If you were to go to a swim meet or a triathlon you would quickly see that the good freestyle swimmers have several things in common. First, they all have very good body rotation and easily roll from side to side. You will note that their stroke is one fluid movement– the body, arms, and legs are all moving in synchronized harmony. A good swimmer’s stroke is long, smooth and powerful. Lastly, you will notice that while good swimmers kick, the kick is almost an afterthought.
When done properly freestyle is circular in that every phase of the stroke is dependent upon every other phase of the stroke. You won’t have good body rotation if your kick is poor. You won’t have a good entry if you recovery technique is improper. You will struggle to have a powerful stroke if your catch is inefficient and so on.
When learning freestyle, it is best to think of the stroke as a single movement with different phases, rather than individual parts.
The method below starts with fundamentals, then progresses to simple movements. A new skill will be added at each step. Ultimately, you will have learned a fluid freestyle stroke rather than trying to learn individual parts and then trying to tie it together into one cohesive movement. Some of the steps may seem childish and you will likely be tempted to bypass them. I encourage you to master each step, regardless of how trivial the step may seem. I assure you, each step is vital to proper freestyle technique.
Typically, someone who is learning to swim will have 2-3 half hour lessons per week for 4-6 weeks to complete the steps below. OK, one of those sessions is learning to jump off of the 3-meter board (high dive), which you probably aren’t going to do! DON’T rush! These are fundamentals and your future success will be built upon what you learn here. It is OK if it takes several sessions in the pool to complete all the steps!
Before we get started, remember your health and safety always comes first so please consult your physician before beginning any type of exercise or training program.
Step 1: Mastering the Fundamentals
Learn to Exhale: The first skill to master is often not even considered a skill. Learning to place your face in the water and exhale is fundamental to swimming freestyle and is frequently overlooked, yet many technique flaws are a direct result of not exhaling properly in the water. Simply stated, if you are not inhaling, you should be exhaling. NEVER hold your breath under water.
Start by standing in waist deep water. No goggles. No nose plugs. Take a deep breath, bend at the waist and place your face in the water. You don’t have to be deep in the water, merely have your face underwater. As soon as your face is submerged, open your eyes and gently exhale all of the air in your lungs through your nose, then stand back up. Think of “blowing bubbles.” Repeat this at least a dozen times.
Next we are going to add a breathing movement. Repeat as you have been doing. When you have fully exhaled, rotate your shoulders and turn your head to take a breath WITHOUT lifting your head. After you have taken a breath, rotate your head and shoulders back down placing your face under the water and exhale as before. Repeat for 5 breath cycles then repeat the entire 5 breath cycle at least a dozen times. On the odd repeats, breathe to the right side, on the even repeats, breathe to the left side.
You will learn to exhale, will discover that by exhaling through your nose you will never have water in your nose. You will also develop confidence in the water with no goggles. Goggles break, goggles become dislodged. It is helpful to have the confidence that you can continue on when your goggles don’t.
Learn to Kick: Triathletes often have difficulty with the kick. Runners and cyclists develop power from a bent knee and they often carry the bent knee over to swimming. As soon as you bend your knee in the water, your thigh acts as a large parachute and impedes your forward momentum. Proper kicking technique is “kicking from the hip” with a straight leg and pointed toes.
Start by sitting on the first step in the pool, or if there are no steps, sit on deck. Stretch your legs out in front of you, toes pointed towards the far side of the pool. Keeping your knees straight and your toes pointed, begin to kick. Strive to keep you feet “in contact.” In contact means the heel of one foot never goes above the top of the other foot – your feet are always “in contact.” Concentrate on kicking from the hip. Try to generate very little splash. The nice thing about learning to kick this way is you can see what you are doing. Keep your toes pointed and attempt to move the bubbles away from you. Kick for at least 5 minutes (you can take brief rest breaks as needed). Repeat this at least 5 times or until your able to kick with proper form without thinking about proper form.
Many Triathletes have limited flexibility in their ankles that may restrict how far they can point their toes. If you spoke cycling or running as your first athletic language (especially runners), then your ankles may be so stiff that you cannot get your ankles straight. This will hinder your kick and likely slow you down as you swim. It is actually possible to create negative propulsion if your ankles are overly stiff. If this describes you, see our article on how to develop more ankle flexibility.
Step 2: Floating
Start with a prone float face down in the water. This will be the one time it is OK to hold your breath for a moment. Look at the bottom of the pool and extend your arms above your head with your fingers 4–6 inches below the surface. Slightly arch your back, pushing your belly toward the bottom, to raise your legs and feet up to the surface. Use slight movements of your hands and feet to keep yourself afloat and balanced.
