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Speedo Says...

Advanced speed session and drill for triathletes by Dan Bullock

Increase your freestyle long-distance swimming speed and improve your technique with drill suggestions and tips from double Iron Man triathlete and swim coach, Daniel Bullock.

When quizzed about a preferred drill to generate speed, all of my senior coach colleagues at Swim For Tri chose the advanced single arm freestyle as their drill of choice. It’s one of my favourite drills to demonstrate and requires a strong degree of concentration, good balance and timing.

When watching a good long distance swimmer carefully, good rotation, with an effective catch and perfect timing, generates speed economically and without excessive power. This drill will help you improve your rotation and catch position.

Maintaining speed

It’s easy to equate strength and power with speed in the freestyle stroke. As a triathlete, you don’t need to achieve an absolute maximum speed, just your best economical speed. This will come from good mechanics and better rotation, which reduces drag.

Looking at long-distance swimmers’ ‘splits’ while racing, often it’s the person who maintains their speed who wins – swimmers rarely get significantly quicker at the end of their races, as they battle fatigue. Second, third and fourth places will invariable go to those who decelerated most.

The correlation between ‘rotation and catch’ and how this assists speed

The main teaching point from this drill is the connection between a good catch and how this can initiate your rotation. A firm catch (fingertips down, firm through the wrist, vertical forearm, pivot at the elbow) should hold the water well enough to allow you to rotate the opposite shoulder through to the chin. A good catch will feel as if you’ve made the water around the forearm a lot more solid – enough to have you take the body over the hand rather then allow the hand to slip under the body.

Tip: The front of your stroke should never be ‘muscled’ only ‘felt.’ Hand movements are always from slow to fast. Fast movements too soon will allow water to slip around the hand.

Advanced single arm - the drill

Unlike the traditional single arm drill, which leaves the unused arm out in front, limiting rotation and extension, this advanced single arm drill keeps your unused arm at your side, freeing you to rotate more naturally, as you would during your normal freestyle stroke.

How to perform:

Start from a simple ‘extended position’ with your upper body rotated and arms outstretched as far apart as possible.

  • Position your unused arm by your side, head perfectly still other than when breathing (where possible, use a central snorkel).

  • Commence the catch phase: the hand pulls quite central after a small scull, out and back into the catch position, the elbow high and wide. Wrist to be kept firm.

  • Focus on the main pull of the body over the hand.

  • Feel the final acceleration phase of the hand reaching down to the thighs and exit to start the recovery.

  • Hand movements are always from slow to fast.

  • Recover the arm over the surface of the water led by the elbow, which should remain high.

  • Forward extension of the arm (pierce the water fingers first, wrist firm, followed by the elbow. The hand should glide forwards parallel to the surface of the water).

  • Pause at the limit of extension of the hand moving forward.

  • Breathe to the non-pulling side once composed and balanced.

To help you work this drill into your swim session and progress to the full stroke, try this example subset, which is based on a 25m pool. Note that fins are essential in the first instance for this drill, as they assist the upper body movements by taking the pressure off the leg kick.

Between 3-6 sets of 100m swum as follows with 30 seconds rest:

  • 1 length regular single arm, unused arm out in front. Swap arms halfway.

  • 1 length left arm, advanced single arm, unused arm by your side

  • 1 length right arm, advanced single arm, unused arm by your side

  • 1 length full freestyle stroke

Feel the difference between the traditional and advanced single arm drills. Note that it’s essential not to breathe under the pulling arm in the advanced version as you would during the traditional single arm drill.