Impactful Drills for Swimming Training | UNCODonovan van Gelder
Of the three disciplines in Triathlon, the swim is by far the most technical. Because water is so much denser than air, our body position and every little action we take with our arms, legs and torso has a much bigger impact on our overall efficiency than they do while running and riding through air. That is why drills form such a big part of any successful swimming program. Trying to work on and improve every little aspect of the freestyle swim stroke all at once, is pretty much an impossible task, and breaking up the different components of the stroke and isolating them, makes it much more manageable and effective.
Arguably the most impactful drill for freestyle is the UNCO or, ‘uncoordinated’ drill. With regards to ‘bang for our buck’, this drill is a must in any amateur triathletes swimming week. Adding a set of UNCO to one or two sessions a week will have a significant effect on our overall swimming efficiency and translate into faster swimming overall.
UNCO’s primary goal is to teach good body rotation. A large proportion of new to intermediate swimmers stay too flat in the water. For one thing, this presents a larger frontal surface area to the water that we are moving through and thus increasing the drag that we need to overcome. Think of ships – how many broad, square keels do we see on the ocean? Ships are all narrow and their sides are very long in proportion to their frontal area. We want to spend most of our swim on our sides but obviously that doesn’t work well when trying to use both arms for propulsion. So we need to continuously rotate or rock from side to side in a smooth way. Rolling our shoulders, trunk, hips and legs in unison around an imaginary centre line running through our spine.
Good body rotation is also essential in maximising the pressure that we can apply to the water and increases the length of our stroke. If we don’t rotate our hips we cannot easily get our hands out of the water at the end of the stroke and begin the recovery phase. If we do not rotate adequately, we lose the last bit of the push phase and we have to swivel our hand around our hip to get it out of the water. This will compromise the timing of our stroke and probably cause quite a bit of drag as the and just stops and is pulled out of the water.
Just like any good sales-person, I pitched the value of my ‘product’ before giving you the cost. I am sure that you can see the benefit of having good body roll and how that will make you faster and more efficient in the water. So, what is UNCO and how do we do it? This is the ‘cost’. It is a tricky drill to master and can have us looking like someone who is in need of saving when we first start doing it.
Simply, UNCO is swimming with one arm. Oh, it is a single arm drill you say. Yes, but most swimmers doing the single arm drill have the non-working arm extended forwards and this has a flaw. When swimming like that we are forced to rotate only to the side of the working arm and we stop rotating when the body is flat, with both arms extended forwards, not when it has rotated fully to the other side. Traditional single arm drills are focused on improving the ‘Catch Phase’ of the stroke and has no benefit for rotation. In fact, too much single arm is bad for rotation. In UNCO we keep the non-working arm at our side and we breath to that side, not under the recovering, ‘working arm’ as we would in the single arm drill and full freestyle swimming. This forces us to rotate full away from the working arm, which we can’t do in a traditional single-arm drill.
When pushing off the wall to start the repetition, we take one stroke with the non-working arm and then leave that at our side. We then continue with just the other arm and take a breath with every stroke so that we are forced to rotate completely onto the side of the working arm, with the opposite shoulder pointing up to the roof. We need to focus on extending fully forwards with the working arm and performing a good catch, as we would normally in a full stroke. Then, as we go through the catch, pull and press with the working arm, we rotate fully, pushing the non-working shoulder into the water so that we rotate fully all the way around and then perform the normal recovery phase, out of the water with the working arm. Breathing on every stroke will force a proper rotation with every stroke and really emphasise the rotation of the body around our imaginary centre line.
Once we have completed a length like that, we return using a full stroke for the next length. We continue to breath every stroke on one side and this should be the same side that we were breathing towards when doing the UNCO length. This again is to emphasise the body rotation and to connect the UNCO drill with our full freestyle stroke. Completing that lap, we will then do another UNCO lap but using the other arm and breathing the other way. Followed by a full freestyle stroke again to complete the repetition and on this one, breathing in the same direction as the previous UNCO length.
Reading that and, after trying this for the first time, you will understand why this drill is called the ‘uncoordinated drill’, as that is exactly how it feels. Less experienced swimmers or those with a weaker kick will benefit from using small fins while performing this drill. In fact, even those who have a good kick should probably use fins in order to be able to fully focus on what their arms and body are doing and not worry too much about moving forwards with good momentum.
Remember, that all drills are practicing a skill and how fast we do them is of no importance. We need to focus on how things feel when we isolate a certain part of the stroke and repeating that until it becomes ingrained into our full stroke.