All 5 Freestyle Stroke Segments explained – Easier, faster, more enjoyable swimming

Updated: Nov 13



Swimming with good technique makes swimming easier, faster, and more enjoyable.


Practicing technically sound freestyle, which enables the full engagement of all Primary Muscles that play a role in the freestyle Stroke Cycle results in those muscles being conditioned to a fitness level to execute the stroke.


Learning proper technique will expand your potential, and swimming pleasure, rather than putting up with a technique you have evolved into or have not been coached to experience.


Adopting this aim, is good for every type of swimmer, from swim for fitness through to the highest level of competition.


This article takes you through all you need to know.


Get the gliding through the water feel!

Given the media coverage swimmers and swimming receive, you may have seen vision of Olympic and like level swimmers swimming, in training, at less than race pace.


If so, you will notice how effortlessly they make swimming freestyle look and how much distance they cover with each stroke.


The reason for this is their swim technique produces:

  • A refined and maximised propulsive force in the pull

  • Their positioning in the water through the stoke cycle, has been practiced to reduced drag

This means they have an effortless momentum moving them through the water.


If on the other hand you have only seen them race at the Olympics and like competitions, you will see how fast they are.


In the high levels of competition, these two components combine for results where finishing positions are judged electronically to the 1/100ths of a second.

  • Swim fitness training

  • Technique effectiveness

Many people find the combination of these two elements as great motivation to develop the best technique they can.


There is no better feeling than gliding through the water when you swim, versus fighting for momentum every stroke.


Your stroke is individual to you

When viewing an Olympic final or an international level event, where the whole field can finish within a second or two, notice that every swimmer has a different looking technique.


We can take from this that stroke technique is individual to each swimmer.

This includes you.


So, what are we looking to do, to swim with good technique and what does that mean?


The technique of swimming freestyle is highly interactive with all moving body parts interacting in the 3D environment of water.


So, the first two overarching aims in freestyle technique are:

  • Maximise the propulsive force of the pulling arms

  • Minimise drag across the entire body

Whether you swim for fitness, or for performance in racing, achieving these 2 aims will mean you are swimming with an effective an efficient technique.

To achieve this, we need to:

  • Obtain the best biomechanical advantage for the arms to produce power

  • Use the best technique for your style to maximise the use of the primary muscles for freestyle

Easier Swimming - Primary Freestyle muscle engagement



All movement and stabilisation of the body will engage Primary and Secondary muscles.


Primary exercise muscles are the strongest for the activity you are doing.


Swimmers develop the stamina (the ability to sustain an activity for extended periods) particularly in these Primary muscles and the muscles themselves become toned (Muscle tone is defined as the passive-partial contraction of the muscle)


This state provides a fit and healthy look of the body as well as other benefits including helping posture.


Good freestyle technique will use the most efficient muscles i.e., the Primary muscles which are the strongest for the activity of freestyle, and when they become trained, they become stronger, improve their endurance and will also resist fatigue.


Put it another way, if your technique uses more of the Secondary muscles in the freestyle technique they will fatigue more quickly, making you tired/fatigued which will slow your freestyle swimming.


This premature fatiguing will also affect the distances you can swim and the number of repeats in a set you can do, which in turn will limit your fitness potential.


So, lets dive in and review the basics of swimming freestyle with a good technique.


The freestyle Stroke Cycle

When swimming freestyle each arm goes through 5 stages of the stroke cycle, which are:

Propulsion

  • Entry

  • Pull stage 1

  • Pull stage 2

Recovery

  • Stage 1

  • Stage 2

When reading the detail in each of these stages, it is helpful to remember:

  • Your swim style is individual to you so accommodations via technique modifications are likely needed to achieve the biomechanical fundamentals to suit your style

  • All ACTIONS in your swim style are connected and are interactive as you are in a 3D water environment where all actions will balance with other actions (Newtons 3rd law below)

  • Stroke technique corrections need to be done in a priority order that is specific to your swimming style as they will change other parts of the technique

  • The positions noted are the biomechanical fundamentals to achieve best power, lowest drag, at the most economical energy output – your cardiorespiratory capacity is the ‘engine’ that supports all described making energy economy critically important


Entry - 1 of 5 in the Stroke cycle

· From Hand water entry, up to Pull Stage 1 commencement

This Stage covers the entry of the hand in the water up to the start of the pull


how to improve freestyle swimming
Finger tip, accelerating hand entry. Note entry length in front of head: image from 200m Freestyle women 2020 Olympics

Insight

The entry of the hand serves several important functions in freestyle.


Proper placement will produce the least frontal drag, and an aggressive, accelerating entry.


An aggressive entry in the stroke cycle is the first part of Newtons Third Law “that for every action there is an equal of opposite reaction


In the timing of the stroke the hand entry will coincide with the most powerful stage of the pulling hand, therefore an aggressive, accelerating hand entry will provide an equal and opposite reaction to the pulling hand i.e., producing maximum power in the pulling/propulsive hand.


