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Impactful Drills for Swimming Training | 616 & 636

Of the three disciplines in triathlon, the swim is the most technical and difficult to master for those starting out later in life, as many of us are. The swim is also the discipline with the most anxiety attached. Fortunately, improving in the swim is much less about time spent than it is about working on the technique and skills. We gain our aerobic fitness on the bike and run and this carries over into swimming. Much of our training emphasis, especially at the beginning of our triathlon journey, can therefore be devoted to maximising our efficiency in the water.

Last time we discussed the UNCO drill and I called this the ‘best bang for our training buck’ drill. Not too far behind that though, are the 616 and 636 drills. These are essentially the same type of drill, just with a different timing, so we’ll deal with them both now.

This drill is also a great one for developing good body rotation and a nice, rocking motion from one stroke to the other. We need to focus on moving the whole body as a unit from our shoulders to our hips. Imagining a log rotating in water. Everything in unison.

With our muscular triathletes legs you would think we’d have a strong kick but this is usually not the case. Our lean thighs are also not very buoyant so it is a good idea to use a small fin when doing these drills. Mostly to maintain our forward momentum and prevent a stop / start motion as stroke and recover but the fins will also help maintain a good body position which the body will learn and imitate if we repeat it often enough. Even when we are not wearing the fins.

To start the drill we push off the wall, do one stroke and then leave the stroking arm on our side with the other arm extended forwards, about to begin the catch. So we are nicely on our side with one shoulder pointing almost straight up to the ceiling and the other towards the ground. Hand on our hip and arm resting on our side. We hold that position for six kicks and then begin the recovery phase of the stroke, with a nice, high elbow. The extended arm does not start the catch phase until the other hand is about to enter the water. Almost a catch up stroke.

As soon as the hand enters the water and the extended arm begins to pull in the catch phase, we perform a snappy body roll onto our other side. Holding our core strong and rotating shoulders and hips in unison. As we do this we’ll be doing a nice, powerful pull under the body and as the hip reaches the peak of the rotation, the hand will brush past and begin to exit the water. Meanwhile the first hand remains in the extended position after entering the water. We then do another six kicks on this side, the opposite one to the one we started with and then repeat the process. 6 kicks… 1 stroke… 6 kicks…

The 636 drill is the same but instead of 1 stroke every six kicks, we do 3. So, 6 kicks… 3 strokes… 6 kicks. When we are doing the three strokes we want to perform complete body rotations as we go from left to right. Trying to get to the kicking position with our body on every stroke. The sensation in this drill is very nice as we accelerate during the three strokes from what was essentially our kicking speed.

The usual way to perform this drill is to do two lengths of the drill and a third of normal freestyle. There are a number of things to think about when doing the drill and I suggest, instead of trying to concentrate on all of them at the same time, pick on per rep and just think about that. Then in the next rep, something else, and so on.

  • Body position on our side – We want everything to be in a line horizontal to the surface of the water. Feet, hips and shoulders all in a line. This is especially important to focus on as we begin to bring the hand forward in the recovery phase of the stroke, after the six kicks. Lifting the arm out of the water will to the downward pressure on our bodies.
  • Quick, snappy rotation – As the recovering hand enters the water and we begin the catch phase with the extended arm, we want a nice snap to the body rotation which will use the big muscles in our chest and back to pull the arm through under our bodies and clear the hips for the hand to exit the water. Focus on squeezing with the pecs and lats as the body passed though middle point of the rotation and begins to lift the other side of the body upwards. This is where the maximum power comes from in the stroke and it should be timed with the arm somewhere between underneath the shoulder and belly button.
  • Extended arm position – When kicking on our sides we have an opportunity to check on the position of our extended arm. We want that to be, at maximum, fingers, wrist, elbow and shoulder all the same height. Or shoulder slightly higher than elbow, which is slightly higher than wrist. We definitely don’t want to see our fingers pointing upwards or our hands and wrists higher than the elbow. That would be pushing against the direction we are travelling.
  • Get a good grip on the water – As we start to pull our extended hand is in almost ‘dead water’ without any traction on the water around it. So we want to start with getting a good grip on the water by beginning the catch phase by slanting our hand and forearm down in unison to almost form a paddle. This is a gentle movement until they are in a position where their angle is going to push water backwards, not downwards. Then we apply the pressure on that water that we have ‘gripped’, and start pulling back with intent.
  • Accelerate the hand through the stroke – The initial catch is the slowest the hand moves. Once we have got purchase and start pulling, the hand/arm paddle must accelerate through the rest of the stroke until it exits at the hip. This means that the body rotation will have a slight acceleration as well. The action should feel like we are whipping our hands through the water and out at the hip. The only cautionary here is that we don’t want that acceleration to come at the expense of our grip on the water.

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