A good mixture of both is helpful
There are good reasons that the majority of swim workouts are performed using the front crawl stroke (aka freestyle).
- It’s the fastest stroke, and therefore the default for distance, open water, and triathlon competitions. There are more freestyle events than there are for other strokes.
- It’s the easiest to manage in a workout environment. Freestylers take up less space and can see where they’re going and what obstacles (lanemates) exist.
- For many swimmers, it’s the only stroke they know.
At the same time, there are advantages to swimming other strokes during training.
- If you’re going to compete in stroke or IM events, you need to train those strokes.
- Swimming butterfly, breaststroke, and backstroke builds alternate muscles for an overall stronger athlete who is less susceptible to injury.
- Strokes provide a mental break from the tedium of uninterrupted freestyle.
- Switching it up (and even using noncompetitive strokes such as sidestroke and elementary backstroke) improves your understanding of the body’s relationship with the water (decreasing drag, finding thrust, sensing position, etc.)
- Going outside your comfort zone to try new things enhances your overall athleticism. (In other words, that which does not kill you makes you stronger. And it makes you more attractive to your single teammates, if you’re into that kind of thing.)
Once you accept the wisdom of incorporating strokes into your workouts, you just need to decide how much to do.
Let’s begin with some ballpark recommendations based on your competitive interests, then tweak those values for individual considerations. Determine your starting point by selecting the statement that most closely identifies you:
Percent of workout devoted to stroke
I am a diehard freestyler and never compete in other strokes
I’m primarily a freestyler, but occasionally compete in other strokes
I enjoy a good mix of strokes in my competitions
I am primarily a stroke specialist
I recommend erring on the high side of those numbers, but also recognize that it’s difficult to find the pool space and time to swim that much stroke. Make adjustments for:
- Injuries—Consult a physician regarding any injury. They may suggest solutions such as reducing freestyle if you have shoulder impingement and other repetitive stress injuries caused by overuse. Substituting backstroke is often recommended as a good alternative. Your doctor may prescribe reduction of breaststroke if you have knee problems or reduced butterfly if you suffer lower back issues.
- Competence—If you have not yet mastered the movements or timing of nonfreestyle strokes, you may want to spend extra time with your coach to focus on specific techniques. Don’t strengthen bad habits by continuing to swim strokes incorrectly.
- Total yardage—If you’re pounding out 30,000 yards per week, you can reduce the percentage of time spent on strokes. If you are limited in your pool time, you may opt to choose one workout per week to focus entirely on stroke and do the other practices all freestyle. Try different approaches until you find what works best for you.
Swim your strokes in compliance with Swimming’s Prime Directive, which states:
No junk yardage!
Whether you do stroke or freestyle, make sure your brain is engaged and that you are performing the technique to the best of your ability. Swimming sloppy nonfreestyle strokes is worse than swimming none at all.
Because breaststroke and butterfly are highly demanding strokes, consider doing most of your breaststroke and butterfly sets early in practice when you’re warmed up and feeling strong. They may also require longer rest intervals to ensure proper recovery. In contrast, hard backstroke can usually be mixed in with tough freestyle sets.
If the rest of your group is doing all freestyle, consider dropping into a slower lane to swim stroke behind that lane’s freestylers, as long as it complies with your team’s etiquette rules and is OK with your coach. Always be courteous and respectful of other swimmers. As your stroke-focused, makes-you-stronger strategy begins to pay off, don’t be surprised if your teammates join you in all those extra stroke sets.
- Technique and Training