Freestyle 101: Basic Principles For A Faster Freestyle

Courtesy: Corey He


Yes, you’re technically able to swim any of the four strokes — or do pretty much whatever you want other than pull on the lane line or push off the bottom of the pool — if you’re swimming freestyle in a race. But today, we’re talking about the one-and-only freestyle: the indisputably fastest way to travel in water.

Freestyle favors some of us more than others: if you’re tall and have long arms, strong legs, and a big shoe size (or some combination of these things), you would more often than not be a great freestyler. But even for the rest of us who aren’t as physically gifted, there are ways to find success in freestyle — and it boils down to technique.

Is There a One-Size-Fits-All?

The simple answer is no. But this may actually be a good thing: this essentially means that there are many different ways to find success in swimming freestyle — and a swimmer’s technique may also hinge on the particular event or distance that one specializes in.

A quick survey of history’s most talented freestylers yields a general observation: distance swimmers find more success with a hip-driven stroke with greater distance-per-stroke, while sprinters find more success with a shoulder-driven stroke with higher stroke rates.

Die-hard fans of swimming may recall what was dubbed “The Race of the Century”: a head-to-head-to-head showdown between Australian legend Ian Thorpe, Dutch hero Pieter van den Hoogenband, and the greatest-of-all-time, Michael Phelps, in the 200m freestyle at the Athens 2004 Summer Olympics. All three swimmers demonstrated radically different techniques, but we can identify six fundamental components of freestyle that they all excel at.

Today, we’ll be breaking down these six components: the catch, the pull, the finish, the recovery, the kick, and last but not least, the breathing.

The Catch

Physics tells us that the 90-degree angle is the best way to go — any more or any less will result in greater drag or lesser propulsion. While we’re not encouraging you to bring a protractor with you the next time you jump in the pool, forming this 90-degree angle with your elbow is a useful reference that you can experiment with.

When establishing your hand and arm position for your catch, think about setting an anchor point from which you can propel forward. Visualizing the 11 o’clock and 1 o’clock positions on a clock may be helpful in providing a reference on where to “set your anchor.”

The Pull

As the name of this phase suggests, maintain a high-elbow position with your fingertips pointed towards the bottom of the pool. The easiest thing to forget here is to rotate your body and follow through with your hips as you pull your arm past your body. A useful visual some swimmers use is to literally imagine “throwing water” towards their feet.

There are other factors to consider here as well. Distance swimmers will utilize greater hip rotation during this phase of the stroke, rotating the body to maximize distance-per-stroke. Sprinters will engage in less rotation, instead driving the pull-phase from the shoulders.

The Finish

This is perhaps the trickiest phase to perfect. Though many swimmers understand that the arm should be accelerating during the pull phase, there’s often uncertainty as to how one should finish the pull. There is a trade-off here: finishing the pull will generate more force but slow down stroke rate, while “slipping” your hand through the water will save energy but leave propulsion on the table.

Many swimmers try to find a happy medium that they can sustain across their races and their training. Experiment with varying degrees of “finishing” your stroke to see which variations lend you the greatest balance of power and efficiency.

The Recovery

While it is regarded as more “textbook” to maintain a high-elbow catch, straight-arm techniques have become increasingly more common, especially amongst sprinters. Thus, this is more of a whatever-floats-your-boat situation.

The key is to ensure minimal expenditure of energy during the recovery phase while ensuring that your arm returns to the front of your body, preparing to “set the anchor” once again.

The Kick

Simply put, the rhythm of your kick should not be hampered by other factors — such as your stroke rate or your breathing pattern. Distance swimmers maybe get the excuse of being a little more lazy with the kick: after all, a 6-beat kick is not sustainable beyond a 200.

The best way to get better at kicking is to do more kicking. Grab a kickboard, use your fins or socks, kick with a parachute, hop on the stationary bike after practice — these are just some of the ways you can turn your kick into a weapon. If you feel your legs dying early in your races, incorporating some of these techniques into your training may pay dividends — or, even better, get a racing suit with less compression (we’ll table this for now, as this isn’t a tech suit review).

The Breath

Gregg Troy, renowned coach of Caeleb Dressel, once said something along the lines of this: everyone is good at swimming until they take a breath. Perhaps Coach Troy’s input gives us an idea of how crucial it is to master the art of breathing.

In simple terms, breathing in freestyle increases frontal drag because you have to tilt your head. Time your breathing so that once the recovery phase of your stroke ends, your head returns to its neutral position in the water. You don’t want your breathing to be the limiting factor that holds up your stroke or rhythm.


If there’s one thing you take away from my spiel, let it be this: everyone will have a different style of swimming, and when it comes to finding your own optimal balance, you’re in the driver’s seat. Especially in freestyle, there are so many trade-offs to be made — but, as with anything, keep it simple.

Whatever is fastest, is most energy-efficient, and feels most natural to you is likely the way to go. Don’t be afraid to experiment: that’s the beauty of swimming (and why you pay to go to team practice).

Now get back in the water.

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1 month ago

Isn’t the stroke being alluded to called the front crawl or Australian crawl?

Mary Munro
1 month ago

Do not forget that Andrew Robson has the title at the Olympic and the world competition level.

1 month ago

 “The Race of the Century” – a bit hyperbolic. Good race, but …

Mr Piano
Reply to  OldNotDead
1 month ago

That’s what it was billed as at the time. And tbh it’s still worthy of its title imo.

You had Ian Thorpe, two time world champion in this event, world record holder, the greatest freestyler of all time at that point.

Michael Phelps, 5 time world champion with world records in the IMs and 200 fly, American record holder in the 200 free. His goal is to match Mark Spitz’s record of 7 gold medals in a single games.

Pieter van den Hoogenband, defending 200 and 100 free champion. Former world record holder in the 200 and current holder in the 100. He upset Thorpe in Sydney, can he do it again?

Grant Hackett was also… Read more »

1 month ago

I Googled the contributor of this article, Corey He but couldn’t tell where he coaches or anything about his background. Did he author the article or compile the information? Can you please give a bit of information about who Corey is and what experiences shape his contributions?

Reply to  Justin
1 month ago

True. I’d rather hear from Russell Mark on optimum technique, and he wouldn’t agree with too much of this.

Sun Yangs Hammer
1 month ago

One key point many miss for a faster freestyle is completing the race distance in less time