Addressing my own stroke deficiencies

During the post about rechecking my open water stroke rate, I mentioned I’d been doing more technique work in the first half of the year, following attendance of a Swimsmooth clinic and seeing my stroke for the first time a couple of years. I’d made the mistake of taking my eye off my technique, or thinking it was better than it was, a problem, as I’ve said before, of being a lone swimmer.

Everyone looks more impressive when you freeze the action!

Everyone looks more impressive when you freeze the action!

I generally almost never cover stroke and technique work, except for one time about deficiencies of T.I. in open water. This is for a couple of reasons: I’m not a stroke expert: Technique and stroke are not the aim of this blog: There are enough people doing it already: I’m here to write about open water swimming. That said, it’s better to swim open water effectively by developing your technique.

Paul Newsome and Swimsmooth classify swimmers into loose categories and I was (to absolutely no surprise to myself) classified as a swinger. (Stop that sniggering down the back). The characteristics of a swinger include a higher stroke rate and certain stroke errors, some of which I exhibited, some of which I didn’t. I did have a crossover from my left arm, especially when swimming faster. I had delayed breathing on my left (bad) side and a consequent tendency to sweep that arm wide and make a slightly thumb-first entry on my right hand which worsened when swimming with a two-stroke breathing pattern over my usual three-stroke bilateral breathing pattern. And I was sweeping both arms wide on pull. All poor technique.

It wasn’t all bad. According to twice-World Silver medallist Cassie Patten, I had good rotation, good head position, little leg drag, a relaxed and consistent and even efficiant stroke on my normal bilateral distance pattern

Many of the worst problems therefore crept in when using breathing every second stroke.

Swimsmooth’s clinic includes a set of remedial drills for each swim type. Almost none of them are unique to Swimsmooth, experienced swimmers may have encountered each drill previously as I had. But the feedback did give me a good range of techniques and stroke flaws on which to focus without having to plunder the almost never-ending range of swim drills available. To these I added some drills I already knew.

Most important of all was going back to a consistent usually-once-a-week focus on my technique.

2012 FINA Number 1 and English Channel Record holder Trent Grimsey and his brother Codie have started a great new series of technique video drills.

Left-side, right side: There are many names for this drill. Left-side, right side (or even lhs/rhs) is what the Sandycove swimmers call it. It’s also known as a single side drill, rotation drill, lateral or even a kick drill. This is one of the most basic, and probably most fundamental of all front crawl drills. It’s also hugely useful as it drives balance, direction, body position. Done properly It will raise your legs,  keep arms forward and aid balance. This drill is quite variable, as it starts with doing a length on each side, then one can add a slow controlled rotation every half-length or quarter length or every 12 or 6 kicks etc. Adding rotations will really get you to focus on forward drive and help reduce crossover. The forward arm should be high. The arm not being used should be on your hip. I make sure the is vertical, thumb is resting on my hip little finger out of the water. It should also be done with an awareness, rather than as a lazy drill. It’s perfectly acceptable to do this drill and its variants wearing fins. I think I being completely aware of what you was doing during every stroke of every drill, would have the most benefit that goes across all drills. It’s all too easy to slip into just getting drills done.

Single arm drills.

These drills can be done with fins or without if you are more advanced. There are three variants that I use:

  1. The first is simply a length with one arm by my side, stroking with the other. This drill helps good rotation and balance and pull and you only breathe to one side to help you to learn to breathe to the “bad” side. The secret to doing it is to get full body rotation from side to side and make sure to pull straight through.
  2. The second variant is to keep an arm straight out and do the same. This will help you get a feel for your catch and high elbow  during the pull phase.
  3. The final variant is what I know as a Rhythm drill. This is two strokes on each side, breathing on the second, then switching to two strokes on the other side. The unused arm can then be held out in front or by your side (more difficult).

These single-arm drills, especially the rhythm drill, are not beginner drills for most people. You are trying to develop a nice even flow and steady rhythm on them all with a straight even catch and pull. You can expect these to take a while to get comfortable with.


Sculling drills. These are drills I’ve never been good at doing. Even now, I tend to completely forget them. The purpose of various sculling is to feedback how slight changes in pitch of the hand affects the catch. They allow you to feel and adjust the effectiveness of your hand position in the water. For most sculling drills, only the hands are moving you, so it’s best to use a pull-buoy. Short arm doggie paddle strokes could be called a type of sculling drilling, though this also uses forearm.

Along with these drills I also constantly do warm with paddles. You’ve already seen my bag of paddles, all used for different aspects of stroke. Paddles seem to work best as part of technique work for me when I use at least two different types during warm up.

Other: I made a few other changes. I started doing more long sets for time, working on holding and pushing the bilateral breathing to my maximum, without having to resort to the two-stroke breathing pattern. This only became possible because I was focusing more on technique all the time and once a week I either did a set of 400s for time, or repeat 1000s or 1500s for time, aiming to hold.

I’d like to emphasise two things here: These are the current drills and technique problems that I’m addressing. They may not be yours.

You may use these drills, but you need to be sure they are useful for your stroke problem(s).

While these drills are all good, they are used as part of a whole. Technique work is or should be ongoing for most of us, and no sooner do I think I have  handle on it, than something else slips without me realising. The most effective step to improving stroke is to have it assessed by someone who knows how to do so, or even better, to have it video recorded. If you are being recorded, make sure to get as many angles as possible: side, front, overhead and underwater. I recently was recorded myself with a simple compact camera.

I’d love to say I look much better, but now I see other problems: my left arm is now sometimes crossing over underneath the water, and when pulling it’s not vertical, while my right arms slips out too far before pulling. I am dropping my right hand at the wrist before entry, an old problem that seems to have deteriorated. Ah well, back to the drills.

Swimming is a sport with limited proprioceptive feedback. We should available of any external viewpoint or feedback and continually have our strokes assessed to pursue a pattern of continuous improvement.

2 thoughts on “Addressing my own stroke deficiencies

  1. Hi Donal do you recommend investing in a kickboard to work on technique or do you think it does more harm than good especially in regards to shoulder/neck injuries and so forth? Best regards, Jim


    • Hi Jim. I’ve never felt much personal value to them, especially not for distance, yet I’ve never really able to completely break from using them. Used properly, they certainly have value for improving kick, if that is something you feel is useful (I don’t for distance myself). Donal


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