Drills are actually a pretty controversial topic among swimming and triathlon coaches. Some, like Brett Sutton and Matt Dixon, both of whom have coached numerous Olympiads and Ironman Champions between see drills as unimportant for becoming a better swimmer in fact it is better to spend your time with intensity. Matt Dixon goes as far as to call drills making you faster a “myth” and that they “rarely translate into improved swimming for triathletes.” His reasoning is that as triathletes, we are training for open water swimming and thus drills that focus on technique are great for competitive pool swimmers but not for the open water. It’s like learning to run a marathon by looking at the form of Usain Bolt. As long as we have a few fundamentals down the mechanics of the stroke will fall into place. Moreover, there are better ways to spend our two-three swim sessions a week.
Similarly, Sutton states that:
“90% of non-swimmers would be far better served by using aids and instead of drilling, performing swim sessions that specifically address the needs of the physical exertion of swimming non-stop for an hour.”
He goes on to say that “developing a feel” for the water prevents you from becoming a better triathlete.
Both Dixon and Sutton have three very valid points here. Since many of us cannot get to the pool (or do not want to get to the pool) more than a few sessions a week, we have to make every lap count. Thus, spending an hour of our time and the majority of the practice doing fingertip drag for lap after lap does very little to building swim fitness or speed especially in the open water. Secondly, swim times for 50s or 100s does not completely correlate to 1900 or 3800m times. Lastly, drills will not make you faster–at least directly.
However, it is here that I start to question these two, great coaches. From our experience at TSC, beginner and novice swimmers and triathletes, who are just getting started in the pool and can swim only a few lengths without taking a break to swim, need drills like sidekick, 6/3/6, balance drill, to get their form right initially so that they can swim longer without a break. What is holding these swimmers back is not only fitness but also form. To improve the former, you have to get the latter correct. If we just gave these swimmers sprints or worse, 500 meter repeats not only would they not be able to complete the workouts but they would most likely quit because of how miserable it feels. The compounding effect too is that swimming without the technique instruction first ingrains bad form habits that will prevent them from getting faster later on in their swim development. These errors not only will be in the pool but also in the open water. In this instance, drills and building feel for the water will allow swimmers to be more confident in the water and actually be able to swim.
You are not going to be able to develop a high elbow catch if you do not focus on it and work to improve it. Nor are you going to be able to float better in the water if you do not know what it feels like to be balanced in the water. Breathing, the trickiest part of learning to swim, too is hard to develop without knowing and honing the timing of your stroke, which is hard to develop without breaking down your stroke into individual parts and improving body position. Drills build awareness of what your body is doing, which is a critical skill for those new to the pool.
As the swimmer and triathlete develop their stroke, moving from “novice” to “intermediate” and “advanced,” then drills need to be toned back and that time in the water is indeed better spent focusing on fitness, endurance and speed. The type of drill too should change from technique/form to strength. An advanced swimmer does not need to do balance drill but can still gain benefit from first, water polo sprint, or underwater recovery, which focus on strength rather than water feel.
Moreover, if swimmers and triathletes skip the foundational work early on then they will hit plateaus later on. As they get faster, eventually they will hit a time barrier that becomes near impossible to get past without addressing issues in their form. If your legs sink, it will be very hard even with the best of training schedules to break the 90”/100m mark and more swimming will not automatically fix it.
So should you do drills to develop a feel for the water? Yes! Especially if you are a novice to the pool but keep in mind as you progress as a swimmer, your drills and training need to as well.