The proviso here is that the pulling arm is using its full range of motion. I shall talk about that in Pull Stage 2


Upon entry the hand will do one of two movements.

The movement described here is where the hand pushes forward, prior to engaging in Pull Stage 1 (below)

  • This is the technique that I recommend for all swimming, except perhaps for some competitive 50m competition swimmers.

This technique style is a Speed Endurance technique which is characterised by low drag, high power potential and economical energy output.


Having said that, this technique lends itself to swimming very, like world’s best, fast.


Two of the most successful swimmers in Olympic history Michael Phelps (28 Olympic Medals) and Ian Thorpe (9 Olympic medals) use this freestyle entry and pull technique.

It is also the technique of the 2022 Commonwealth Games 100m freestyle women winner Mollie O'Callaghan.


After entry the arm positions mostly parallel to the surface of the water and pushing forward the arm, with the hand VERY importantly, remaining in line with the shoulder, as the shoulder was positioned when the hand entered the water.


The push forward comes from the shoulder, which moves forward, of course making the hand extend its reach. This action minimises frontal drag.


Depending upon the propulsion level generated at the end of Pull Stage 2, the pause before commencing Pull Stage 1, while in a low drag position will vary.


Breathing

To maintain power in the pulling arm and to minimise drag, the breathing action of the head turn should commence just before the entry of the hand.


The action needs to keep the head in line with the posture of the body, with the head turning directly to the side just enough to breathe effectively, being careful not to over-rotate the head.


It is common in elite level speed swimming that the head will turn for the breath earlier than described, to produce greater levels of power (which is more fatiguing).



Video: Shows David Popovici World Record 100m Freestyle. See his early head turn for breath and early head turn back.

Adds to power potential of the stroke and speed. A powerful stroke option best suited to 50 and 100m racing

A late head turn to breathe and late turn back, reduces power potential and speed in all freestyle swimming.


Triathlon, Surf, Open water

Another reason to vary the pause is related to where you are swimming.

Swimming in surf or open water competitions, or in a Triathlon the pause at the front of the pull can be limited, dependent on how surface chop or other competitors taping you are affecting your momentum.

In these cases, pull earlier while keeping the same technique basics.


Actions

The optimum entry position includes:

  • Finger first entry, with arm extended

  • Hand entry In line with the shoulder

  • After the fingertip entry the forearm follows in through the ‘hole’ the hand makes

  • The breathing action is an important Supporting Action in the longitudinal rotation of the shoulders and upper body

  • The head should be turning slightly before the hand enters the water

  • When the head is not turning to breathe, and at all stages of the Stroke Cycle, the head needs to be held in alignment with the body, and kept still, not partially rotating, not moving side to side or up and down.

  • The shoulders and upper body rotate longitudinally around this stationary head position


Common mistakes include:

  • Placing the hand in water short, and then pushing the hand forward underwater (lots of frontal drag)

  • An over extended arm, landing it flat in the water

  • Hand entry inside or outside of the shoulder line

  • Having the arm bent on entry, (boomerang shape), which often creates an elbow or tricep first entry

  • Moving the head and/or not keeping it aligned with the body

  • The upper body rotating around its longitudinal axis when the arm pushes forward

  • Having the hand/arm moving to, or over the centre line of the body

  • An unwanted hyper-extension of the shoulder/arm

  • These actions lead to an over-rotation of the body which reduces the action and power of the Primary muscles in Pull Stage 1

Pull Stage 1 - 2 of 5 in the Stroke Cycle

  • From completion of Entry, up to Pull Stage 2

This Stage covers from the start of the pull, to when the hand is in line with the shoulder underwater.


improve freestyle swimming
First position in Pull Stage 1 with the hand perpendicular to the line of movement: image from 800m Freestyle men 2020 Olympics

Insight

When done correctly Pull Stage 1 provides 30-40% of the propulsion.


The fundamental position of the hand in the pulling action, is to have it perpendicular (at 90 degrees) to the direction of travel.


As the elbow is a hinge joint, the first action in the Pull Stage 1 is to rotate the shoulder, which will allow the positioning of the hand to achieve its perpendicular, propulsive position.


This will keep the hand in line with the shoulder and allow the forearm to commence the pull action with the hand angling at the wrist to a full perpendicular position.


Video: Shows the actions associated with Pull Stage 1 as noted below. The vision is from the 2020 Olympics and the actions shown are the current best practice for events 100 to 1500 m. This makes the technique applicable for Triathlon and open water swimming


Actions

  • First action is a subtle angling of the wrist (look at the still image in the video above) followed quickly by an elbow bend, with the shoulder rotated which allows a high elbow position in the pull initiation

  • The wrist angle allows the hand to move into a position perpendicular to the line of movement

  • The pull action with the hand and forearm, at this stage is straight back

  • The earlier you can feel propulsive pressure on the hand, the better

  • Once the position is achieved as described and shown in above, the whole arm pulls in an accelerating action, all the time increasing propulsive pressure on the hand, to progress to Pull Stage 2.

