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 burnout.

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.

Want more details? Click here for a free estimate on a team order of CTP.

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Tea rex
1 year ago

Phelps helped change a lot of people’s minds about this in the mid ‘00s. If he just stuck to butterfly, he’d either a) do a lot less yardage, and build less of his legendary aerobic base. B) swim lots of survival butterfly with poor technique.

1 year ago

Never believed in that. When you are a flyer just swim fly and don’t cry

Reply to  swimfin5
1 year ago

Lol buddy should we talk about your fly times?? Easy to say when you’re a freestyler 🤣.

Love ya pal.

3 years ago

I just do it cause I’m mean.

Ol' Longhorn
3 years ago

I’d add in mental strain (even CNS fatigue) to the list — not just physical strain. You can only hammer so much mentally, and the switch to off strokes can give a mental break, even if tough. The same CNS patterns aren’t continuously firing.

Reply to  Ol' Longhorn
3 years ago


4 years ago

When my son started 10th grade, he was primarily a backstroker, with a good fly as well. His breaststroke was his weakest stroke and, therefore, had a mediocre IM. He switched to a club that focused on ALL strokes, started to excel in breastroke and now swims D1, having been recruited for breast and IM.

4 years ago

I spoke to Greg Troy at a coaching clinic and he said the 1st 2 months or so, maybe up to November he trained Caeleb Dressel in the 400 IM lane…he’s arguably the most complete IMer since the phelps/lochte era, and while not sure if he’ll ever swim it LCM, or at trials/olympics, I would love to see it. He has to have a 1:55 or faster in him.

Ol' Longhorn
Reply to  jim
3 years ago

First to argue with “arguably” would be Mr. Kalisz.

Ol' Longhorn
4 years ago

Lest we forget, Caleb Dressel trained his “off strokes” to a World title (100 fly) and three NCAA records (100 fly, 200 IM, 100 breast – since broken). I can remember Bobo complaining about how Dressel swimming sprint breast on relays was killing his chances at becoming a world class LCM freestyle sprinter.

Reply to  Ol' Longhorn
4 years ago

well pointed out ……

Reply to  Ol' Longhorn
1 year ago

And now his best event is probably the 100 fly.

4 years ago

Off stroke exercise should be closely monitored by the coach. They can be bIeneficial for the reasons mentioned in the article or can have no effect or can be even harmful to the performance in main stroke/distance. In this regard there is no difference between off-stroke training and dry land/weights exercises.
If to believe to widespread opinion about Sarah Sjostrom’s magnificent 2017 season then it happened solely due to not swimming anything that is longer than 100m and focusing exclusively on primary stroke and distance. Even her two best strokes haven’t coexisted peacefully. When she progressed in fly her freestyle performance was in stagnation and vice versa.
Katie Ledecky made substantial progress in 40OIM SCY during last two… Read more »

Reply to  Yozhik
4 years ago

I think you missed the point of the article. The article’s audience is for age group or senior swimmers who are not at the elite level. For these swimmers, development should be a high priority seeling muscular balance and versatility. I don’t think anyone will argue that specialization for college and pro swimmers is prpbably recommended. However, Nathan Adrian and Calaeb Dressel have incorporated longer, more aerobic training this year.

Reply to  SwimmerOH
4 years ago

Yes, I missed it. Probably the historical examples of world record holders and Olympic champions let me think otherwise.

Reply to  SwimmerOH
4 years ago

There’s also very interesting historical example that should be presented in this article: that is Missy Franklin with her 1:39.10 in 200free SCY. The time that was/is beyond approach by world class sprinters, by the fastest ever woman in 200free LCM, by the best ever freestyler capable to be great from 100 through 1500LCM. And yet Missy Franklin wasn’t trained for and focused specifically on this event during college season. Her dual meet performances in this event were at mediocre level. She doesn’t hold the record in her home pool. But she’s swum a lot of junk (off) events. She was at the top in 200IM competition. So the question is: this phenomenal result in NCAA final in 200 free… Read more »

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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