Finding the perfect stroke for you is more important than swimming like someone else
You watch the beauty and perfection of your favorite swimmer’s technique at the Olympics, and then research, chat with friends, and hit up your coach for how to start doing what you just saw.
But what makes elite swimmers great? And is it right for every swimmer? Is there a perfect stroke out there, and how do you achieve it?
As a coach, I’ve had swimmers show me a video and say, “I want to swim like this.” Swimmers with knee problems will show me a video of Olympic gold medalist Adam Peaty and ask why they don’t move like that when they kick. Swimmers who put their arms up in the air and have a streamlined position that looks like a cactus don’t understand why their butterfly takes so much work. Just like everyone has a unique fingerprint or handwriting, your swim stroke is different as well.
Olympic swimmers achieve their dreams for a reason. Their combination of technique, anatomy, training, attitude, and coaching make them successful at the highest level. You can use the same tools to perfect your own stroke to be the best possible for yourself, but you’ll probably never become Peaty, Caeleb Dressel, or Katie Ledecky—and that’s OK! Here are some of the things you can do to find the stroke that will work for you.
Anatomy and Flexibility
Anatomy and flexibility play a huge part in a successful stroke. Longer arms, bigger feet, and hypermobile joints are something you’re born with; they aren’t something you can train to improve. If you have small feet, extra time spent kicking could be a good focus of your workout. If you would like to improve your breaststroke but have limited hip mobility, adding yoga into your routine to improve your range of motion can help make your kick more effective. Learning and understanding your strengths and limitations can help you to maximize or minimize certain parts of your stroke to be a better swimmer.
Great swimmers do several things really well, and they do them every single time they swim. Great swimmers seek the path of least resistance through the water. They streamline off the wall every single time. They focus on good body position during and after breathing and work continuously to put their body in the best position possible. By minimizing resistance and drag, they go faster and farther through the water with every single stroke. You can practice this in the same way the elite swimmers do: Keep tight streamlines off the wall. Every. Single. Time. And work on improving your distance per stroke.
Great swimmers also find the path of most resistance. That means that they know where and when to put emphasis on their kick or pull to move their body efficiently through the water. The more proficient swimmers look like they aren’t putting any effort into their pull as they glide effortlessly through the water, whereas beginner swimmers’ hands slip uselessly through the water until they learn this important skill. Work on your catch, every single stroke, and find the technique that works best for you.
Third, elite swimmers know how to breathe. It seems so simple, but where, how, and when you breathe makes an amazing difference in your stroke. Even backstroke should have a breathing pattern as a lot of the time is spent with water over your face. Is your breath quick? Is it timed in the perfect spot for every stroke cycle? Are you holding your breath at all? When you’re racing, do you have a race plan with a breathing pattern? Do you mess up your turn by breathing right before and right after the turn? Changing your breath timing and patterns can have a huge impact on both your racing times and your efficiency.
The next time you’re at a meet, watch a championship heat of a breaststroke race. Every single swimmer has a slightly different technique that works for him or her. What works for the swimmer in lane 5 might be a lot slower if the swimmer in lane 4 tried it. As you look across the pool, you’ll notice that there are specific things that all the competitors do well. They have a great kick, they lunge forward on every stroke, and they hit their line between every stroke. Even though the width of the kick, the angle of undulation, the direction of pull may be slightly different, all these swimmers have worked to figure out how to do these things well, working with their own body. Each stroke, turn, or start has key components that are integral to peak performance. The technique path that you use may be different, but the end point is the same: an increase in speed and efficiency.
Not all top-level swimmers have an anatomy designed for swimming. Three-time Olympian Elizabeth Beisel is a great example. She’s small, doesn’t have a huge reach, and has small feet. What she did have was a desire to achieve her goals of both swimming in the Olympics and earning an Olympic medal. Her effort and refusal to listen to the people who told her she couldn’t do it were part of her mental toughness. Her perseverance in the pool paid off with a silver and a bronze medal at the Olympics.
When you swim, do you do the same thing every day? When it gets hard, do you sit out a set? If you’re training for a specific event, are your workouts designed to overload you during the training period and then prep you for that event? Great effort comes from within, and every swimmer has the potential to improve with focused effort and the understanding that it takes a lot of work to achieve your goals.
All elite swimmers have coaches to guide them. Coaches are responsible for watching their technique and making sure it’s the best it can be for their stroke. Their coach is watching from the deck and sometimes underwater to see what corrections need to be made and adjusting their training program to work on those skills. Their coach is there on both the good days and the bad to help them press on to achieve their goals. Their coach knows what the focus of the stroke should be and how to adjust for their body to maximize their potential and avoid injury. If you don’t have that feedback and depth of knowledge that a coach brings to the pool deck, it’s hard to get close to your perfect stroke. If you want to improve, consider finding a Masters Swimming club that offers coached workouts.
The Perfect Stroke
No matter your anatomy, flexibility, training, or effort, you very likely want to move faster and more efficiently in the water. Learning your body and your limitations, as well as finding a coach to help you, will help you to achieve your perfect stroke.
- Technique and Training