The basics of technique for all strokes and specific training needs

f-swimming2The efficiency of your swimming stroke is the key to success as a competing or training swimmer. An efficient stroke will significantly reduce wasted energy output through less drag in the water and a cleaner execution of hand and arm entry and recovery. Thus that little extra energy may provide you with an overall faster time. When your energy resources are depleted and you're hanging on to the end of your race, you will be the winner if you can hold your technique to that last tenth of a second. Every swimmer knows how easy it is to let one's technique drop off as you become more fatigued throughout a race - that burning sensation in the shoulders as you try to hold together your last few strokes to the wall is the hardest part of the race.

With regard to training for competitions, the season can last for up to 10 months or more, depending on whether you are at county, national or international level. In general, the season's training will reflect the level of the club or squad you are training with. The season will be geared around the county or regional championships, the Grand Prix circuit, the nation short- and long-course championships, the European, World or Olympic Games or the World Cup Circuit. Whatever your level, this article aims to cover the different types of training sets/sessions you should experience. Your individual ability and/or standard will determine the actual proportional breakdown of these sessions or cycles throughout the swimming season.


When considering swimming technique for any stroke, analysis should follow the format described below, in this order:

1. Leg kick
3. Timing
2. Arm cycle
4. Breathing

The leg kick will control the body position in the water, while the arm cycle will provide the propulsive force. The timing between the two is vital to the efficiency of the given stroke in order to provide a greater speed through the water with minimum wasted energy. Finally, breathing tech-nique should be analysed to ensure that when you breathe your overall technique is not disrupted in any way that would cause a breakdown in efficiency.


The main propulsive force of the freestyle stroke is the arm cycle. The legs add only 10% of total speed through the water, depending on whether you use a 2-, 4-, 6-, or 8-beat kick. The main function of the legs is to help keep the body balanced and efficient to allow the arms to do their work and keep the body moving when the arm cycle is at its weakest point.


Elbow leaves the water first, with a high elbow, hand relaxed directly under the elbow, trailing fingers on the water, then reach forwards to the entry position

Entry & Catch

Thumb first, hand slightly cupped, reach further forwards and out (laterally) to 'catch' the water to prepare for the out sweep - dropping the shoulder (upon the reach) slightly will help in the 'catch' and also in the recovery of the other arm

Out sweep

Press the water laterally to the body with only slight elbow flexion and begin to rotate the hand at the wrist medially

In sweep

Press the water towards the hips through further flexion of the elbow and wrist as you feel the body being pulled over the hand


With the hand at the hip and palm facing towards the feet, press the water back by extending the arm to approximately 90% of full extension, keeping in line with the body to reduce drag. The arm is ready for the recovery, elbow first!



Because of the required shoulder roll during backstroke swimming and a slightly weaker arm cycle, the legs play a more important part in adding a propulsive force to the stroke. The key, however, is to ensure that the feet work just under the water surface and not above it, to ensure that the full kicking movement is propulsive and not against thin air. The arm cycle is described as follows:


Thumb first, arm fully extended, rotate the arm laterally through the shoulder joint, keeping in line with the body, gradually turning the hand laterally at the wrist ready for the entry. Allowing the opposite shoulder to drop will lift the recovery shoulder to help balance the stroke and create a more powerful propulsive phase

Entry & Catch

Little finger first, drop the shoulder to allow a reach and 'catch' the water with the hand cupped. The arm should flex slightly at the elbow to assist in the catch

Down Sweep

Continue to flex the arm at the elbow as you press laterally, then downwards as you pull the hand towards the shoulder and chest, keeping that shoulder in the drop position


With the arm close to the body, press the water towards the feet in line with the body, ensuring full arm extension is achieved



This is a stroke where timing of the kick and the arm cycle are paramount. An inadequate butterfly technique can waste a huge amount of energy because of the double arm movement on recovery and propulsion, and also the double leg kick. Practice makes perfect, and the more efficient you can make this stroke the more power you will be able to generate where it is needed.The arm cycle is as follows:


Both arms break the water simultaneously, hand and forearms first, the arms swing outwards, elbows slightly flexed as they both continue to swing round and meet forward of the head, thumb and fingers first

Entry & Catch

Fingers first, the hands cup and catch the water simultaneously in preparation for the out sweep (the big kick finishes)

Out sweep

Together, the arms press laterally, and the arm begins to flex at the elbow (the small kick starts)

In sweep

As the arms continue to flex, the hands turn medially and press towards the body (in small kick finishes)


As the hands come close to the body, they then press towards the feet, fully extending the arms at the elbow in preparation for the quick 'flick' out of the water and to recovery (the big kick starts)



The final competitive swimming stroke to analyse is, like butterfly, controlled by the efficient timing of the leg kick and arm cycle in order to give the most effective end result - a faster swim! The arm cycle is as follows:

Reach & Glide

Both hands, thumbs together, reach forward, fully extending the arm at the elbow (the leg kick starts to push back to continue the forward movement) - the arms will stay in this position until the kick is completed by the feet touching

Out Sweep

The hands rotate laterally, cupped to catch the water, and press laterally with slight flexion of the arm at the elbow

In Sweep

The arms continue to flex at the elbow as the press on the water is now turned medially towards the chest (the legs flex at the knee and hips to prepare for the kick)


Once at the chest, the hands meet in the centre, elbows flexed close to the chest to reduce drag, and recover together over the water at the beginning, but then dive in to the reach and glide



Depending on which training cycle you are in, you will often cover varying sessions on endurance/ stamina work and speed/power work. There are hundreds of different swim sets you could carry out through a certain training cycle. Below are examples of what to include in those sessions, at what intensity, and how much rest should be given. These examples are to be used as a 'main set' for a single training session. A quality warm-up and 'lead-in' set should be completed first, followed by a recovery set and cool-down, depending in the length of the session, training cycle, etc.


Any competitive swimmer (or serious health-club swimmer) must incorporate this type of training throughout their season or given cycle. This will build their physiological aerobic base from which to develop more specifically for their needs, whether it be simply fitness or distance-based swims (400m or 1500m) or sprint-based swims (50m or 100m).

Basic endurance

This involves working at a heart-rate level of 65-75% HR max for a period of 15-60 minutes. Rest within the sets should be between 10-30 seconds depending on the distance repeats you are swimming. Examples include:

1.    20 x 100m repeats    10-15sec    RI 60-75% HR max (2000m)
2.    5 x 400m repeats    20-25sec    RI 60-75% HR max (2000m)
(RI = Rest Interval)

Threshold endurance

This involves working at a heart rate level of 80-85% HR max, for a period of 15-45 minutes. Rest within the sets should be between 10-30 seconds depending on the distance repeats you are swimming. Examples include:

1.    10 x 200m repeats    15sec    RI 80-85% HR max (2000m)

Overload endurance

Occasional endurance sets should involve this type of training, whereby you swim at a heart rate level of 85-90% HR max for a period of 15-30 minutes. Rest intervals within the set should be no longer than 30 seconds depending on the distance repeats you are swimming. The main aim of this type of training is to work for a solid length of time at a high intensity with little rest to ensure the working muscle groups achieve overload. As you know, without achieving overload, progression will not occur within a given time scale. Examples include:

1.    5 x 200m repeats    15sec    RI 85-90% HR max
10 x 100m repeats    10sec    RI 80-85% HR max (overall: 2000m)
2.    3 x 400m repeats    20-25sec    RI 85-90% HR max 4 x 300m repeats    15-20sec    RI 85-90% HR max (overall: 2400m)

Sprint Sprint training adds the anaerobic fitness base to the aerobic base you have developed with your endurance training. It works on the two anaerobic energy systems - the creatine phosphate energy system and the lactate energy system. Training involves short, fast repeats with good rest intervals to ensure you can overload both these energy systems. The additional benefit of sprint training is muscle adaptation to the speed-type exercise, as well as the aerobic benefits trained earlier. Working the fast-twitch muscle fibres will increase their number and size in a given muscle as well as the speed of excitation. The following examples of training sets are to be used as a 'main set' as with the previous endurance examples.

Lactate tolerance This involves working at a heart rate level of 90-95% HR max, with substantial rest periods within the given set. The aim is to work close to maximum speed and then to rest (for between 3 and 5 minutes) in order to give time for some lactate to be broken down and eliminated. Examples include:

1.    6 x 50m repeats    4min    RI Maximum pace
2.    4 x 100m repeats    5min    RI Maximum pace

Lactate production The aim of this type of set is also to exercise at close to maximum but with less rest (between 1 and 3 minutes) in order for your body to experience exercising with lactate build-up in your system. This therefore involves working at a heart rate level of 90-95% HR max. Examples include:

1.    10 x 50m repeats    1min    RI Maximum pace
2.    6 x 100m repeats    2min    RI Maximum pace

One final area of a training session is swimming 'drills'. The aim is to slow the stroke down and to concentrate on and practise the key areas of technique, whether it be the high area recovery on freestyle, the symmetrical arm cycle of the butterfly, the timing of the kick and pull on breaststroke, or the shoulder roll on the backstroke arm cycle. These can form part of the warm-up or lead-in set or even the recovery set.

More specific work can be done with the use of a float and a pull buoy. For example, kicking drills with or without flippers/with or without a float, speed or endurance kick sets depending on your current training cycle. Pulling sets can work very well on technique, endurance as well as power development in the arm cycle. Again, these sets could be used as part of the warm-up, lead-in set or recovery set.

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