  • The depth of the arm pull is also significant to the latter part of this Pull Stage 1

  • The first part of the pull sets the arm up for a 100– 110 degree elbow bend at the end of the Pull Stage 1, commencement of Stage 2.

  • The hand positioning is also important to generate power and being so the fingers should be pointing directly to the pool bottom.

Remember the hand contributes nearly all of the propulsive force in the pull.


Common mistakes include:

  • Not rotating the shoulder, which does not allow the hand to achieve a propulsive, perpendicular position

  • Bending the elbow as the arm pulls (without shoulder rotation) will slip the hand sideways substantially reducing propulsion

  • From the point above: The hand will pass the centre line of the body, which means the hand will again slip water, reducing propulsion again, as the hand moves to exit the water

  • From the point above: The over-centre action will likely produce an over-rotation of the body which reduces the use of the Primary Muscles for freestyle


Pull Stage 2 – 3 of 5 in the stroke cycle

  • From Completion of Stage 1, up to Recovery Stage 1

This Stage covers from the second part of the pull, to when the hand is at the end of the pull

how to swim better freestyle
Keeping the hand perpendicular to the line of movement through the pull maximises the propulsive force

Insight

Pull Stage 2 commences when the arm is in line with the shoulder, as it progresses through the pull, and continues to when the arm exits the water and starts Recovery Stage 1.


When done correctly Pull Stage 2 provides 60-70% of propulsion, when it includes the Supporting Action of the rotation of body. More on the Supporting Action in Recovery Stage 1.


When swimming you get a great view of what the hand and arm are doing at this stage of the stroke.


Use the pool bottom as a visual reference to the travel of your hand/arm. Pools with large tiles provide a great grid reference


The whole arm then pulls to have the hand in line and directly below the shoulder, as you look to the pool bottom.


From that position the hand will continue its acceleration to a centre line body position when it reaches the hips, which allows maximum force to be applied in a pressing movement to the end of the stroke.


The full length of the stroke ends with the arm straight just before the start of Stage 1 recovery.


The longer the hand is kept perpendicular to the line of movement through to hand exiting, with the tips of the fingers pointing to the pool bottom, the better. In this position it is still contributing to forward momentum, through its full range of motion.


Many swimmers ‘let the water go’ at this stage, and while still applying propulsive force, much of that force is pushing the water up, not back


Actions

  • Check the hand is below the shoulder at this stage of the pull; this follows on from the Pull Stage 1 action

  • Keep the elbow in front of a straight line between your under arm and hand ('high elbow')

  • Have the hand in a full perpendicular position

  • Ensure the fingertips are pointing to the pool bottom particularly in the push to the end of the Stage

  • As the hand progresses to under the hips it will move nearer to or in line with the centre line of the body

  • From being in line with the hip line, focus to keep the perpendicular position of the hand as you press through to a full arm extension at the end of the stroke. This requires changing the angle of the wrist to maintain propulsive power

  • Press the hand, feeling propulsive power, to a straight arm position at the end of this stage


Common mistakes include:

  • Letting the hand slide into or away from the shoulder line after entry and through this Pull Stage 2 – this means the hand is slipping water and not providing full pressure to provide forward momentum.

  • Not keeping the fingers pointing at the bottom of the pool

  • Not attaining and maintaining a high elbow position, which keeps the Primary Muscles engaged

  • Letting the elbow lead the pull as it passes under the shoulder line, which will reduce the power potential

  • Not keeping the hand pressing in a perpendicular position, particularly at the end of the stroke


Stage 1 Recovery - 4 of 5 in the stroke cycle

  • Completion of Pull Stage 2, up to Recovery Stage 2

This Stage covers the water exit of the arm after the Pull, up to when the arm passes the shoulder on recovery


improving freestyle swimming
Elbow first arm recovery: image from the 400m freestyle men final Olympics 2020

Insight

The preceding Pull Stage 2 ends with the arm in an extended straight position as the hand, at the end of the stroke aims to provide the last of the propulsive force (above)


Attaining this position provides the starting position to commence an energy efficient arm recovery and powerful water entry.


The elbow first water exit begins the important Supporting Action of the shoulders and upper body which is power producing in the pull.


The energy efficient arm recovery also provides a moment of relaxation in the arm action, and with the repetition of the arm cycle will reduce part of the load on the cardio-respiratory function which is the foundational energy supply.


