Will stroke drills help me stay fit?
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on September 23rd, 2009

Many swimmers wonder if practicing drills will hurt their fitness. The most succinct answer is No . . . so long as they’re part of a program designed to improve your swimming. My email exchange with a recent TI Workshop graduate explains why and how:

>>Hi Terry!

I completed the Weekend Workshop in Philly Sept 19-20 and am delighted to report it has reinvigorated my love for swimming. The question that occurred to me afterward was this: While I swam competitively in my youth, I now swim for health and fitness. Will I still get aerobic and cardiovascular benefits by practicing the drills rather than complete stroke?

Prior to the workshop I swam the traditional way, trying to condition myself to overcome the exhaustion that inevitably comes from fighting against. But, after just a few hours of learning to work with the water, from your TI coaches, Kim Bade and Bill Lang my stroke now feels graceful, effortless and powerful in a way I’d never thought possible. Thanks,
Michael Strassberg>>


I’m delighted to hear you now share the pleasure I gain from swimming freestyle the TI Way. Your question is one that occurs to many workshop grads. They have a general sense the drills are important but not how it all fits together and what to do in the weeks to come. So here are the most critical goals each swimmer should have . . . whether following instruction from TI Coaches, or while self-coaching with the Easy Freestyle DVD.

1) Make new skills more durable and increase resistance to the pull of old habits.

2) Add more advanced or subtle skills.

3) Deepen and consolidate those enjoyable and encouraging sensations of grace and effortless power.

Many also wonder about whether they’ll lose conditioning if they devote all their time to drills.  Part of your message – that you swim for health and your stroke now feels graceful, effortless and powerful – gives me some direction for what would be right in your case.

I’ll start by making the argument for more drill practice.

Generally speaking, swimming that is sustainable, rather than intensive, is the most healthful. In swimming, sustainability comes from: (1) It’s non-fatiguing – or even better energizing. I.E. You feel better after 30 to 60 minutes of practice than you felt before. (2) It’s engaging and enjoyable — so you can’t wait to experience it again, motivating you to practice often.

Both of those come from higher skill levels, which is an argument for doing sufficient drill practice to continue developing your skills and heightening your awareness.

However, in terms of overall fitness, it’s important to understand that:

  • The energy and metabolic demands of drill practice are typically sufficient to bring aerobic/cardio system benefits; and
  • The muscle-toning effects of (1) holding long, streamlined body positions; (2) maintaining stability in the water and (3) achieving body control in new movements are also sufficient to bring similar musculoskeletal system benefits to those provided by yoga, pilates or tai chi. In fact, I’d argue drill practice can bring benefits beyond those because of how difficult it is to maintain a horizontal, streamlined body position when you’re not on terra firma.

This ought to be particularly true for those who may have only a few dozen hours of experience with those new positions and movements, and are still developing the neuromotor programs for doing them efficiently. In this instance my definition of “efficient” is that your nervous system has learned the new task so well that it recruits just the right muscle groups at just the right levels of intensity. Early on in the drill process most people will need to work a bit too hard to get them right. With practice, it becomes easier.

Now I’ll make the argument for more whole-stroke practice.

Because you describe your freestyle as feeling “graceful, effortless and powerful” that tells me that many of the benefits I credit above to drills are likely to come while practicing whole-stroke as well. When you do practice whole-stroke, you’ll want to make informed decisions about how far to swim non-stop and how long to rest before resuming. Should you swim repeats of 25 yds/m, 100, or perhaps 500? How many repeats before resuming drill practice? How long to rest between repeats? Just as consequential, what stroke thoughts should you be focused on during those repeats?

Many people presume that whole stroke practice will bring greater health benefit than drill practice because it allows you to complete more pool lengths per hour, because the traditional “rule” for conditioning has been that more yards equals more fitness. Not so.   All that matters to your cardiovascular system is how many heartbeats per hour, not how many laps. And heartbeats produced while practicing drills are equal in value to those produced while swimming whole-stroke.

Your best reason for practicing whole-stroke should be because it allows you to:

(1) Transfer the neural patterns and kinesthetic awareness produced in drills to your whole stroke; and

(2) Integrate the different skills produced by different drills into a cohering whole.

Skating emphasizes one set of skills. SpearSwitch another set, Swing (or Zen) Switch another set and OverSwitch still another set. As well, there are supplementary skill sets for breathing, the catch and the kick. The brain and nervous system need to learn them as distinct motor patterns — through drill practice and mindful single-focal-point whole stroke practice. Then it learns to make those individual skills work smoothly together. This happens mainly via whole stroke practice.

So here’s the highest value takeaway: As a health-oriented swimmer, you’ll gain the greatest health/fitness benefit if the motivating principle of every visit to the pool is to improve your swimming, not to “get in shape.”


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