Why Your Coach Makes You Train Your “Off” Strokes

We all have the things we excel at—and things we don’t—in the water. Strokes included. Here is why coach is having you train them.

We all have our strong strokes and distances.

They are our bread and butter. It’s the stroke that we lean on to carry us through the tough sets in practice, the stroke we automatically default to when coach scribbles “choice” or “best stroke” on the whiteboard.

And so it feels a little unfair or pointless when we are asked to specifically not work on this stroke during practice. Where coach has seemingly gone out of his way to create a set that will have you swimming your worst strokes for super un-fun distances and intervals.

No, your coach isn’t doing this for the sole pleasure of watching you struggle. (Though perhaps a few of them are…)

There is actually a lot of value in training your other, “off” strokes as well as your favorite one.

Here is why you should embrace the horror of training the strokes you try so hard to ignore in practice.

See Also: 40 Ultimate Workouts for Competitive Swimmers

Why You Should Train Your “Off” Strokes

Here are a few reasons that swimming your less-than-awesome strokes in practice will help you ultimately swim faster:

Helps to keep you from being a one-trick pony.

Here are some chlorinated fun-facts for ya…

While right now you may absolutely love doing only freestyle, back, breast or butterfly (fly or die!), you never know where your career will take you.

Training your other strokes and kicks creates a foundation from which you can use later in your career to diversify.

Early specialization is overrated; we think that in order to succeed we need to pick one stroke at the age of 6 and train only that bad boy for the rest of our swim careers.

We latch on to the stories of prodigies like Mozart and Tiger Woods who were both very early specializers and (mistakenly) believe this is the only way that a swimmer can be successful.

In reality, developing a complete swimmer from the beginning insures that they have a big foundation to grow on as they mature as athletes, and avoid the stress and burnout that comes with only being good at one thing.

It will develop your feel for the water.

At its heart swimming fast is not about being stronger than the next guy or gal. It’s about being efficient. It’s about learning the best way to manipulate and pull/kick your way through the water.

Applying different types of pulling and kicking motions will help you improve feel for the water by forcing you to mix it up during training. Think of those off-strokes as drill work for your main strokes.

Playing around with how your hands react with and against the water doing strokes you aren’t as comfortable with will only help your main stroke(s).

Helps build aerobic capacity without taxing your main stroke.

Regardless of your event swimmers need a solid foundation of aerobic work.

It’s not just mindless, garbage yards—developing an aerobic base helps power future performances. As Bob Bowman is fond of saying, it’s about building a bigger cup (with the race speed work being what you fill the cup with).

Doing all this work doing only your main stroke would be shockingly tedious or downright brutal (ahem, butterfliers), and the mass of yardage opens the door to fatigue and poor stroke mechanics, a ripe combo for over-use injuries included our dreaded nemesis, swimmer’s shoulder.

Mixing up the longer, general training with off-strokes allows you to avoid the physical strain that comes with performing the exact same stroke for what feels like forever.

Variety is the spice of life.

And then, of course, there is the mental aspect of training the same stroke over and over.

Swimming is already a monotonous sport. We swim thousands of laps, back and forth. Every day, over and over again until what seems like the end of time. Doing the same stroke for all of that time spent in the water is a sure-fire way to speed up burn out.

Beyond the mental break of doing an off-stroke for once, training the other strokes gives you a fresh set of challenges and bests to improve on during practice.

In the same way that general athleticism makes for better, more-rounded swimmers, having proficiency in the other strokes helps you become a better rounded athlete in the pool.

The Takeaway

Yes, I know how frustrating it can be when coach writes up a workout that seems to purposely avoid your favorite or best stroke.

Having to train the strokes you aren’t as good at sucks. And few things suck more than sucking. But even though it looks like he or she is messing with you, there is a method to the madness.

Instead of grumbling use it as an opportunity to get into better shape, fine-tune your relationship with how you move through the water, and use it as a break from training your money-maker.


Olivier Poirier-Leroy is a former national level swimmer. He’s the publisher of YourSwimBook, a ten-month log book for competitive swimmers.

Conquer the Pool Mental Training Book for SwimmersHe’s also the author of the recently published mental training workbook for competitive swimmers, Conquer the Pool: The Swimmer’s Ultimate Guide to a High Performance Mindset.

It combines sport psychology research, worksheets, and anecdotes and examples of Olympians past and present to give swimmers everything they need to conquer the mental side of the sport.

Ready to take your mindset to the next level?

Click here to learn more about Conquer the Pool.

COACHES & CLUBS: Yuppers–we do team orders of “Conquer the Pool” which includes a team discount as well as complimentary branding (your club logo on the cover of the book) at no additional charge.

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4 years ago

I think injury prevention is another reason.

cynthia curran
Reply to  anonymous
4 years ago

Good point, I liked the Im swimming training myself.

Reply to  anonymous
2 years ago

Agreed. Avoiding major imbalances is huge. Research even seems to indicate that primary muscles for main strokes can be maintained or strengthened during times of injury by swimming off strokes.

Reply to  WSCoach
2 years ago

Same- Nice article, SwimSwam.

4 years ago

To train the others strokes develop muscle fibers that the other way can’t. At moments which main fibers of a particular stroke are exhausted secondary fibers (main muscle fibers of other stroke) could help to perform and squeeze that extra effort.

2 years ago

I’m a distance swimmer but used to be a backstroker but I just stalled at back and my coach wanted me to train 2 free (my third best event behind 2 back and 1 back) and that eventually went to 5 free which turned into 1000 and mile and I totally get training off strokes no matter how much I hate training fly

About Olivier Poirier-Leroy

Olivier Poirier-Leroy

Olivier Poirier-Leroy has been involved in competitive swimming for most of his life. Starting off at the age of 6 he was thrown in the water at the local pool for swim lessons and since then has never wanted to get out. A nationally top ranked age grouper as both a …

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