The term “drill(s)” rings somewhat of a military, stay-in-line, in-synch, on-cue sort of tune for many people. For others, especially those in construction work, a drill is a tool that you use to build something, keep something straight, connect pieces together, and ultimately help create something. Drills also appear in music. For example, piano players use drills to improve finger dexterity, quicken the manipulation of finger motions from one key to the next, prevent injury, improve technique, all for playing a piece of music smoothly and flawlessly, like a beautiful piece of art.
In sports, drills serve the exact same purposes as those mentioned above: they keep the body in-line, in-synch, on-cue, create fluid motion, and help one part of the body move in front of the other part of the body in a smooth and efficient manner. Drills are movements that are over-exaggerations of different components of a sport, such as in a swimming stroke, bike pedal revolution, and running stride. By practicing the combination of different drills in a sport, you end up being like our friends in construction above and using a drill for building purposes—you put the different components of the sport together to create a beautiful piece of art in motion…you!
What are the various drills one can perform to improve their swimming, biking, and running styles? There are quite a few. In fact, for swimming alone, along with all the different strokes, there are literally hundreds. We will focus on one drill per triathlon discipline (swim, bike, run) in this article.
One of the best drills for swimming is the “finger drag” drill. The title probably gives away the idea of the drill. As you swim front-crawl, you want to drag your fingers across the water on the recovery part of the stroke.
Many people think that when their arms come out of the water, this air motion is what propels them forward. While this is the only part of the stroke that is visible to the human eye, this air motion is actually the recovery part of the stroke, and here, the term “high elbow” is important.
As you drag your fingers across the water, from the back and side, towards the front of the body, for re-entry of your hand, you are essentially overemphasizing recovery. Naturally, if the swimmer is in a race, this recovery will be shortened. For practice, though, this proper form will help the swimmer understand that the propulsion from the stroke happens in the water, and not in the air!
Next, in biking, I often include “one-legged” drills in my cycling classes. Again, the title for this drill is pretty self-explanatory. You use one leg at a time. To start, I encourage my class to “climb a hill.” Here in Morgantown, West Virginia, I help my class visualize the different hills we climb, such as the notorious College of Law Hill, as well as Sixth Street.
For readers that are unfamiliar with Morgantown, if you saw these hills, you would chuckle, and know that this “climb a hill” instruction in class really means “climb a STEEP hill!” So, we crank up our resistance, but never enough so that we cannot complete 60 rpm (revolutions per minute). There is usually music to accompany this hill climb. As we climb with one leg, for one minute, we press down with the ball of the foot, keep the leg cycling in a bilateral motion, and perform a revolution while imagining scraping mud off the bottom of the shoe. This visual cue encourages riders to engage their hamstrings, glutes, and calves so that the ride is not a quad-only workout!
Then, when we get to the top of that hill, we use both legs together, and power up the hill. After that, we switch legs, and do the same routine—one leg, and then both legs together to the top of the hill. After that hill exercise, I quickly switch to a “flat road,” or higher rpm interval (90 – 110 rpm, but not higher than this) for about 2-3 minutes. There should still be some resistance on the bike for this quicker section. Transitioning from climbing a hill while performing a drill, to a “regular” flat-road 90 rpm pace, enforces and enhances the use of proper form.
Lastly, running drills. My favorite! I have been doing “As, Bs, and Cs,” for about 23 years…wow, time flies! I’ll never forget learning how to perform running drills when I was 14 years old with the Toronto Olympic Club. There were national team members at that club, and I was a youngster. Learning from the pros was an amazing experience.
I will explain “Cs” here, and feel free to look up As and Cs, which are extremely helpful as well! These “Cs” are also called “Butt Kicks,” so again, it’s pretty self-explanatory—you kick your heels up, one at a time, to your buttocks. This motion engages the hamstrings, glutes, calves, and Achilles tendons. These should be done after a warm-up but before a hard speed session.
Running drills help improve running economy, and when the runner is fatigued, by practicing these drills, helps the runner maintain proper form, so that there is no wasted motion and energy.
Practice your drills
So, let’s get to it folks! Practice those drills at least twice a week, per sport. If you’re doing triathlons, that means you’re doing drills almost every day! For those triathletes, or long-distance athletes out there, you know how you feel when you’ve only got a few miles to go. Your form starts to fall apart…in a million pieces. Practice drills, and your form, and thus your overall time, will improve! So, let’s put those pieces together, and build a masterpiece…you!