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Masters Swimming 101

How do I learn the four strokes? Why do I want to?

Jim Harper | December 5, 2012

This article is part of the Masters Swimming 101 series

Some swimmers and many triathletes only want to swim freestyle, the fastest stroke. But for anyone inspired by Michael Phelps and other true masters of the pool, there are four techniques to conquer on the road to becoming an all-around swimmer. And it really is all about technique. There are huge advantages to everyone—triathletes included—in learning all four swimming strokes.

Butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, freestyle. Or for short: fly, back, breast, free. This order comes from the individual medley, also known as the IM. This order also represents the typical order, in reverse, of how people acquire new strokes. If you have to choose a second stroke to learn, start with breaststroke. Then add backstroke, and finally, conquer the “fear factor” of the butterfly.  

Learning a new stroke is like learning a new language. Swimmers who learned other strokes as kids have a huge advantage over adults learning them for the first time (note: send your children to a swimming program!). But just like learning a new language, the acquisition of new strokes will challenge your brain and your body and bring benefits well beyond the techniques themselves.

Instead of expecting an overnight miracle, set your expectations on the long-term framework of months and years to acquire a new stroke. Do not become discouraged after a few weeks if you still struggle with the basics of a new stroke. Even very experienced swimmers continually practice basic drills, and the very best swimmers always, always think about technique. 

Books and videos will only help so much; you need to get in the water and move in new ways. Most learners will benefit hugely from one-on-one or small group instruction. Club coaches with large programs can only provide limited help during a practice, because the club experience takes priority over any one individual’s needs. However most USMS coaches are happy to set aside some time for you—they want you to improve and most get a huge amount of satisfaction from helping swimmers improve—that’s why they coach.

Masters Swimming 101 Article Series

How to start swim practice as an adult
Swimming is great exercise, but practicing with a group can seem mysterious to...
What equipment do I need?
Not much! The beauty of swimming is that the water provides all the resistance...
What are the basics of pool etiquette?
Safety always comes first, and swimming's first rule is never to swim alone....
What is a typical workout?
Like a good play, a good workout develops in three main acts: the warm-up, the...
Yards and meters
Coaches will give instructions mainly in terms of distance (or yardage) and...
How do I use the pace clock?
A related question would be: Why are swimmers so obsessed with time? You'll...
More lingo you're likely to hear at practice
Here are a few more terms you'll likely hear at swim practice. Some of them...
How do I learn the four strokes? Why do I want to?
Some swimmers and many triathletes only want to swim freestyle, the fastest...
USMS Wave Seperator

About the Author—Jim Harper

Jim Harper is an All-American Masters swimmer and coach in Miami who writes about health and nature. He is a frequent contributor to SWIMMER magazine, a columnist for the Biscayne Times, and a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists. 

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