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by Linda Irish Bostic

July 27, 2020

Some minor tweaks to your freestyle can help you swim faster in the open water

Open water swimming is increasing in popularity as more Masters swimmers jump into lakes, rivers, and oceans for an enjoyable swim. One of the most common questions I receive from these swimmers about open water swimming is, “Should I emulate how I swim freestyle in the pool in the open water?”

The answer is both yes and no.

The fundamentals of an efficient freestyle hold true, no matter if you’re swimming in a pool or the open water. But there are some adjustments you should make to your stroke in the open water, depending on the conditions of your swim.

What Stays the Same?


No matter if you’re swimming in a pool or the open water, what makes a great catch remains the same: getting yourself in a proper position to catch as much water as you can and pushing it behind you, not downward.

After your arm enters the water, it should be extended as far out in front of you as possible after you’ve rotated to your side. Initiate your catch with a slight tip of the wrist and then press backward with your forearm, wrist, and hand in a straight line. Your elbow should bend up and out, as your arm becomes more vertical in the water. This is referred to as swimming over the barrel or early vertical forearm.

Throughout your catch, your fingertips should stay slightly lower than your wrist (and pointed to the bottom) and your wrist should stay slightly lower than your elbow.


The middle part of your pull, or the power phase, involves a press to get your wrist back to your elbow. The depth of your pull should allow your elbow to bend to an angle between 100 and 120 degrees. Your hand should be directly below your shoulder as you pull through. It should never cross over the centerline of your body or move outside elbow width.

Swimmers sometimes ask me how they should hold their fingers while pulling on freestyle—cupped or spread apart. Don’t tightly cup your fingers together, and don’t force your fingers far apart. Hold them slightly apart, so they naturally relax. Researchers have calculated that a finger spread of 10 degrees can boost your speed by 2.5 percent when compared to swimming with your fingers held together. This is because water, when moved while you swim, will stick together.

Body Rotation

Body rotation is the rotation you should make along the long axis of your spine as you swim freestyle. This roll, which is driven by your hips, helps you generate more power, reduces drag, and assists your arms in recovering over the water back to the catch position. You should rotate between 45 and 60 degrees on every stroke you take, not just when you breathe. Your feet should also rotate with your body roll.


Swimming in murky, deep water with hundreds of swimmers and marine life can be scary. And what’s the first thing people do if they’re feeling nervous? Hold their breath. This causes a buildup of carbon dioxide in their lungs and bloodstream, which will make them feel tense and out of breath.

Learning to exhale efficiently while in a pool is your first step toward swimming confidently in the open water. Your exhalation should feel like a long, steady sigh into the water. You can breathe out your nose or mouth or both. Focus on your exhale. Exhale smoothly and continuously when your face is in the water.

When you breathe in pool or open water freestyle, keep your head in the water and breathe to the side into the trough of air formed by the bow wave created around your head. When you rotate to breathe, your head should rotate at the same time as your body. You should have just one goggle lens coming out of the water when you breathe.

How Should I Adapt My Freestyle to the Open Water?


In the pool, the line on the bottom guides you down your lane. In the open water, you should sight forward (whether at a buoy or landmark in the distance) every six to 10 stroke cycles in order to swim straight. If you don’t sight, it’s easy to wander off course, which can add significant distance and time to your swims.

Good sighting technique involves lifting your eyes out of the water and then rolling your head to the side to breathe. This should happen in one fluid movement.

You should time your sightings to happen just before you take a breath. Lift your eyes out of the water by pressing down slightly on the water with your lead arm, arch your back, and lift up only enough to get your eyes just above the water line, similar to an alligator, before continuing to roll your head with your body’s natural rotation and take a breath as you would normally do in the pool.

Sneaking the sight in just before your breath will cause minimum disruption to your stroke rhythm. Being able to sight without breaking your stroke rhythm is one of the keys of open water swimming. Add a couple of strong kicks when sighting to prevent excessive drag from legs that might sink when you lift your head out of the water.

To swim straighter in the open water, practice bilateral breathing in the pool. Breathing to both sides helps you maintain the symmetry of your stroke, which will help keep you from veering off course while you swim. It will also prepare you to be comfortable swimming when wind or chop is coming at you from one side—you can switch to the other.

Arm Recovery

Your recovery, or the way you get your arms from the finished position back to the hand entry position, should be relaxed, comfortable, and natural for you.

Most Masters swimmers were taught to swim freestyle with the classic high elbow recovery, in which their elbows stay high with their fingertips just skimming over the surface of the water as their hand travels forward.

You can use this technique when the open water you’re swimming in is calm. But if there are waves, a straight-arm recovery with your hands swinging higher and wider will serve you better. (See the November-December 2018 issue of SWIMMER for more on straight-arm freestyle recoveries.)

This straight-arm recovery helps keep your hands from clashing with waves or chop in rough conditions, allows you to swim closer to other competitors and benefit more from their draft, and reduces the stress on your shoulders if you’re wearing a long-sleeve wetsuit.

Stroke Rate

One of the biggest differences between the elite pool swimmers and elite open water swimmers is their stroke rate. Although a long stroke and slower stroke rate feel smooth in the pool, it’s not always the most effective way to swim in the open water.

In the open water, the ability to hold onto high-tempo and rhythmical strokes is a real advantage when battling swell, chop, and the turbulence created by other swimmers close to you. Learn to adapt your stroke to the conditions. Momentum and rhythm are key. Gliding too much and slow stroke rates will significantly inhibit your performance in challenging conditions.

Hand Entry

Your hand should enter the water fingertips first and extend forward in line with your shoulder. A thumb-first entry should be avoided because it’s one of the leading causes of shoulder impingement, an injury to muscles in the shoulder, in swimming.

With the momentum of a higher stroke rate in the open water, have an assertive hand entry. Punch it forward. Spear the water with a bit more force upon hand entry. Swim with more punch and flow to allow you to be in control of your swimming, rather than letting the chop and the waves control where you go.


Good kick technique is driven from your hips, not your knees. Your knees should be loose and relaxed and slightly bent. You should use a light flutter kick to keep your legs high in the water. For open water swimmers, the main purpose of the kick is for balance and to bring your legs up as high as possible, with minimum effort on your behalf.


  • Technique and Training


  • Freestyle