Improve Your Swimming, with Coach John Abrami

Each of us brings a different skill set to the sport of triathlon, and typically it is that of a single sport athlete. I wouldn’t want to guess the percentages of people that were primarily swimmers, swim-drills2bikers, or runners before they started doing triathlons, but I have a sense that most triathletes were not age group swimmers beforehand. And by age group swimmers, I mean people that swam through the age group ranks since they were children, 7, 8, 9 years old, etc., continued swimming into high school and maybe beyond into college. These athletes have spent untold hours in the pool honing their skills, so when they return to the pool at a later age they retain the ability to swim correctly, and usually very fast!

Because of that I think you can separate triathletes into two groups, those that were age group swimmers and everyone else. I do this because many new triathletes (and unfortunately some of the older/stubborn ones too!) typically don’t try to learn how to swim correctly; they’re just swimming to build aerobic fitness in the water to try and get faster. And for most of us, me included, this works (worked) for a while, until it doesn’t and then you run into the fact that you don’t in fact know how to swim correctly, the fundamental flaws in your stroke forever limit how fast you can swim. And unfortunately, many people seem resigned with this fact and never put in the time and effort to learn how to swim correctly.

Now I will say that there are a few non-age group swimmer triathletes that do in fact learn how to swim correctly, who put in the time to develop the skills, and swim as fast, or nearly as fast, as some of the age group swimmers. But they’re the exception and I won’t focus on trying to suggest how they can get faster, just yet, but rather I’d like to try and help the rest of the swimmers out there, the majority, who have some basic faults in their strokes.

To start this process I came up with the top three things this “other group” of swimmers do incorrectly and then ran this past one of our local (to Santa Barbara) swim coaches, Coach John Abrami. Coach John, a.k.a. Coach AB, a previous long time resident of the area, returned a few years back to coach the SBSC (SB Swim Club) Masters program, and now coaches that program and the age group kids too. Here’s my take on the issues, possible solutions, questions to Coach AB and his comments.

The three main things I see swimmers doing incorrectly are:

  1. Swimming with their heads up, particularly to breathe, causing their hips to drop and their bodies to porpoise through the water, creating unnecessary drag that slows them down
  2. Letting their hands cross over the center line of their bodies upon hand entry into the water or just after that, again creating unnecessary drag as they’re extending their arms forward to begin their catch, now corkscrewing through the water
  3. Dropping their elbows under water, only using their hands to catch the water to pull back against, versus using their hand and forearm as a paddle to catch and hold the water

Fred: Do you think this is a fair set of the problems you see for the less experienced triathletes in the pool? Are these the top three or would you suggest something else, maybe expand it to a top five?

Coach AB: You are correct. These issues cause two problems; more resistance, less propulsion. First, swimmers need to keep their heads down (water hitting you on the top of your forehead) and straight. This will keep the hips “up” and “straight” which will decrease resistance and put you in a better position to apply propulsion. Second, swimmers need to keep their fingertips down (pointing towards the bottom of the pool for as long as possible) and elbows up. In pool swimming you want to maximize your distance per stroke and maximize your stroke rate. This leads to a longer stroke which leads to fast swimming over a particular distance. In open water swimming especially triathlons we want to maximize our efficiency and energy use. This leads to shorter faster stroke which conserves energy for longer swims and for races which have other legs to complete.

Fred: One of the problems I think people have with learning how to swim better is the full range of drills and theories on how to swim correctly (i.e., do you follow Total Immersion, focus on front quadrant swimming, use your hips to drive the stroke, etc.), that they’re overwhelmed and don’t take the time to work each of the following basic drills to improve their stroke.

To correct the issue of swimming with your head up, practice the:

  • Kicking on your side drill, 25 meters on one side, switch to the other side and repeat. Roll your head to breathe without lifting your chin, and then roll it back down while continuing to kick.
  • Single switch drill, kick on your side for 6 kicks, take one stroke to switch to the other side, kick on your side for 6 kicks and repeat
  • Triple switch drill, same as the single switch but with three strokes to establish the correct body position. Keep your head down while you switch over to the other side.
  • Head down drill, just like it sounds, swim normal but focus on looking down at the bottom of the pool, and rolling your body to breathe, not just your head

The focus of each of these drills is rolling your body to breathe, not lifting your head to get your mouth above water, which keeps your hips from dropping behind you. When you lift your head your center of balance shifts, so something else has to sink, i.e., your butt! The other focus of the first three drills is actually learning how to kick, which so many triathletes (and actually many non-triathletes) seem to hate to do and practice. If I only had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone say, “My kick sucks!” It’s the same people that get out of the pool early when we’re finishing with kick drills or who feign doing an actual kick drill with a board by doing some variation of an IM stroke, also usually pretty poorly.

