smooth stroke blog

This question came up recently in the context of how we should go about training at home after swim camp (or workshop). So, I would like to elaborate here on the comments I made at camp…

How much drill work should I do?

Good question, but it is not easy to give each of you a personalized answer. Instead, I will share the concepts, as I understand them.

A drill is an activity for the body and/or the mind which slows things down or simplifies them so you can much more easily sense, then adjust, then master control over some feature of your swimming. Only you will know, by experimentation, how much or how often you need to slow things down or simplify them in order to more quickly correct/improve a certain part of the stroke.

Let’s walk through the concepts…  

Coach Mat Skate Poz  

What is the purpose of doing drills?

It may be commonly assumed that a swimming drill is something we do that is ‘slow’ or something ‘less-than-swimming’ – however, a drill can be in a full range, as passive as Superman Glide or as active as whole stroke swimming at race pace.

A drill should be as mentally engaging as it is physically engaging, but it could be just a mental exercise. It can be at any intensity level. It is not necessarily slow, and it is not meant to be ‘easy’. It is meant to be just challenging enough to trigger problem-solving centers of the brain and stimulate improvement in a specific area of skill.

Some people can get stuck in drills as an end in themselves, but this is not what they are intended for. The point is not to become good at doing drills, but to become good at whole stroke swimming, and then to take that whole stroke where ever you want to go. Drills are a tool, not a rule. Use drills when they help, and don’t use them when they don’t help. When they don’t help that is a sign you need to redesign the drill until it does, or ask a TI Coach to help you – we are trained and experienced at guiding swimmers in this neurological learning process.

Let me be a bit more direct about it: Drills will help you when you have a specific skill objective and intently focus upon it. Drills will not help you when you don’t have a specific objective and/or you don’t focus intently on it. Going through the motions of a drill without the mind focused upon the precise skill objective is a waste of your precious pool time. (How many practice hours are wasted every day by swimmers doing drills without any understanding of what the drill is suppose to do, and without any mental focus????)

What are drills meant to help you improve?

Remember, drills are a form of simplification, in body and/or mind, which enables you to slow down the sense of time, pay better attention to a chosen point, and reduce the number of signals your brain must consciously manage. It may be encouraging to keep the martial arts mantra in mind: Slow is Smooth, Smooth is Fast. By slowing down to gain precise control, you can then gradually speed things up again, while protecting that precision, to a much greater effect.

These are the main categories of skill that drills are meant to help us improve (the ones that come to mind at this moment of writing):

Skills help you improve your ability to…

  • Read and assess information
  • Make decisions
  • Practice Correction and Control
  • Test stroke adjustment methods
  • Memorize (automate) movement patterns


When to stop doing drills?

In one sense you may ever stop doing drills and ‘just swim’.

Rather, starting from a simplified position or movement pattern (for example: like starting in the TI freestyle progression with Superman Glide), you just keep increasing the complexity level to keep provoking development of the skills. At some point the level of complexity you’ve taken on begins to look indistinguishable from whole stroke swimming. Someone on the outside would assume you are ‘just swimming’ and ‘not drilling’ when in fact, inside you are – physiologically and mentally – continuing to drill, continuing to concentrate on some productive point of control. The drill work is completely internal and too subtle for an outsider to perceive.

I, for one, am probably doing drills in this perpetual, internal sense about 90% of the time, even and especially during a race. This is one of my training mantras: Practice like I race, race like I practice. A practice is a rehearsal for the skills and mindset and attention I will employ during a race – there should be very little that is different on race day.

But, for those who insist on viewing drills as something completely distinct from whole stroke swimming I can offer this advice: Pick a skill set to work on (example: breathing), and then pick a particular micro-skill within that skill set (example: turn toward breath early). Do appropriate drills (example: Superman to Skate) for a few minutes, or many minutes, until you feel you’ve got a grip on the particular micro-skill you are working on, then go test that skill in whole stroke, for a few strokes or many. When it feels unsatisfactory in whole stroke go back to some drills. Go back and forth from drill to whole stroke like this as much as it helps your whole stroke segment go better.

The amount of drill – in terms of minutes, number of repeats, or distance – versus the amount of whole stroke swimming is totally up to you and your needs. Whenever you are working to step up to a higher level of skill, you may go back to a season of more drill and less whole stroke, and then a season of 50/50, and then eventually come back into whole stroke with mental ‘drill mode’ intervals (see an explanation below).

Path - Drill-To-WSP

When to change drills and adjust them?

Two important concepts to think about:

  1. Failure point
  2. Automation
Failure Point

If you are using a drill to focus on a specific micro-skill but find yourself failing more often than succeeding at it, then you may have crossed too far past a failure point and are working at a complexity level too high for you at this moment – this is counter-productive.

