If you only had a month of swim training to improve your freestyle, first create a fantastic sustainable catch, then a propulsive driving kick, and connect them with excellent body position. While certainly an oversimplification of elite swimmers, all successful freestyle swimmers from Duke Kahanamoku to Sarah Sjostrom will share some variation of the above.
What is Freestyle Swimming?
Freestyle is the most commonly used of all four strokes. Ask any breaststroke specialist their generalized feelings on that and after a huff, their next remark will be that at least it’s not the butterfly. Great freestylers develop the following components with their coaches:
- A strong, effective kick beneath the surface of the water.
- An early vertical forearm out front with high elbows, strong hands, and connected fingertips
- Maintain a constant rhythm for each arm cycle.
These will be the ‘basic’ tenets for any given race and/or swim workouts.
Correct freestyle swimming technique
The perfect freestyle stroke is effective from 100yd/m to 400m/500yd. And athletes with a high vo2 max can effectively carry this style into the 1500m/1650yd range. Sometimes even producing Olympic Games level results.
Any variations mainly arise from:
- Less effective leg use compensating with greater arm tempo during the recovery
- Short course vs. long course orientation (the 100yd and 100m freestyle are potentially different technical events)
- Outlier events (50fr and 1500/1650 free)
Sprint freestyle variations, like Nathan Adrian’s, entail a higher tempo and often deeper, straighter pull. Because in most cases, the straighter variation is far 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 beneath the surface here – nothing to do with an above water recovery). And while straighter arm movements can produce greater power output, in many cases, they have more inconsistent results.
A powerful flutter kick
Coaches – Always start with the kick! Strong flutter kicks are eminently teachable. Think of the kick as a ‘whip like action’.
And while the precise sequencing 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 left arm to hold ‘more’ water while the opposite arm remains in the recovery phase.
Explore the freestyle 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 hands/arms are in a weak position at the beginning of each cycle, athletes will not be able to get their elbow to find the range of motion to maximize distance per stroke.
While if the hand is in the correct position at entry, the athlete is ready for getting the fingertips into the most effective position for speed and efficiency.
Two distinct freestyle swimming models are appropriate for a ‘high early vertical forearm’. As alluded to earlier, one is for middle to distance oriented athletes. The other is for shorter to middle distance.
If you try the sharper, more distance oriented pull, and cannot seem to grab hold of or feel the water, have them use the other model. Even if they race 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 ‘drills in’ efficiency loss ‘post breath.’ The head can’t get around fast enough to engage the upper body in all, but the most ‘connected’ athletes. And the vertical forearm ‘slips’ through some or all of the underwater cycle.
This full engagement allows for complete ‘connectivity’ during the weakest phase. But be patient. As swimmers 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.
Body rotation starts with head position
For optimal breath timing, the head must ‘come in’ after the breath just as the opposite arm begins to push backward.
The ideal time to take a breath is often the most overlooked skill in proper freestyle swimming technique. Most athletes in the US, even at the national level, swim with an improper breathing motion that limits their power through the water.
Researchers at UNC found the following:
- drop elbow in pull-through (61%)
- drop elbow in recovery (53%)
- thumb-first hand entry angle (a major cause of shoulder pain for swimmers)
- eyes forward head carry (for those with shoulder impingement)
Instead, find a smooth motion to the head rotation, that allows you to ‘sneak a breath’ right at the water surface. Make sure to slowly exhale underwater to allow for sufficient time to inhale in a rhythm that mimics dry land.
Poor timing with the over the water recovery causes a chain reaction of skill degradation. Resulting in a significant and magnified loss of efficiency and, as a result, end of the lap or race speed.
Freestyle tips and drills
And to maximize those time drops, try out three helpful drills to put all the pieces together by focusing on them independently. Or when mechanics breakdown during hard training. What is freestyle if not a sum of all the interdependent parts?