Actions

  • The movement is to have the elbow exit the water first

  • This will allow the hand to leave the water in a forward direction

  • With the hand lower than the elbow as the recovering hand moves forward, this creates an energy efficient pendulum like motion that will gain in kinetic energy (energy gained by movement) through the action and, which will allow the shoulders and upper body to rotate on its longitudinal axis with power

  • This action is a Supporting movement to Pull Stages 1 and 2 and will provide more length to the stroke and propulsive power particularly to Stage 2 of the Pull

  • Rotating the shoulders also lowers frontal drag, making it easier to maintain forward momentum and optimise effort input


Common mistakes include:

  • Not having the elbow exit the water first

  • Allowing the hand in the first movement out of the water, to move sideways

  • A predominantly sideways action of the hand will initiate a round arm recovery action which does not allow the upper body to maximise rotation on its longitudinal axis

  • A rounded arm recovery limits shoulder and upper body rotation, increases frontal drag and reduces propulsive power

  • A round arm action will limit the full range of motion of the Pulling Stages


Stage 2 Recovery - 5 of 5 in the stroke cycle

  • Completion of Recovery Stage 1, up to Entry

This Stage covers when the recovering hand passes the head to the point of the fingertip Entry


how to swim freestyle better
Pendulum action of forearm, hand lower than elbow; note head turn for breath in line with body; image 1500FS men Olympics 2020

Insight

The pendulum like action of the forearm from Stage 1 - Recovery continues as the hand passes the head.


At this point the hand takes advantage of gravity (energy saving) and combining with the increasing kinetic energy accelerates with reduced physical energy input, towards Entry


The arm lengthens as the hand moves forward targeting a hand entry point in line with the shoulder, to a point 35-45 cm in front of the head.


The acceleration of the hand in this Recovery Stage 2, and the energy release upon Entry, has a major effect on the power/propulsion being generated by the Pulling arm


As the recovering hand nears and enters the water, the pulling hand will be in its most powerful position of the propulsion phase. This is back to Newtons 3rd law “that for every action there is an equal of opposite reaction” which is noted above in the Entry section.


Also, the acceleration of the hand into the water is linked to the speed of the shoulder rotation which is a Supporting Action in the generation of power.


This Supporting action does not occur in catch-up freestyle (asymmetric technique) which is characterised by having both hands in front of the head at the same time.


Breathing

The Supporting Action is further enabled by the turn of the head back from the breathing action.


The head needs to be looking directly at the pool bottom before the recovering hand Enters the water. This helps shoulder rotational speed.


It is common in elite level speed swimming that the head will turn back earlier than described, to produce greater levels of power (which is more fatiguing).


Triathlon, Surf, Open water

The sighting of directional and turning markers in Triathlon, Surf, Open water swimming is incorporated into Recovery Stages 1 and 2.


With the elbow exit first recovery initiating the Supporting Action of the shoulder and upper body rotation the turning of the head to breathe incorporates a head lift to look forward to sight markers.


This is the most efficient action to maintain power in the pulling arm and to minimise drag by not letting the hips and legs create excessive drag.


Actions

  • Extend the arm after it passes the head, keeping the pendulum action

  • Position the hand for a fingertip entry

  • Position the hand/arm so it will enter in line with the shoulder

  • Land the hand with the appropriate arm extension; pushing the hand forward from the shoulder

  • When a breathing action is incorporated with the recovering arm, ensure the head is back looking directly at the pool bottom before the hand enters the water


Common mistakes include:

  • A sideways hand water entry which creates drag and reduces pulling power

  • Landing the hand too close to the head, and pushing the hand forward underwater; creates drag

  • Not keeping the hand lower than the elbow, which will not engage the benefits of the pendulum action, keeping the shoulders flatter in the water increases drag

  • Using a pendulum action which is either too narrow or too wide

  • Not accelerating the hand Entry

  • Returning the head late from the breathing action, which stalls the Supporting Action of rotation

At this point we are back to the beginning of the Stroke Cycle that is Entry - 1 of 5 in the Stroke cycle (above)


Starting your technique improvement

The feel of gliding through the water when swimming freestyle is one of life’s pleasures.


It just makes you feel good.


When starting out with the technique improvement the general comment from all that I coach or use my SWIMTECH service is they did not understand how all the actions of swimming interact with each other.


Once they start to progress through the improvement process they are excited by their improvement and how those improvements make swimming easier, faster and more enjoyable.


So please remember

  • Your swim style is individual

  • Improving your technique, within your style, is what technique improvement is about

  • All actions in your swim style are connected and are interactive

  • Stroke technique corrections need to be done in a priority order specific to you

  • Sound technique uses the biomechanical fundamentals to achieve best power, lowest drag, at the most economical energy output

3 Options for personalised stroke improvement

Would like to improve our swimming, rather than putting up with a technique you have evolved into or have not been coached to experience?


There are 3 Stroke Improvement Service Levels from which to choose

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