They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. If you always get in the pool and swim your stroke without thinking about the different elements that are involved, you’re not likely to make big improvements. Breaking the stroke down into specific exercises or drills that isolate a certain part, whether it is the kick, an arm action or the breathing, will help you to identify weak areas and refine your technique.
Here are some common training drills for Front Crawl. They’re useful both for beginners who want to understand and learn each part and for strong swimmers who want to optimise their stroke.
Single arm pull with a float:
Using a float gives you support whilst you focus on one arm pull. You can think about a smooth hand entry, feel the resistance of the water as you pull back and focus on pulling close to your body. Doing one arm at a time helps you to recognise whether one arm is stronger or weaker than the other. The float can also be used to remind you to stay centralised, as you should keep the arm that’s holding the float close to your ear and the pulling hand should enter the water under the float before pulling back.
Single arm pull without a float:
For swimmers who don’t need a float for support or confidence, the single arm pull without a float requires a little more strength in the pull and kick. You’ll need to focus on shoulder muscles to keep the resting arm close to your ear.
This is a common front crawl drill that encourages swimmers to focus on one arm pull at a time. Similar to the single arm pull, the catch up drill can be used to give variety to a training session. It is slightly more advanced as it takes more effort to switch focus as you swap arms. It also encourages swimmers to glide between each stroke, instead of chopping arms into the water, a smoother, gliding stroke is more efficient.
In swim racing, a low arm recovery (keeping your hand low as it passes over the water instead of drawing a high arc) can improve speed. A low arm recovery isn’t ideal for everyone due to shoulder rotation pain, so this drill is personal choice. By drawing your finger tips along your body (as if pulling a zip up), you develop a high elbow and low hand. The fingertip contact is a proprioceptive tool to develop muscle memory for the elbow and hand position. Once this is established, finger tip contact doesn’t need to be maintained, and you can “fling” your hand from the exit to entry point for a fast arm recovery.
Similar to Zip Up, the Touch Cap drill encourages a steep hand entry. By touching your cap just before your hand enters the water, you keep a high elbow and low hand close to the centre line of the body. In front crawl, a pull that is close to the centre line of the body tends to be straighter and more efficient than a wide pull, which tends to make the body snake from side to side.
Variation in the breathing pattern:
When people first learn to swim, they are often taught to breathe every 3rd stroke. This is designed to make a swimmer breathe bilaterally (alternating sides) so that the stroke stays balanced. Breathing on the 3rd stroke is usually the most comfortable for people, but it is not the law to stick to the 3rd stroke! Some swimmers find that breathing every 5th stroke is the most comfortable rhythm for them. When it comes to front crawl, breathing is usually the most difficult aspect to master. By stretching yourself to breathe every 5th, 7th, 9th stroke or more, you may find that going back to breathing on the 3rd stroke feels much easier by comparison. Varying the breathing pattern can work as a stroke refinement drill too as the more strokes between each breath, the more time you have to think about what your arms and legs are doing. Varying the breathing pattern can improve your cardiovascular fitness for swimming as well as improving your confidence for those times when you miss the occasional breath when you swim. A word of caution: leaving long gaps between each breath can make you feel lightheaded and has the potential for a swimmer to pass out if done to excess. Be aware if pushing your limits and never swim without a buddy or lifeguard supervision.
Same side breathing:
We all have a favourite side to breathe. Often, this is due to posture deviations (we all develop slight rotational imbalances due to the way we sleep in bed or how we sit on the sofa). Focusing on breathing to your “bad side” helps you to improve the balance in your stroke.
Top tip: swimmers often let their shoulder stay rolled forward when breathing to their “bad side”, so focus on rolling the shoulder back when you breathe
Kicking on the side:
Lying on the side when kicking takes away the benefit of floating and therefore, it is much harder to do. You have to use the leading hand to press down on the water to give you lift and kick harder to stay afloat. Doing lengths kicking on the side can help you with the body position needed for rolling to the side to breathe, making sure the shoulder is rolled back and your cheek is resting on the water. You can rest your head on your leading arm if you normally have a tendency to lift your head up when breathing. Make sure you balance out your training by alternating which side you lay on each length.
Reduce strokes per length:
For efficiency, you should aim to swim from A to B in the fewest number of strokes. Pulling harder, stretching your arms further forward and back, and gliding a little longer will help you achieve this. By counting the number of strokes per length, you will be mindful of whether your swim is becoming more or less efficient. Your arm-span is roughly the same measurement as your height, so ideally you should be able to travel at least one body length with each front crawl arm pull. There is of course an optimum from which it becomes inefficient to reduce the strokes further as you will be slowly drifting rather than powerfully gliding, but this drill helps you to work out your ideal number of strokes per length. In time, you should end up with a reliably consistent number of strokes per length.
Use a pullbuoy:
Using a pullbuoy can help you focus on your arm pull in full stroke rhythm (rather than isolating one arm at a time). If you normally kick furiously just to stay afloat, a pullbuoy will keep your legs near the surface allowing you to focus on arm technique at a calm pace. Because the front crawl kick normally acts like a rudder to balance your body, using a pullbuoy can cause your legs to snake from side to side as you swim. You can either ignore this feeling, or you can tense your oblique muscles (those around the sides of your waist) to keep your legs straight.
Fins (or flippers) can provide a good workout for your leg muscles and strengthen your kick. They amplify both good and bad technique, so if your ankles are stiff, you will find that the fins slice or slap the water and you won’t move very far or fast. With loose ankles and good technique, you will go really fast in fins!