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by Andrew Sheaff

May 10, 2022

Breaking freestyle into its critical components

The first article in this series, The Three Ways to Swim Faster, outlined the three requirements for fast swimming: increased propulsion, reduced resistance, and great timing. The major components of successful freestyle are:

  1. Strong catch and propulsive arm action
  2. Effective, constant kicking action
  3. Streamlined posture
  4. Great timing

Strong catch and propulsive arm action

Great freestyle arm strokes use a large surface area, create a lot of pressure, and maintain both for a large range of motion. Doing this will require an arm position with the hand directly beneath the elbow, and the hand inside the elbow, for as long as possible. This applies whether you’re swimming short or long events. The major differences between the endurance and sprint styles of freestyle are the initiation and depth of the catch.

Endurance: patient catch in front

In the distance events, swimmers typically demonstrate a patient set-up of the catch, reaching full extension at the front of the stroke, with this concept sometimes referred to as “riding the line.” When trying to emulate a patient catch, you’re focusing on entering the water and extending prior to moving into the catch.

Sprint: quick catch

In the sprint events, swimmers achieve a similar amount of extension in the front of the stroke, but they achieve it by swinging the arm over the surface and moving into the catch position upon entry, with no hesitation. If you’re trying to maximize your sprint catch, focus on swinging your arms forward so that you can enter the water ready to set up your catch.

Endurance: shallow catch and pull

A consequence of the patient catch is that the hand, forearm, and upper arm remain closer to the surface of the water. The catch is initiated when the elbow bends and the shoulder rotates, causing the upper arm to remain close to the surface. It feels like you’re popping your elbow out to the side. The result is a shallower catch that establishes a vertical forearm earlier in the stroke. Focus on bending the elbow and keeping the pull relatively shallow, which is less physically demanding and thus suited for longer swims.

Sprint: deep catch and pull

Because of the immediate catch initiated during sprint swimming, the hand tends to be driven much deeper. Despite this difference, the elbow is still above the wrist and the forearm achieves a relatively vertical position. This force, however, causes the elbow to be straighter and the whole arm deeper. It allows for a longer lever during the middle portion of the stroke and much greater amounts of propulsion through the middle and end phases of the stroke. This is great for speed.

Effective, constant kicking action

In the past, sprinters were characterized by a significant kick, whereas distance swimmers had a more subdued kicking action. This is no longer the case as many of the fastest distance swimmers have significant kicking action throughout their races. Beyond ensuring that your kick is consistent, the following concepts are helpful for improving your kicking. If you can accomplish these three tasks, you should have a very solid kicking action.

Kick long

As much as possible, keep your legs long when you’re kicking. The goal here is to reduce the amount of kicking that comes from the knees. Although don’t overdo it—many swimmers do too much.

Kick from the hip

If you’re not kicking from the knees, the range of motion comes from the hips. In combination with the previous concept, it might feel like you’re kicking with stilts.

Boil the surface

Some swimmers keep their feet too low, others have them too high. Try to keep them moving right at surface level, trying to “boil” the water, as opposed to making a lot of splash.

Streamlined body posture

In freestyle, streamlining throughout the stroke is characterized by a straight spine with no undesirable movements. Here are three major obstacles to achieving optimal alignment.

Swimming ‘uphill’ or arching the spine

If you swim with your head up and feet low, you’re swimming uphill. Reduce this effect by keeping the head down, leaning into the lungs, and creating a sensation of swimming downhill.  It’s also possible to be level in the water yet sagging in the middle of the torso with an arched spine. Keep your torso tight when swimming downhill, and the spine should come into alignment.

Lateral movement of the hips

This can be caused by low and wide arm recoveries, or when each arm is doing something different. This causes wiggle. Find recoveries that minimize this effect by recovering the arms higher over the surface or by including more bend in your elbows.

Poor breathing

Any excessive head motion will cause a reaction somewhere in the body. If the head is lifted too high, the hips will sink. If the head is pulled to the side, the hips will shift laterally to compensate. Swimmers who consistently breathe late, or return the breath late, are disrupting their body line. Minimize the length of breath and how much the head moves to breathe, while ensuring you still get oxygen.

Great timing

The timing of the freestyle stroke is closely connected to the rotation of the torso. The major difference between sprint freestyle and middle-distance and distance freestyle is how the rotation is timed, as well as the amount of patience demonstrated in the front end of the stroke. There are four types of timing. Which one should you use? When you’re trying to swim long and smooth, use endurance timing. When you want to swim fast, shift to sprint timing. Everything in between should be based upon what you feel works best for you.

Sprint rotation timing

The shoulders are typically near the end of their rotation as the hand enters the water and there’s little further extension or rotation upon entry. When the hand enters, your shoulders should be almost fully rotated so that you can start stroking right away. This is the key timing concept. The hips will rotate less, although the shoulders will still rotate to a significant extent.

Sprint arm timing

The arms tend to move in opposition to each other over the course of the stroke cycle, with one arm finishing the stroke as the other is entering the water. To recover the arms, you can use bent elbows, straight elbows, or anything in between. Regardless of the bend in the elbow, the arms are typically recovered high over the water, and swung ballistically.

Endurance rotation timing

Most of the rotation of the shoulders and hips occurs after the entry as the hand is moving toward full extension in the front of the stroke, with rotation finishing as the arm reaches full extension. The greater patience prior to catching the water allows for a greater degree of rotation in the hips.

Endurance arm timing

The timing between the arms is characterized by a greater degree of overlap between the arms in the front of the stroke. This overlap timing becomes possible due to the patience exhibited by the extended arm while the rotation is finishing. During the arm recovery, varying degrees of bend occur at the elbow, with a fluid motion.

Putting it all together

Fast swimming comes down to creating propulsion, reducing drag, and timing everything smoothly. In practice, great freestyle is a combination of effective arm and leg actions, great posture, and great timing. As there is no one freestyle stroke for every swimmer, it’s important to experiment with the different options and search for your best freestyle. During that search, focus on feeling as much pressure as possible for as long as possible with the arms, reducing spinal movement, and finding a timing that feels most natural to you.

See all the articles in this series:

Swimming Technique: Breaking swimming into its critical components
Butterfly Technique: Breaking butterfly into its critical components
Backstroke Technique: Breaking backstroke into its critical components
Breaststroke Technique: Breaking breaststroke into its critical components
Underwater Kicking Technique: Breaking underwater kicking into its critical components


  • Technique and Training


  • Freestyle