If your blessed to have alow percentage of body fat this may be difficult for you. The higher your body fat the more likely you will float. The less body fat, the more likely you may sink. If you find that you are completely sinking in the water try taking and holding a larger breath of air. If that doesn’t work, place a pull buoy between your knees.
After 10-15 seconds, gently exhale, stand up and repeat.
Continue to repeat the exercises until you’re VERY comfortable floating on the water.
Step 3: Gliding on the Surface
Next we want to add some movement to the float. Start at the wall of the pool. Gently push off the wall and immediately assume the float position with your hands clasped in front of (above) your head. Glide across the surface until your forward momentum slows then return to the wall and repeat. As you become more comfortable gliding, push off the wall a bit harder to increase your glide.
Step 4: Flutter Kick
The next step is to add a kick to your glide. Push off the wall and as you glide, add an easy kick using the kick you learned in step 1. Don’t try to kick too hard and don’t worry about your speed – just a nice easy kick. After you have repeated the glide with an easy kick a couple of times, push off the wall, glide with a kick and exhale, then add the breathing you learned in step 1. Count your kicks in twos to keep a nice rhythm. Push off the wall, exhale, 1 – 2, 1 – 2, 1 – 2, breathe, 1 – 2, 1 – 2, 1 – 2, breathe. Adjust the number of kicks between breaths to what is comfortable for you. Continue to work on the kick with breathing until you gone at least 5 lengths of the pool (don’t necessarily have to do them all at the same time).
Step 5: Adding the Arms
There are several parts to the freestyle stroke: The entry, the catch, the pull, the push, extension, release, and recovery. We are going to simplify it to the entry, the pull, the push, and recovery. Once you have learned those basic phases, we can refine the stroke and begin to perfect overall stroke technique.
The entry is fairly obvious; it is when your hand re-enters the water above your head roughly in-line with your shoulder. For the moment, the important thing to remember about the entry is your hand should not enter the water thumb first.
The pull begins immediately after the entry as your hand begins to press backward and apply pressure on the water. You want to have a bend in your elbow and guide your hand in a straight line from the entry position above and in-line with your shoulder, along the side of your body, and ending at mid-thigh (or as far as you can reach). Your hand should be at least 18-24 inches under the surface of the water at the mid-point of the stroke. You will find the depth that is comfortable for you and we can refine this as you gain experience. You DO NOT want a straight arm through the pull/push phases. As you can see, the pull phase turns into the push phase as your hand passes your shoulders.
The recovery begins as your elbow leads your hand out of the water. You want to establish a very high elbow position at the beginning of the recovery. Doing so will naturally cause your body to rotate. Your hand and arm will travel above the surface of the water back to the entry.
Continue the kick rhythm you learned in step 4. You will do 2 kicks to each arm stroke. Continue counting if that helps you focus on the rhythm.
Practice this step while keeping your head in the water with the water line at approximately mid-forehead – you will be looking down towards the bottom of the pool at roughly a 30-45 degree angle. Your head should remain stationary and independent from your shoulders as they rotate with your stroke.
Step 6: Breathin
We are going to add breathing in this step. Begin by breathing every stroke until you develop some skill. Every stroke means every time your right arm recovers or every time your left arm recovers. Which side should you breathe on? That is a matter of preference. Eventually you will learn bi-lateral breathing, or breathing to both sides. For now, breathe to the side that is most comfortable.
Remember the fundamental you learned in step 1: If you aren’t inhaling, you are exhaling. You should be gently “blowing bubbles” and exhaling through your nose during the entire stroke. As your “breathing arm” begins the recovery, your head will lock to your shoulders and rotate as your body rolls. During the roll, turn your head out of the water WITHOUT lifting your head as you learned in step 4 and take a breath. Because you are exhaling during your stroke, you will only have to inhale during your breath cycle. Once your head has rolled back down to the neutral position, your head unlocks from your shoulders until the next breath cycle.
Congratulations! You are swimming freestyle! Undoubtedly, some parts of the stroke may not feel natural at first. That is to be expected. As you begin to add training time and swim an increasing number of yards/meters your stroke will come together into one fluid movement.
At this early stage of your swimming career, don’t worry about speed. Focus on a long (entry above your head, recovery begins at your thigh), smooth stroke. Try to swim one lap. Once you have completed one lap, try to swim two laps.