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by Terry Heggy

May 7, 2019

Experience success in backstroke by focusing on these three critical elements

Backstroke shares many swimming principles with freestyle, including streamlining/alignment, rotation, and forearm engagement for pulling power. But backstroke is unique in one subtle way: You can breathe all you want!

Yeah, OK, you caught me—that’s not remotely true. Backstrokers spend a lot of time underwater coming off each wall, and you can’t breathe underwater. But swimming face-up does create some unique challenges and opportunities.

Let’s examine three things you can do to improve your success in backstroke.

Sharpen Your Senses

The three other strokes rely almost entirely on direct vision to determine your position in the lane. You simply look to see where you’re going, using the markings on the bottom of the pool as reliable guides. In backstroke, however, you must boost your awareness of sensory input from multiple sources.


A steady head keeps you aligned, so don’t look around to see where you are. If you’re swimming indoors, look straight up and use ceiling beams to help you swim straight. Use peripheral vision for awareness of competition and lane rope proximity. Watch your arms and shoulders during recovery to ensure a straight entry with no crossover. And of course, keep your eyes open for the backstroke flags.

Swim plenty of backstroke during warm-up when competing at an unfamiliar pool so you can adapt to different lighting, and adjust to what you see overhead and peripherally. Wear tinted goggles when swimming outdoors, and don’t stare into the sun, or make the mistake of thinking that clouds are just fluffier versions of ceiling tiles. (Hint: Clouds move.)

Backstroke flags are more than a foot farther from the wall in meters pools than in short course yards, so adjust your turn count accordingly. Stroke counts also change with speed, so test your turns at race pace to dial in when to initiate your flip. The most experienced swimmers don’t even count strokes—they just know when the distance “looks right.” Practice until gauging distance becomes intuitive.


Your skin and muscles have built-in sensors that provide plenty of feedback about where you are and how much pressure the water exerts. Tune into these sensations to develop awareness of the following:

  • Entry position—Have your coach or a friend give you feedback on your hand/arm entry position while you pay attention to how it feels when you get it right. Lock in that sensation, and then monitor your stroke to ensure consistency.
  • Head position—Focus your senses on the top of your head to feel the water’s surface. If the water line moves up and down as you swim, you’re bouncing, which indicates that your arms are pushing down on the water instead of back. Make corrections until you remain level.
  • Feet—The depth of your toes provides feedback on your overall posture. If your tootsies are dragging along 27 inches beneath the surface, you must be arched or at an angle that creates speed-killing resistance. You should feel the upstroke of your kick coming right to the surface to make the water appear to boil.
  • Obstacles—The wake caused by your body bounces off the lane ropes and exerts additional pressure against your shoulders when you’re too close to the ropes. Your hands can sense the kick of other circle swimmers during your catch. Most people don’t pay attention to these turbulence pressures, but learning to sense them pays off in straighter swimming and collision avoidance.

Kick From the Core

A propulsive backstroke kick starts from a strong core and travels in a wavelike motion through the hips, quads, shins, and feet. Like the crack of a bullwhip, the power from the center builds to an energy release at the feet, so flexibility of legs and ankles is also essential for maximum thrust. Backstrokers should kick a significant part of each workout and consistently focus on driving their legs from their abdominal muscles in coordination with body rotation and hip flexion.

In addition to quad and hamstring training with weights, dryland exercises for backstrokers should include ankle and quadricep stretches as well as tons of core work (planks, leg lifts, soccer kicks, etc.)

Adapt to Effort

The biggest mental hurdle to overcome is the perception that backstroke is “the easy stroke.” Frequently used as the default stroke for cooling down, stretching out, or catching your breath after butterfly during IMs, backstroke suffers from a recovery mindset. But if you want to race backstroke, you’ll have to learn to deal with some serious suffering.

To swim backstroke fast, you must work hard during backstroke sets. If you can breathe easily, it’s not intense enough. If you only practice your underwater dolphin kick off the walls during turn drills, you’ll never be able to hold your form coming off the last turn of your race. Force yourself to kick hard in full streamline while your lungs are screaming from max effort swimming during workout. It’s a challenge to be sure, but if you train to adapt to the stresses of high-effort backstroke, you’ll be able to rely on your technique during your race.


  • Technique and Training


  • Backstroke