Watch this video on the Single Switch drill:

Watch this video on the Triple Switch drill:

Fred: Would you agree with my choice of drills to correct a head up swim problem, what other options are there, and what should they really be focusing on?

Coach AB: These drills are great. Focus on keeping your head down and straight. Focus on keeping the fingertips down and the elbows ups. You should try to keep a straight line from fingertip to elbow. Keep your core tight, lead with the hips. These drills are great core usage drills. One of the biggest reasons why swimming times are dropping rapidly these days is the emphasis on using your core to generate power. Use your foundation.

Fred: For the second issue I see many swimmers having, hands crossing over the center line of their body, practice the:

  • Fingertip drag (a.k.a., zipper drill), where as your hand exits the water on your follow through you literally drag your fingertips in the water, past your head and then straight out in front of you. Thinking about keeping your elbow high, lifting your hand out of the water, helps
  • Head banger drill (and no, Metallica or “your favorite heavy metal band” is not involved!), where on your recovery stroke you tap your head before extending it straight out in front

Fred: John, this is all I can think of for this problem, how about you?

Coach AB: I like the fingertip drill. It relaxes your arm on the recovery. Keeps the arms from swinging too wide and puts the hands in the proper entry and catch position (shoulder width entry and finger tips down). The “head banger” also known as ½ catch up is also good. When using this drill you should focus on your finger tip down catch when you are tapping your hear.

Watch this video on the Fingertip drag drill:

Fred: For the last issue, dropping your elbow under water, practice the:

  • Fist drill, nobody’s favorite, or at least nobody who drops their elbows favorite! With your hand closed into a fist, swim. You find very quickly that you have very little traction in the water until you learn to use your fist, wrist, and forearm to catch the water and pull back
  • Pop the elbow drill (pretty sure this isn’t what it’s called, but that’s how I remember it!). Swim normally and once your hand is extended out in front, to initiate your catch focus on popping your elbow up, which drives your hand down, giving you more surface area to pull with
  • Hand over the barrel drill. Swim normally and once your hand is extended imagine that you’re reaching over a barrel as you begin your catch, once again creating a paddle with your hand and forearm

Fred: John, I’m sure you have better descriptions of these drills, which I would love to hear, and others you might suggest.

Coach AB: When working on the “high elbow”, think about the finger tips pointing towards the bottom of the pool, perpendicular to the bottom of the pool. You want to keep a straight line from fingertip to elbow. Don’t lead with your elbow, your hand needs to start moving back before your elbow.

Watch this video on the Fist Drill:

Watch this video on Straight arm vs. High elbow:

Fred: John, if you see other problems that this group of swimmers needs to address, and the appropriate drills, can you share that with us?

Coach AB: The key to swimming is swimming. The more you swim the faster you will get. Interval training is the most effective way to build speed, endurance and efficiency. Swim, but swim smart. Always think about technique. It is nice to have a coach on deck to “coach” you. 

I hope that when you’ve finished reading this, if you’re a swimmer in this “other group”, that you recognize that you do in fact need to work on your stroke, you do want to be a better swimmer and get faster, and that you’ll take the time to practice these drills. Once you develop the correct skills, maybe after talking to a coach about the drills and your stroke that you can find those 1-2 minutes, or even better, 3-5 minutes in your swim times that you’ve been looking to drop.

Thanks John for your help and responses, we can all learn and benefit. See you at the pool!

3 thoughts on “Improve Your Swimming, with Coach John Abrami

  1. This is AWESOME Fred. I asked John to have all of us do the “swim with fist” drill as I think that one is the most effective to help initiate a good feel for the water. I try so hard to keep my fingertips down, elbows up and I think I’m doing it right but usually I’m not. It’s because I can’t feel it. But after the fist drill, I can really feel the pull through the water!

  2. Looking for some clarification…Do we want to use the high elbow technique for olympic and longer events and the straight arm for sprint events?

    • You should be using the high elbow technique for all events. A straight arm catch, without getting your fingers pointed straight down and your wrist under your elbow, means that you’re pushing down in the water and not back. By doing this you’re basically pushing your body up and forward, dropping your hips (something has to go down), creating more drag, versus pushing back with a high elbow catch.

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