The Freestyle Stroke – Master the triathlon swim leg.

triathlon freestyle swimming stroke

Swimming is a complex collection of movements and getting the right technique will provide significantly greater performance gains than focussing strength or endurance, so it’s definitely worth investing in a coach or learning more about the technicalities and jargon of swimming (Swimsmooth is very good for this). But it’s worth knowing some of the key features of the freestyle stroke before you start.

Top down Freestyle Stroke

Freestyle body Position

The standard position for the freestyle stroke is face down in the water, with the head as low as possible. Propulsion mostly comes from the arm being pulled backwards in the water and then being recovered as it reaches the hips then moved forward out of the water to recommence the stroke. The arms move asymmetrically, so as one arm moves backwards, the other is being brought forward.

This side to side motion of the freestyle stroke, coupled with a need to lift the head out of the water to one side to breath leads to a corkscrew motion with the upper body rocking from side to side in the water, preferably from the hips.

Freestyle side view

Freestyle Catch

As the arm is pushed forward into the water at the beginning of the freestyle stroke, there is a need to rotate the arm to move backwards in the water. However, a straight arm is inefficient, as it relies more on the shoulder muscles to move the arm and exerts a significant motion downwards, wasting energy and forcing the body out of the water.

The catch motion involves bending the arm at the elbow, creating a flipper that can be used to push the water backwards. Begin by bending at the wrist and follow this with the elbow until you have a strong lower arm. The key is to move from the elbow not the shoulder as this allows you to engage the more powerful latissimus muscles in the pull phase and is the reason you hear people talking about a “high elbow” technique.


Once the catch is completed the latissimus muscles pull the arm straight down along the body which ensures that most of the propulsive power is directed back and not down. This is a bit like pulling yourself up onto a ledge in front of you. By engaging the latissimus muscles you’re keeping the body streamlined and engaging bigger and stronger muscles of the back which reduces the pressure on the shoulder joint as well.

If you are struggling with this, imagine there is a ladder in the pool below you and you are pulling yourself along.

Freestyle Recovery

At the end of the stroke, the hand should be pointing backwards and is recovered out of the water, aided by the rocking of the upper body. Focus on your hips here, and make sure that you twist your hips out of the way of your hand.

This helps in moving the arm forward, as you will be moving the arm backward along the body ( whilst still out of the water) instead of taking the arm too far back. The arm then moves forward to begin the stroke again, and by keeping the elbow high, this allows the hand to move in a more linear motion, which is faster and more efficient.

Freestyle Kick

The kick is a contentious subject for swimmers. The kick provides propulsion, but is inefficient, hence the general consensus is that it makes more sense to save the legs for the run and swim where they are much more valuable.

However, the kick provides a secondary role in that, especially for men, the kick stops the legs from dropping which slows the athlete down. A light flipper kick can keep the legs and body level in the water which reduces the drag and leads to a faster and more efficient swim. It’s also worth engaging a fast kick for the last 50m of the swim to wake your legs up and get the blood moving again.