Unfortunately, you can’t just go swimming and magically improve. You need to regularly do drills and skill exercises to develop and maintain a reasonable technique.
Below are the most important basic drills for freestyle swimming that you need to practice if you want to improve. Try one every time you go for a swim sesh at the pool. They all work your body and your brain.
1) Catch-Up – This is the number one learning tool for every teacher and coach, and every swimmer learning freestyle. Olympians do this drill in their warmup just before going out to the starting blocks to swim their gold medal final. Don’t start your freestyle stroke until your recovering arm has touched your hand. Here is a demonstration of Catch-Up. The more you do it the better you get at this drill and when you are swimming in the open water you can use the catch-up as a fall-back swim style, when you’re tired and breathless. The great Dutchman Ferry Weertman swam catch-up and won gold at the Rio Olympics 10km men’s open water.
2) Fingerdrag. This is often (wrongly) called the Popov drill, including by me, after the great Russian swimmer Alex Popov, who trained for many years at the AIS in Canberra. The fingerdrag drill requires you to recover your arms with a very high elbow and low hands and fingers hanging off your elbow. Your hands are very close to the side of your body.
3) Kicking: Yeah you don’t like it but like vegies it’s good for you. You don’t need a kickboard and I have done kicking classes at the beach where we only kick – all the way around the 700m course. Reach both arms out in front of you, put your head down in the water and only raise it to breathe in. Your leg must be ONE UNIT. Your kick comes from your glutes (bum), your thighs and your lower back. There’s not much knee bend in freestyle kicking. Stretch your legs and feel like you’re making them long.
4) No Kicking: Use a pool buoy in your thighs to keep your legs from sinking and turn your kick off. You will notice that you don’t get as tired and you can focus on getting your stroke correct. You will also work your shoulders, biceps and triceps. Keep each stroke long, with a flick of the wrist upon hand exit at the end of each stroke.
5) Water Polo – Head up freestyle: Keep your head up and look forward while swimming freestyle. This means you have to kick more and get your elbows really high during the recovery. This is hard work.
6) Tap and Go: This one is tricky but sounds easy. Tap the back of your hand on the surface of the water just after your hand exits the water at the end of your stroke, so down near your thighs or hips. Easy right? Try it.
7) Sculling: Reach out in front of you with straight arms and point your fingers straight down. Your task is to propel yourself forward by just using a side to side sculling motion with your hands. You can also do this drill with your arms level with your head and further back, near your hips. Here is a coach explaining this drill.
8) One-arm freestyle – Yes do a whole lap of freestyle with just your left arm and change arms to come back for the return lap. Hold your right arm straight out in front of you, while you stroke with your left. This gets you focusing on the details of what each arm stroke is doing. Meanwhile your other arm is holding you up, not moving and pushing forward.
9) Swordfish drill. This is a kicking, rotating and breathing drill for freestyle. one arm is straight out the front, one arm down near your pocket. Do six kicks then change sides with one big stroke. here is Dan doing the swordfish drill at Stroke Improvement group recently.
10) Long Dog paddle – This is like freestyle but your hand must stay under the water at all times, even during the recovery phase. Like dog paddle, the stroke cycle is under the water and your hand returns to the beginning of the stroke under the water. This is a workout and helps you to develop a great feel for the water. Here is a coach explaining how to do it.
And just for extra homework and credit for the swim nerds, the advanced Popov drill is more complicated for people who are really serious about improving their swimming. This video explains it pretty well. Popov was so technically perfect (for his time) that he never lost momentum and at the time scientists believed he had reached freestyle perfection that could only be surpassed by swimmers with taller bodies.
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Check out the club’s web page here. It’s time to start thinking about renewing your membership for 2023.