Swim Magazine

How can you improve your freestyle swimming stroke?

Colin Hill examines why the best long-distance swimmers use a freestyle swimming stroke and how you can master it too by practising the freestyle catch-up drill.

WORDS: Colin Hill
PICTURE: Shutterstock

Focus on one part of your swimming stroke at a time

With so many moving parts, it can be difficult to work out how best to improve your stroke. It’s better to look at one element at a time, bearing in mind that one part of the stroke affects another, so it takes time to introduce all the elements into your stroke before you can achieve an efficient one.

When I coach swimmers in my endless pool, we only focus on a couple of key elements of a stroke. The swimmer then goes away for a few weeks to practise and incorporate them into theirs.

The importance of good timing in the freestyle stroke

For a long efficient stroke, you don’t want to swim like a wind-up toy, with arms opposite each other for the duration of each stroke cycle. This windmill style means that you never gain the full advantage from your pull. You are generating constant power without gaining its maximum potential.

When you watch good long-distance swimmers, they seem to glide through the water, as one arm pulls through the water the other arm is reaching forward out in front – visualise a cross-country skier with one ski propelling the other ski forwards.

In fact, it really isn’t worth analysing your breathing or catch and pull until you have looked at your stroke timing.

A great drill for improving your freestyle swimming technique

Basic catch-up is a drill where you start with both hands out in front of you and one hand stays there while the other hand completes its pull and recovery and is back beside the stationary hand.

Fluid catch-up is a term I’ve used to describe when the pull action happens just before one hand enters the water, so there is no dead spot where both hands are beside each other, like the drill described above.

Breaking down the fluid catch-up

  • As one hand’s fingertips are about to enter the water, the other hand starts its pull.
  • Use the body roll to reach forward with your leading hand (out in front of you) a few inches under the surface. The hand is level with your shoulder in both width and depth (don’t let the hand go across in front of your head and don’t let the fingers come up out of the water – your arm is streamlined in front of you, ready for the catch).
  • As you finish the pull and return to the hand entry position, your opposite hand starts its pull.

How can you practise this?

  • Stand in waist-deep water and lean forwards (the trick is not to start walking forwards when you do this). Have both hands out in front of you, and slowly complete a pull keeping your other arm out in front. As your hand is about to enter the water, let the other arm pull through. This way you can work on the stroke in the water without swimming. You can take your time and let your mind process what the arms are trying to achieve.
  • Use a snorkel. By removing the need to breathe, you can focus on the fluid catch-up and start to add the body roll into your stroke.
  • Start each length with basic catch-up and then let yourself slip into fluid catch-up. Reset at the start of each length to basic catch-up to re-enforce the drill.

When you perfect the fluid catch-up style you will generate a slightly slower stroke rate (as your arms aren’t whizzing around), which will be beneficial to your pull and breathing, which we will come on to soon. The exact place where you start your pull in relation to the other hand’s entry is down to personal preference, but to start off it’s better to have a style that’s closer to catch-up style than windmill. Once you achieve a catch-up technique, you will relax into the most efficient style that suits you.