more effortlessly.
"Having a strong catch and pull will set you up for success, and the doggy paddle drill is excellent for honing in on both skills."
The key to getting the most out of the drill is to focus on keeping the lead hand constantly in motion, whether extending forward, catching the water, or pulling backward. There should not be a pause at any stage.
A good mantra to keep you buttery smooth throughout the drill is: “Reach and roll.” Once you perfect the doggy paddle drill, you should feel smooth and powerful even in the trickiest of conditions.
Now Go Drill It
Give these three drills a try. Add them into your sets two to three times a week and I bet you will be stronger and smoother the next time you get outside and swim.