In this case you need to step back to a simpler form of that drill or to a more simple drill. What will be more productive is to work just below and up to your failure point – you need touch that failure point occasionally to watch it move back as you work. That failure point will not remain static – it is pushed back by your successful repetitions right at the edge of this failure point. You need hundreds (and thousands!) of successful repetitions in order to build a robust neuro-muscular control circuit, which can stand up in whole stroke swimming.

This is where it will be very helpful to you emotionally to understand the way the brain and body will learn and improve – be patient and persistent with the mindful drill and whole stroke training process. In this way and you will improve, in the end, in a faster amount of time and with higher quality results. But it really helps to cooperate peacefully with the process.


This is your brain’s sub-conscious ability to execute that skill perfectly without you having to think about it – is built by those hundreds (and thousands!) of successful repetitions. But you can, and should do these repetitions in an enjoyable way – by incrementally increasing the complexity level and set up the drill task in a variety of ways. I would not recommend ‘tread-mill’ like repetitions – we have the tools in TI to create an infinite, intriguing variety of drill tasks and challenges, so there is no need to be bored while we provoke this neuro-muscular development.

Yet, there is no way around the work that must be done. To provoke this development in the most enjoyable way you get to learn the art of setting your drill complexity right in your optimal level of challenge, and keep it there – not too much and not too little. From the effect of hundreds of successful repetitions, in a variety of forms, your abilities will increase (which means your failure point will move back) and you will keep incrementally increasing the drill complexity (i.e. the challenge level) to stay near the edge of your abilities and keep provoking them to grow.

Warning: if you find it boring, then there is a problem in how you’ve designed the drills or in how you’ve directed the mind. If you are a human the learning method will work well for you, but only if it is designed and executed in a suitable way – there are principles involved and then there is some personalization required. Hence, my reason for trying to help you understand how to use drills and design them for yourself.

How to mix in drills and whole stroke?

Here are a few ways to insert the use of drills:

Drills as Tune-Up.

Use drills at the beginning of your practice time to get your body and mind drawn into the pool and into a specific focus for that practice session. Example:

  • 15 minutes drill work with focal points
  • 25 minutes whole stroke swimming with same focal points

Drills as intervals.

Use drills to tune-up your focus and control at the beginning of a series of repeats. Example: 4 rounds of…

  • 1x 25m drill, 1x 25m whole stroke
  • 1x 25m drill, 1x 50m whole stroke
  • 1x 25m drill, 1x 75m whole stroke
  • With 10 seconds rest between each repeat

Drills as active rest.

Instead of stopping whole stroke swimming to rest passively at the wall, don’t stop swimming, but shift into a ‘drill mode’ mindset, (which may have you lower intensity, or slow tempo, but not necessarily) and then channel your attention with a calming focal point during certain lengths.

Example: 1500 meter swim (60 lengths in a 25m pool), with ‘drill mode’ on every 6th length.

That drill mode might be like this – swim 1500 meters holding 17 SPL, and then on each 6th length, hold 15 SPL.That will require the brain to adjust the stroke in a specific way on those ‘active rest’ lengths.

Rest is there to revive your attention and control, not just or only your heart rate. Keep in mind that each system in your body has an ‘exhaustion point’ not just your energy. You may feel enough energy to continue, but if your stroke quality degrades and you can’t figure out right away how to fix it without simplifying things for your brain, you may use a drill as an active rest interval in order to restore your attention and control in the middle of your swim.

Drills as mental refreshment.

Going back to this idea of ‘perpetual drill’ on a long swim (long being a relative term) it is extremely helpful, if not necessary to break that time up into smaller mental pieces to maintain a higher quality experience overall.

Example (for a race):

  • 3km swim, broken up into 10x 300 stroke-count intervals.
  • #1 and #2 – use breathing focal points and restrained tempo
  • #3 and #4 – use arm synchronization focal points
  • #4 and #5 – use kick and arm synchronization focal points
  • #6, #7, #8 – use arm synchronization focal points with slight intentional tempo increase
  • #9 and #10 – use more simple entry and extension focal points as exhaustion rises.

That should give you some good things to think about as you plan some drills into your practice.

As our swim camp students come to realize after a few days at camp, there is so much more we could talk about, but our time and our brains can take in only so much at one time.

This is why I have set up the Online Coaching Program – we can’t process it all at camp, and even so, I admit it took me several years of experimentation to figure out how to do this effectively for myself without the guidance of a coach. So the program is my way to help students (after attending camp or workshop) learn how to integrate these training principles into their own thinking and planning, and learn it in a reasonable amount of time.

If you’ve been to a live TI training event and you feel a gap in what you know about training and what you’d like to be capable of (in order to coach yourself), you may consider joining our program for a several weeks or few months.

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