8 Triathlete Swimming Drills


For many, the swim leg of the triathlon is tricky to train for. Most of us begin as runners or cyclists, and when we move into triathlons, swimming is a completely new sport to learn.

While it’s easy to work out a running or biking training schedule, it can be harder to know what to do with swimming.

We recommend triathlete swimming drills. These are swim exercises that you can easily add to training to sharpen and improve your technique.

You can add them into your routine between your normal sets. They’re short, easy to do, and have many benefits.

If you aren’t already using swim drills, add them to your training routine. You may be surprised at how your swimming improves.

What are the Benefits of Swim Drills?

Swimming is the hardest leg of a triathlon and it requires repetition to master. There are many skills that one needs to combine to master a swimming stroke, but there are also a number of problems that you may face with biomechanics.

Swim drills allow you to identify stroke mechanics when you don’t have access to underwater video analysis or a swim coach to correct you. They can help you to correct poor technique, improve low cadence, and become more efficient in the water.

By incorporating swim drills into your training routine, you’re able to break down the stroke, your stroke rate, and the exact technique. This will help you to get the maximum amount of distance per stroke when you’re swimming in open water.

Not only will you develop an efficient stroke, but your endurance in the water will increase. You’ll also find that you’ll get better at pacing yourself—steady swim—during the swim leg. But you’ll notice that you’ll have enough energy to last for the remaining legs of the triathlon.

The following 8 triathlete swimming drills will help to improve your overall technique and provide a bit of recovery between sets.

1. Fingertip Drag

This drill will help you to focus on the position of your arm as you’re recovering from each stroke. It will also make you concentrate on controlling your arm movement without wasting any energy.

Start by swimming freestyle and focus on your stroke. As you pull under the water and begin to bring your arm back up, let the tips of your fingers drag along the top of the water as you bring your hand to the start of the stroke.

Keep your arm and hand relaxed in the recovery phase, as you want to engage the upper back muscles. This will ensure that you’re not swimming with your shoulder muscles and rotator cuff.

2. Thumb Drag

This swim drill will have you focus on following through at the end of the pull. You’ll find that you’ll be extending your hand all the way to the thigh and that your arm is completely extended when doing this drill.

One way to tell that you’re doing this drill right is that your triceps will start to burn.

Start this drill by standing in the pool and letting your arms hang by your side naturally. Make a mental note of where your thumb touches your thigh.

Then begin swimming freestyle in the water. When you get to the underwater pull, focus on extending the palm of your hand so that your thumb touches the same spot on your thigh as it did before you began to swim.

Your palm should be facing the surface of the water.

Now drag your thumb from the spot on your thigh to your armpit during the recovery. You’ll find that this part of the drill includes a focus on the high elbow.

3. Fists

This drill will help you develop your pull, as well as give you a better understanding of your hand and forearm position. You’ll know that you’re catching water and getting the most out of your pull.

Form a fist with both your hands and start to swim freestyle. As you go through your stroke, focus on anchoring the fist with your knuckles facing the bottom of the pool. Your wrist should be strong, keeping your forearm straight.

Bend your elbows at a 90-degree angle. As you extend through the pull, you should feel the resistance of the water pushing against the wrist and forearm.

4. Zippers

This is a great way to improve your balance, as you need to work on your rotation. Not only will this drill get you used to rolling from side-to-side, but it will keep your recovery hand close to your body.

Start by swimming freestyle and then roll on to your side. Then run the thumb of your recovery arm—the one that’s not in the water—from your hip to your armpit. Like you’re zipping up the side of your body.

You can use this drill with the fingertip drag as well.

5. Catch-Up

This drill will force you to slow down, focus on your stroke, and develop a smooth tempo. You’ll find that your stroke will become more efficient with some practice.

Start by swimming freestyle and as you’re completing the first pull, rotate onto your non-pulling arm.

Keep your non-pulling arm straight ahead as the pulling arm begins to recover on the top of the water. When your pulling arm starts to enter the water, then reach that hand out in front so that you can “catch up” with the gliding arm.

You will wait for one arm to finish the stroke cycle before you start the next pull with the other arm. Make sure to keep your body horizontal throughout the movement.

6. Kicks

Kicks will help you conserve energy for the cycling and running leg of the triathlon.

You’ll need a kickboard for this drill. Start by floating face-down on your stomach with your arms stretched out in front of you. Then point your toes and kick from the hips.

Don’t bend your knees while you’re kicking.

7. Tombstone Kicking

This drill will help you to develop your kick as it adds resistance, forcing you to work harder.

Hold the sides of the kickboard so that the board is vertical and only the top inch of the board is out of the water.

With your arms extended out in front of you while your stomach, push off the wall of the pool. Make sure to keep your neck relaxed, as this will help your hips and legs stay on the surface.

Then kick for the length of the pool, keeping your body flat. You’ll only lift your head out of the water when you need to breathe and then drop it back into the water.

8. Rotator Kick

This drill will engage your core, as you work on your kick efficiency and build a steady kick tempo.

Start by floating face down on your stomach with your arms by your sides and do six kicks. Then rotate your body by twisting from the hips into a side-lying position, and do six kicks.

Rotate your body from the hips and twist to the opposite side. Do six kicks and then rotate back to the initial position, where you were floating face down on your stomach. Then repeat the movements again after kicking six times.

It’s important that you focus on twisting from your hips and not your shoulders. This will make it easier to breathe when you’re in the side-lying position, as you just need to turn your head to the side to breathe.

9. Mini Maxi

This isn’t actually a drill but it will force you to be efficient with every part of your stroke. The goal of this is to maintain your speed while you look for ways to take less strokes.

You may find that high elbow recovery, kicking from the hip, and keeping your head straight can help you maintain your speed.

Start with freestyle and swim as fast as you can, while taking as few strokes as you can to maintain your speed. Then add the time and the stroke count together so you get a total number.

The total number is the number that you need to try and beat every time you do this. As an example, if you had to take 5 strokes every 10 meters for 50 meters then the Mini-Maxi score to beat would be 25.

Photo of author


Ben is an avid road and trail runner, and has completed multiple marathons and ultras. A former running store owner, he now shares his knowledge and experience writing these articles.