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Swimming Terms and Abbreviations

Swimming, like other sports, has its own language that makes absolutely no sense to anyone who hasn’t been exposed to it.

To help you get the most out of the blog, this page has a list of the terms and abbreviations we regularly use when coaching open water swimmers and triathletes.

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Swimming Terms


– Most people know that there are four strokes in swimming; freestyle, backstroke, butterfly and breaststroke. For open water swimming and triathlon, freestyle is the stroke of choice for racing and most of your training.

2-Beat Kick

– For long-distance, open water and triathlon swimming the kick is used mostly to stabilise the body during the stroke cycle rather than to push the body forward. The 2-beat refers to the frequency of kicking vs each stroke. Faster swimmers may use a 4 or 6 beat kick at the start of the race to quickly accelerate away from the pack, but then their kick will slow to a 2 beat once they are into their race pace rhythm.

Tumble Turns

– A quick and efficient technique to change direction upon reaching the end of the pool. Tumble turns allow swimmers to push off from the wall for the next length without losing too much speed. Performing Tumble Turns is not essential for open water swimmers or triathletes to master, but they do help when swimming in a squad.

Body roll

– This refers to the tilting of the body from one side to the other during the stroke cycle. Your body should be tilting between 40 and 60 degrees, but your head should remain straight in the water until you go to breathe.

Bilateral breathing

– Breathing to both left and right sides. This helps to create smooth and even strokes. It also helps to develop a balanced body roll. This is essential to swimming great freestyle. Usually, you breathe after a set of three strokes, alternating with breathing in on the left stroke on the first set, and then on the right on the second.


– Starting with simple exercises focusing on a particular part of your swim technique. They may be used to correct biomechanical “mistakes” or to strengthen sectors of your stroke.


– Gliding is when there is a pause in your stroke where you are not being propelled through the water. Gliding shouldn’t last too long but it is useful for long-distance swimmers.

Body position

– The position of the upper and lower body relative to the surface of the water. For you to be as streamlined, your body should be as flat in the water, and as close to the surface as possible.

Catch Phase

  • The front sector of the propulsion phase of freestyle swim stroke after the hand has entered the water

Pull Phase

  • The middle sector of the propulsion phase of freestyle swim stroke after the catch has been completed

Push Phase

  • The rear sector of the propulsion phase of freestyle swim stroke before the hand exiting the water behind the hips

Recovery Phase

  • The non-propulsion phase of freestyle swim stroke when the hand is above the water travelling to the entry point

High Elbows

  • a technique used to ensure the hand (after entry) is propelling the body forward for as much of the propulsive phase as possible.

Swimming Workout Abbreviations

WU: – Warm-Up. The preparation phase of the workout to get the muscles ready for the demands of the main set.

MS: – Main Set. The “work” phase of a workout. Also MS2: Main Set 2 when the main set is split into two parts.

LD: – Loosen Down. The recovery phase of the workout that helps transition the body back to a normal pre-workout state.

Z1, Z2, Z3, Z4, Z5 – Training Zones expressed in pace or heart rate ranges. You can calculate yours by completing the CSS test.

CSSCritical Swim Speed. A field test used to determine the fastest pace you can maintain without accumulating fatigue, to benchmark your progress between training phases and calculate your training paces.

Paddles – A training tool that fits on the hands to provide a greater surface area and to help correct sectors of the stroke.

Pull Buoy – A training tool that fits between the legs to provide lift for the legs and a little resistance.

Kick – kicking set. Usually performed with a kicking board otherwise with no board, are out ahead of you using a snorkel to breathe.

Send Off Time – the duration to complete one and start the next interval. For example, 10 x 100m on a 1:40 send off means swim ten 100m intervals starting each interval after 1 minute and 40 seconds. If you swim the 100m in 1 minute and 30 seconds, you get 10 seconds to rest before starting the next one until you have completed ten.

Rest – duration, in seconds, of rest periods between intervals or set of intervals.

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Drills for Open Water Swimming and Triathlon

triathlon swim start

Swimming is a very difficult sport to master. Getting the timing of the arms to synchronize with the opposite action of the legs while keeping the body straight requires massive concentration…and then you still have to remember to breathe.

Swimming drills are the easiest way to learn to swim efficiently by breaking down the stroke in “bite-sized” chunks that can be mastered individually and then combined later.

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What are swimming drills?

A drill is a technique exercise done specifically to improve your swimming technique. They are usually a scaled-down version of one of the stroke.

A technique exercise or drill is only efficient if it’s done in the correct way.

Why do swimming drills?

Water is extremely dense in comparison to air. At sea level, water is 784 times denser than air.

