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by Scott Bay

January 4, 2019

There are a lot of way to switch between the four strokes

Several years ago, doing individual medley turns was a simple thing: Finish each stroke as if you were finishing an individual event. Then there were some rule changes and coaches started looking at how to transition faster.

Here’s how you can improve the transition turns in your next IM.

Butterfly to Backstroke

Pretty straightforward, right? Just a two-hand touch turn and get on down the pool. Wouldn’t it be great if it were that simple? The are lots of other things to consider when making this transition and developing your race plan.

  • How much air you need—Conventional coaching wisdom is don’t breathe inside the flags. Convention changed with the advent of underwater dolphin kicks becoming a huge part of fast backstroke. You know you’re getting a breath at the wall, but if you’re too out of breath to do your underwater dolphin kicks, you may want to consider a different breathing pattern in the first part of the race.
  • Sides and backs—When you push off, you should do so on the side you normally turn to in butterfly and breaststroke, but keep in mind that you must push off with your shoulders past vertical (meaning you’re on your back).

Backstroke to Breaststroke

You’ve got three choices really. With the backstroke to breaststroke turn, the rules gave coaches a creative license of sorts to develop some interesting things. Here are some of the iterations that are popular with this, the most difficult of transitions.

  • Open turn—It’s easy, relatively safe from injury and disqualification (you finish on your back), and helps you get extra air. The problem is that it’s slower than the other turns. To do this turn, you just finish on your back by touching the wall, though some swimmers like the stability of grabbing the gutter, especially if they’re not able to have their velocity carry them into the wall and get a good grip for a good turn. Once you touch, push down toward the bottom of the pool while driving your knees to your chest to speed up how quickly you can turn around. This is very popular.
  • Suicide or bucket turn—This requires long limbs, a lot of air, and a lot of practice. You’d do this turn by coming into the wall and once your hand touches, you push toward the surface and do a backflip of sorts. This allows you to push off on your stomach as required by rule. You’ve got to be a pretty stout IMer to do this turn. Just look at the name. A variant has come about where some long-limbed athletes can touch on their back as they are rotating to the front and do a regular flip turn. This is risky because if you go past vertical on the turn, you may be disqualified. If you have really long arms, give it a try after watching elite swimmers but have someone film you to make sure you can do it like them.
  • Spin with a twist—One of the more popular turns was the backstroke spin turn in which you’d approach the wall and push your hand away from your centerline while throwing your feet up in the air. This too is OK as long as you throw in a little twist before you push off, so you push off on your stomach.

Breaststroke to Freestyle

This is super straightforward with one exception. Freestyle was interpreted in the past to mean any stroke you want to swim, hence the name. That continues for the most part to this day. FINA decided in 2015 to provide further clarification of that for the IM, implementing what’s called the Lochte Rule. (The rule came about after 12-time Olympic medalist Ryan Lochte pushed off on his back to perform his underwater dolphin kicks before rotating onto his stomach for freestyle during a meet that year.)

  • The straight-up turn—The breaststroke to freestyle turn is a normal two-hand turn. Don’t grab the wall looking for extra air.

This Ain’t My First Rodeo

Practice habits are essential. If you practice transitions during your regular sessions at the pool, you’re likely to be solid in competition. Many coaches and swimmers have been left shaking their heads about a disqualification that was simply a mental error based on what was done in practice. Play around with each turn to see what works for you and remember that you shouldn’t do anything new on race day.


  • Technique and Training


  • Backstroke
  • Breaststroke
  • Butterfly
  • Freestyle
  • Turns