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World Class Freestyle Swimming is at Your Fingertips

freestyle swimming
Photo Credit JD Lasica

If you could do only three things when learning world-class swimming, in all four strokes (ignoring dolphin kicking for the moment), create a fantastic sustainable catch, a propulsive driving kick, and to connect both with excellent body position for as long as possible. While certainly an oversimplification, it is an ever-present recurring theme in world-class freestyle swimming. 

And it is not as difficult as I just made it sound.

What is Freestyle Swimming?

Freestyle is the most commonly used of all four swimming strokes. Ask any breaststroke specialist their generalized feelings on that and after a huff, the next remark will be that at least it’s not backstroke.

Generally, in freestyle we are looking to develop has the following components:

  • Strong, effective kick.
  • Great catch out front.
  • Perfect breath timing within a stroke cycle.

These will be the ‘basic’ tenets as a starting point for building the stroke.

Freestyle Swimming Form

The ‘perfect’ centered freestyle stroke is effective from 100yd/m to 400m/500yd. And athletes with a high vo2 max can effectively carry this stroke into the 1500m/1650yd range. Sometimes even producing best in world results.

Any variations mainly arise from:

  • Less effective leg use resulting in necessary higher arm tempo
  • Short course vs. long course orientation (the 100yd and 100m freestyle are potentially different technical events)
  • The outer events (50fr and 1500/1650 free)

Sprint freestyle variations entail a higher tempo and often deeper, straighter catch. Because in most cases, the straighter catch is much more powerful and faster, but the energy cost is much greater.

For these reasons, the 100m freestyle can be a struggle for the straighter underwater puller (“straight arm” references underwater here – nothing to do with an above water recovery). Although there are times where straighter arm pullers produce faster performances, in many cases, they have more inconsistent results.

The simple analogy is a long broomstick wedged underneath a large refrigerator. Step on the stick near the fridge and it barely lifts off the ground. Stand further back on the stick and two things are possible – you flip the fridge or you break the stick.

Freestyle Kick

Always start with the kick. Flutter kicking is teachable. Think of the kick acts as a ‘whip like action’.

And while the precise sequencing required for an exceptional kick is difficult, remember flutter kick takes longer for most athletes to acquire than any other skill. And it’s not atypical to take between 7-21 days to acquire a new skill. So plan accordingly.

Great legs come from a well-sequenced kick timing. And having a stronger kick, and thus, a slightly slower tempo allows for the arm opposite the breathing side to catch the water sufficiently.

Freestyle Catch

With the catch, it is imperative that the hand entry point and path enter at, or just outside of the shoulder. The hand should never “cross over” in front of the face as it weakens the opportunity for a great early vertical forearm (EVF).

If the hand/arm is in a weak position at the beginning of the stroke, they will not be able to get their elbow to find the right angle and ultimately engage the body with the breath effectively.

If the hand is in the correct position at entry, the athlete is ready for getting the arm/elbow/hand in the most effective position for swimming speed and efficiency.

Two distinct models are appropriate for a ‘high elbow catch’. As alluded to earlier, one is for middle to distance swimming. The other is for shorter to middle distance swimming.  

If a swimmer tries the sharper, more distance oriented pull, and cannot seem to catch or feel the water, have them use the other model, even if they swim longer events. They may be able to come back and learn the ‘sharper’ model once they’ve acquired the more interchangeable/sprint oriented pull.

Having a faster tempo naturally ‘builds in’ efficiency loss ‘post breath.’ The head can’t get around fast enough to engage the whole body in all, but the most ‘connected’ athletes and the non-breathing arm slips through some or all of the catch.

This full engagement allows for complete ‘connectivity’ of the stroke during the weakest part of the stroke of many competitors. 

As the swimmer gets more adept at having the proper elbow position, begin to introduce breath timing. And be patient. As you learn a proper elbow catch and breath timing, there may be a ‘give and take’ where one skill improves, and the other suffers for a short period.

Freestyle Body Position

For optimal breath timing, the head must ‘come in’ after the breath just as the opposite arm begins to push backward.

Breath timing is often the most overlooked skill in proper freestyle swimming technique. Most athletes in the US, even at the national level, swim with improper breathing technique.

This error causes, for most swimmers, a chain reaction of skill degradation within the stroke. Resulting in a significant and magnified loss of efficiency and, as a result, end of the lap or race speed.

Freestyle Swimming Drills and Tips

Reinforcing breath timing during regular swimming sets with visual cues like ‘look at your hand’ (before they pull the non-breathing hand) seems to be very useful.

Try out three swimming drills to put all the pieces together by focusing on them independently. Or when stroke mechanics breakdown during hard training. What is freestyle swimming if not a sum of all the interdependent parts.

Human Paddle, Bow and Arrow, 2x Touch