The Anatomy Of Great Freestyle Swimming

Nate Boyle
freestyle swimming
Photo credit: jdlasica

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?

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

Freestyle swimmers develop the following components with their coaches:

  • Strong, effective kick beneath the surface.
  • A great catch out front with high elbows, strong hands, and connected fingertips
  • Maintain a constant rhythm for each arm stroke.

These will be the ‘basic’ tenets to build a great stroke technique for a given race and/or swim workouts.

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 stroke 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
  • 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 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 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 Freestyle Kick

Swim coaches – Always start with the kick. Flutter kicking is teachable. Think of the kick acts 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 catch and hold water while the opposite arm remains in the recovery phase.

Explore the Freestyle Catch

With the catch, it is imperative that the hand entry point and path enter at, or just outside of the shoulder muscles. 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 the stroke, swimmers 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 ino 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 ‘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 catch.

This full engagement allows for complete ‘connectivity’ of the stroke 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.

Freestyle Body Position 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.

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 Drills and Tips

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

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