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Technical Endurance Swimming: Swim Slow to Go Fast

BY Dan Bullock

Now is the time for slowing down your swim stroke so you can master the technique and endurance necessary for big speed gains next year.

Most of my triathletes are not doing any extremely difficult workouts in the pool as in the Northern Hemisphere they are now done with racing and open-water swimming. I hope to lure them back into the pool after the usual post-IRONMAN World Championship/ end of season break by offering a lot of short, technical interruptions in the middle of longer, 2,000-4,000 yard sets. During this time of year I use swim toys creatively to challenge and interrupt the swimming autopilot we are all often guilty of during the racing season. Too much cruising and it’s all too easy to stop thinking about what we are hoping to achieve from a particular set or drill.

During these winter months I often use the first 15 yards of a pool’s lane line (often highlighted a different color such as red) as a guideline for various drills and breath control throughout the workout. Now is the time of year to do these types of workouts, which I refer to as technical endurance swimming.  

Here is an example of a warmup and cooldown that uses these types of short, focused drills and use of equipment:

Warmup (2-3X)

  • 100 Free, with the first 75 with a pull buoy between thighs
  • 50 Free, with the first  25 with a pull buoy between your ankles  


  • 8 x 25 Free with 4 strokes fists clenched, 4 strokes fast arms, then easy the rest of the length
  • Rest 15 seconds between 25s

Technical Endurance Main Set (see below)


  • 100 technical Free with paddles, fins and a snorkel 
  • 50 Free at a medium pace
  • 50 Free at an easy pace

With a drill-focused warmup and cooldown, I add a steady fitness element with a 1,500m (or yard) main set that offers steady aerobic output with a focus on technique.

Technical Endurance Main Set #1

  1. Swim 5 X 300m (or yards) resting 30 seconds in between them as follows: 
  2. Fists clenched Freestyle for the first 5 meters of each length 
  3. Legs only for the first and last 5 meters of each length (arms folded on head as you push off, by your side as you finish each length)
  4. Breath control/no breathing for the first and last 5 meters of each length
  5. Wear fins but point them downwards in first and last 5 meters of each length to feel surplus drag and work the arms harder.
  6. Scull off the wall. Pivot at the elbow, fingertips to the bottom of the pool, palms to push out to the pool walls then return to facing each other. 

While we all have a goal of getting faster, right now it’s important to focus more on swimming well. Especially after a season of open-water swimming, which can undo a lot of good technique. I encourage slow swimming for heightened accuracy, improved hand and arm pathways and to fix bad habits that may have arisen during racing season.There is little to be gained with hard efforts at the moment  and the body and mind need to recuperate.

A fresh approach to swim training will lead to more stimulus to improve. I have a lot of slower swimmers who add giant pull buoys to keep up—they are doing themselves no favors—I call this lazy swimming. You are covering up a multitude of issues in your freestyle technique that might really impede your race day if the temperatures go up and you can’t wear a wetsuit. 

Slow swimming can be good because it allows you to be accurate, slow means ingraining new good habits and erasing bad habits. Most importantly, slow is what happens before you start swimming fast closer to race season. Don’t be in a hurry to leave this period of your swim journey. The ads promise great returns in speed with the latest piece of equipment or style of session but slow is a good place to be for a while while you make use of active recovery and learn proper movements permanently. The following main set focuses on your hand position and strength, causing you to slow down your stroke and feel the water. 

Technical Endurance Main Set #2

  1. Fists open/closed, 300m Free relaxed swimming with fins. Alternate lengths with odds normal Freestyle and even lengths keep your fists clenched for 3 strokes, then swim normally for 3 strokes.Make use of the forearm while the hand size is diminished.
  2. Alternate hands fists/fingers splayed 300m Free relaxed swimming. Swim alternate lengths as follows:  Right hand fist clenched, left hand fingers wide apart/ left hand fist clenched, right hand fingers wide apart. Make use of the forearm while the hand size is diminished. Try to maintain similar levels of propulsion despite the discrepancies in hand shape and size.
  3. SPS (single paddle swimming), 300m Free relaxed swimming with a single paddle as follows: 100m with right hand normal, left hand with the paddle, 100m left hand normal, right hand with a paddle, 50m using both paddles, 50m normal Free.
  4. Fists/fingers splayed, 300m Free relaxed swimming with pull buoy: Swim alternate lengths, fists clenched/fingers wide apart.
  5. Hand strength routine: 3x100m Free progressing with each 100, focus on your hand strength and propulsion. Rest 30 seconds in between each 100. 

Don’t mistake swimming slow for swimming less often. Even with best intentions before you know it is almost the weekend and that Monday night squad session is a distant memory. I encourage swimmers to count sessions per month to avoid the habit of being content with a good week and then letting it slide. Aiming for 14 sessions per month is a far more worthwhile and productive objective. Two to three of these sessions per week can then be slower, technical and more accurate. After a few months of swimming in this manner you will be able to add in more anaerobic sets and notice a big difference in your overall speed and technique.

Read part two of our technical endurance series HERE.

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About Dan Bullock

A respected figure in the swimming community, Dan is a Speedo Coaching Advisor, Vasa Coaching Advisor, and a coach with the London Disability Swimming Club. The founder of Swim For Tri, Dan regularly contributes to Tri247.com, H2Open magazine and was the H2Open Coach of the Year 2004 and runner up Coach of the Year 2016.