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There is one swimming drill which will dramatically improve your technique, power and feel for the water if you practice it prior to a race or competition. This drill easy to do and only takes a couple of minutes each session. In this article, I’m going to explain to you how best to perform it and how often, and why it increases a swimmers power and feel for the water when practiced prior to a competition. The drill I’m talking about is sculling.

When I was a little kid, sculling was one of the the first things I was taught after I’d learnt the basics of floating, kicking and breathing. At the time, it felt like sculling wasn’t a beneficial exercise and I was never told why we did it. After 12 years, I finally discovered why it’s such an important drill to do, especially in the week leading up to a race.

Before an important race or competition, swimmers will taper for 5-10 days. Tapering means to reduce the volume of training so the body can rest and recover in order to perform at it’s peak. When swimmers taper they become prone to losing the ‘feel’ of the water because they have gotten so used to swimmer regularly. As they taper they swim less and their body can find it difficult to ‘remember’ the correct technique. Sculling is the solution to this.

‘Front scull’ is the most common sculling technique. It is performed on the front with the swimmer facing the bottom of the pool. The swimmer should put their arms in front of their head and scull in and out with their hand and forearm in a sweeping motion. The hands should be bent downwards slightly at the wrist in order for the swimmer to move forward. The upper arm should remain still while the forearm is moving side to side. During the out sweep the thumbs should be facing down and during the in sweep the thumbs should be facing up. Depending on a swimmers ability, they may want to do this drill with fins if they are a beginner. Amateurs should do the drill without fins and more advanced swimmers should use a pull buoy to isolate the arms.

Sculling is important because allows the swimmer to become familiar with the initial catch position of the stroke they are practising for. In ‘front scull’, the sculling is performed at the initial ‘catch’ position of the freestyle, butterfly and breaststroke strokes. By getting the initial catch correct in these strokes, it sets up the swimmer for a powerful pull through and helps overall with their stroke.

Practising sculling in training and leading up to a competition can help a swimmer maintain the all important ‘feel’ for the water. ‘Front scull’ helps a swimmer practice the correct position for the initial catch in freestyle, butterfly and breaststroke. This is vitally important so the swimmer can develop power in their stroke. Sculling is a simple drill to perform which if practiced for a few minutes each training session, can greatly improve a swimmers ‘feel’ for the water.

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I’m often asked about the different kinds of training aids for swimmers and which ones are the best to use. Here I’ve put up a brief guide to the different training aids and what they’re best used for:

1. Freestyle snorkel

This is my favourite toy for the pool. I first bought a freestyle snorkel 4 years ago and since then I haven’t looked back. It took a couple of tries to get used to breathing with your mouth in the water (believe me it goes against everything your body wants to do!) but once I got around the learning curve they are really fun to use. To start out I had to use the snorkel with a nose clip so that I didn’t get water up my nose. Depending on how well you can control your breathing you might not need to use a nose clip at all. I’ve now got to the stage where I can use the snorkel by itself.

What it’s best used for: Kicking with a board, some freestyle drills and long slow freestyle.

Why: The snorkel is designed so you can keep your eyes looking to the bottom of the pool without moving your head and throwing your body out of line. It’s really good for people who don’t have a great technique because it can get them to practice what it’s like to swim with a straight body line. I love using the snorkel when doing kicking with a kickboard. It allows you to keep the head down and work your legs harder because your not always coming up for breath. I know most elite swimming clubs use a snorkel when doing kicking with a board.

2. Kickboards

I must admit, I used to hate kickboards! They were awkward, they slowed me down and they were plain uncomfortable! When I was growing up we would always do kick on the side without a board. This served me well as I was still able to develop a strong kick but it was only 3 months ago which I learned why the best swimmers use a kickboard. I had always ignored the fact that swimmers like Ian Thorpe and Michael Phelps used a kickboard in training. I didn’t want to believe that it was the best way to kick! Finally after 17 years of swimming I’ve come to my senses…

My father who is also a coach was speaking to Rohan Taylor, the coach of a number of Australian Olympic swimmers such as Leisl Jones and Shane Reese and he learned why kickboards are used. It’s to strengthen the core muscles (the stomach muscles) because thats where a lot of power is generated in swimming. Since I’ve found that out, I ‘ve been using a kickboard every session and it’s starting to become an enjoyable part of training.