Drag is a type of friction – a force acting opposite to the relative motion of any object moving with respect to the surrounding fluid.

Reducing one’s drag in swimming is the single most important component to improving swimming speed and endurance.

What are the benefits of doing swim drills?

Efficient open-water swimming and triathlon swimming is 70% dependant on correct body position and technique, 20% muscular endurance and 10% strength. Together with improving body position, drills are crucial to improving swimming technique.

Drills make it easier to learn to efficient swimming technique

Learning a new skill like swimming can definitely be overwhelming. Coordinating arms and legs while holding the body straight and breathing is just too many things to focus on.

Drills are useful in correcting biomechanical issues

Often athletes who have no formal swimming training history, have poor biomechanical habits.

Drills, together with using training tools like a pull buoy, snorkel or fins, make it easier to isolate sectors of the stroke so that biomechanical issues can be corrected.

Drills are used to avoid future injuries

When athletes start adding extra distance or intensity on top of poor biomechanical form, overuse imbalances and injury soon follow.

Correcting imbalances early with the use of swimming drills and land training means athletes can safely add distance and intensity to their training regime.

How do swimming drills help swimmers and triathletes?

You can quote me on this:

"Fast efficient swimming develops not from overcoming drag, 
it comes from offering less resistance to the water."

Drills are used to isolate the problem

Swimming is a very complex series of movements. For the novice swimmer, it is overwhelming to have to consider the position of the feet, bending the elbows, swinging the arms and rotating the hips all while remembering to exhale. Being overwhelmed, many novices are driven into panic mode and cannot then focus on correct swimming form.

The easiest method of dissipating the overwhelm is to break the swim stroke down into easier, “bite-sized” chunks. Isolating each part of the stroke and concentrating on that in the form of a drill.

Drills are used to help correct the problem

Practice makes perfect. People are lazy and will more often than not choose the path of least resistance. Once the poor technique is learned, it is extremely challenging to unlearn it. Even when we understand the right thing to do, we tend to gravitate back to old bad “comfortable” habits. The new stroke or body will always feel “awkward” and “uncomfortable” at first. 

To reinforce the correct habit you have been learning by doing the isolation drill, you should swim a length practising the exact technique you have just drilled.

Drills are used to help keep the problem corrected

Devoting one extra swim session per week to just doing drills and drill/swims is a way to get faster. We usually mark these sessions as recovery swims.

While getting fitter is an important component to swimming faster, spending a few minutes at the beginning of each practice working on specific drills to help correct your weak points will help you become a better swimmer.

Drills for the Novice swimmer/triathlete.

The novice swimmers’ stroke generally displays the same problems:

  • they bend at the hips dragging their feet
  • they kick from the knees
  • their shoulders are flat with no rotation and a short reach
  • their pull is led by the elbow; they do not catch

The best “fixes” for a novice are: 

  • teaching them how to catch, and
  • correcting the body position

One-Arm Drill

One of the best ways to learn to pull with a high elbow underwater is by doing one-arm drills. Holding one arm in front, swim with one arm only, rotating from side to stomach, but focusing on the high elbow position as the single-arm pulls through. It is much easier to grasp the concept of swimming with high elbows, after practising with each arm alone.

One arm drills will help you:

  • work the “catch”, “pull-through” and “recovery” phases of your stroke, as well as
  • help you understand the important part your core plays in developing an efficient freestyle

An easier method for the novice is to learn this drill is to do 5x 1-arm strokes with the left arm, 5x 1-arm strokes with the right arm, then do 5x full strokes. 

As you become better at the drill, do 7 strokes, then 9 ….until you can complete a full length with just 1 arm.

Remember, as with ALL drills, master the technique and don’t race to the other end of the pool.

Catch-Up Freestyle Drill

One of the classic freestyle drills and one of our favourites, it is a little more advanced than the one-arm drill. Once the One-Arm drill can be comfortably practised, it is time to include the Catch-Up drill. 

We use the Catch-Up drill for swimmers and triathletes from novice age-groupers to advanced Ironman athletes.

Like the one-arm drill, holding the left arm in front, swim with the right arm only, rotating from side to stomach, but focusing on the high elbow position as the right arm pulls through. On the recovery, place the right hand on top of the left hand, then repeat the process with the left arm. 

Catch-up freestyle helps isolate the arm movement, which makes it easier to teach novice swimmers, proper mechanics. It helps with distance per stroke while also promoting a good hand entry that doesn’t cross-over the midline. 

The Catch-Up drill also encourages the swimmers to use a fuller and more balanced flutter kick in order to sustain propulsion and maintain a good, low drag body position.

“If you can’t do it slow, you can’t do it fast.”

my first girlfriend –

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