What it’s best used for: Freestyle, breasktroke and fly kick. Strengthening your stomach muscles (guys who want a six pack and girls who want a flat stomach then eat your heart out!).

Why: Working on the fundamentals is crucial and it doesn’t get much more fundamental than kicking. Kicking is like the propellor on a boat, it’s where your speed will come from. It may not be much fun to work on at the start but after 2-3 weeks of solid training, you’ll find you might start to enjoy it…

3. Swim Paddles

Warning: only use if you’re a strong swimmer.

All the time I hear “I just bought a new pair of paddles! I can’t wait to use them!”. This is great if the swimmer is experienced and has strong shoulders and a good pull through in freestyle, but too often than not it’s a new swimmer who has gone out and bought a set of paddles because they look like a fun toy to use. I don’t blame them, I’d be exactly the same. Paddles look like fun to use but unless you can control them in the water they aren’t much use.

What it’s best used for: Strengthening your shoulders and developing a freestyle catch.

Why: Paddles are like a double-edged sword. They are great for working your shoulders and feeling a good catch in the water, but used incorrectly they can trigger a shoulder injury and send your swimming backwards. For beginners I recommend finger paddles.

4. Finger paddles

These paddles are my favourite. Beginners can use them and they force you to focus more on catching with the entire forearm and not just the hand. These paddles are used a lot with sculling drills. I’ve even seen some swimmers wear these paddles without hand straps and perform sculling drills, and the pressure of the water allows them to keep the paddles on their hands. Very cool.

What it’s best used for: Adding a little bit of power to your stroke. Sculling drills. An introduction to paddles for beginners.

Why: Finger paddles help you focus on pulling through with the entire forearm with the added power of a paddle on your fingers. For sculling drills it forces you to think about putting pressure on the water in the right position.

5. Pull buoys

Just like the name suggests, these bad boys are used for improving pull. They should only be used for freestyle and in some rare cases, breastroke drills. Pull buoys are popular among triathletes because it gets them to work on their pulling while conserving energy in their legs wich they need for the bike and run leg. For swimmers, pull buoys are a good toy to use but not too often. Some swimmers use a pull buoy for 2/3rds of a session and become reliant on a pull buoy. You don’t want to become reliant on a pull buoy. Used too often, they make you mentally switch of your abs and hips which are crucial to body rotation.

What it’s best used for: Raising your hips if they sink or are too low. Working on freestyle pull. Sculling drills. Triathletes.

Why: Pull buoys assist in having a good body position. They raise the hips which reduces drag and can help even the most average of swimmers achieve a correct body position. If you’re wanting to work on your freestyle pull in a particular set or session, pull buoys are a good way to single out your arms and a get you working on just your pull.

Hopefully that’s helped a bit with explaining some of the dozens of training aids out there. If you have any questions about any of the aids or if you’d like to know more about an aid I haven’t mentioned yet don’t hesitate to post a question in the comments box below. Happy swimming!

Last week we posted our first freestyle drill videos on the web.

Entry drill is a good drill for swimmers who are just starting out and working on their technique. Single arm freestyle is a much harder drill so most people will need to wear fins (flippers) to do it right. Remember that a drill done 99% right is the same as a drill done 100% wrong. The best advice I can give for improving your swimming is to SLOW DOWN when doing drills. Take them at a steady pace, focus on doing the key elements 100% right.  I can promise you that if you learn the correct technique through drills, and you practice the fundamentals over and over and over, your swimming will change dramatically.

Here are the two videos we posted on Youtube.