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The Strokes Simplified IV- Freestyle

As with all strokes, great freestyle is the result of the same principles for fast swimming- increased propulsion, reduced resistance, and great rhythm. The major components of successful freestyle include-

  1. Strong catch and propulsive arm action

  2. Effective, constant kicking action

  3. Use of momentum of the body, torso, and recovery

  4. Streamline posture

These four components all interact to some extent and any problems with timing will influence the execution of any action. There are a lot of other aspects of the stroke that can be considered; however, these aspects are usually errors that are preventing swimmers from accomplishing the critical tasks. Other aspects of technique can be important, but only in the context of the effect each action has on the four priorities listed above. If a movement is not negatively affecting the main priorities, it’s best left alone.

Strong Catch and Propulsive Arm Action

The freestyle stroke contains the attributes common to all strokes including a more or less vertical forearm, open arm pit, and direct pulling action. However, there are some distinct differences between a sprint- and an endurance-based stroke that need to be considered.

The major differences between the strokes are-

  1. Initiation of Catch

  2. Depth of Catch/Pull

Initiation of the Catch

The major difference between the pulling action of the two strokes is the speed at which the catch is initiated in the front of the stroke. However, the same basic elements of an effective catch, common to all strokes, are retained.

Endurance- Patient Catch in Front

Champion swimmers demonstrate a patient set up of the catch, reaching full extension of the front stroke, with this concept being referred to as riding the line.

Sprint- Quick Catch

Sprint swimmers achieve a similar amount of extension in the front of his stroke. However, as opposed to being patient, they begin to immediately move into the catch position upon entry into the water, without any hesitation.

Depth of Catch/Pull

In addition to the speed with which the catch is initiated, the depth at which the catch is initiated also differs. This catch depth then affects the remainder of the stroke

Endurance- Shallow Catch and Pull

A consequence of the patient catch is that the hand, forearm, and upper arm remain closer to the surface of the water. The catch is initiated when the elbow bends and shoulder rotates. This action allows the upper arm to stay much closer to the surface. The result is a shallower catch that establishes a vertical forearm earlier in the stroke. The earlier vertical forearm allows for the front half of the stroke to be very effective, as compared to the sprint stroke which we will examine shortly. In addition, this version of freestyle requires less force as the greater bend in the elbow results in a shortened lever, explaining why this version of freestyle is favored by swimmers competing in longer events.

Sprint- Deep Catch and Pull

Due to the immediate catch initiated during sprint swimming, the hand tends to be driven much deeper as compared to the catch favored by endurance swimmers. Despite this difference, the basic elements of an effective catch are still demonstrated. The elbow is still above the wrist, the forearm achieves a relatively vertical position, and the arm pit is open. However, the elbow tends to be straighter and the whole arm is deeper.

As compared to the shallow catch, swimmers using a deeper catch achieve a vertical forearm later in the stroke cycle. While this may result in slightly less effective propulsion early in the stroke, it allows for a much longer lever during the middle portion of the stroke and much greater amounts of propulsion through the middle and end phases of the stroke when limb velocities are higher and the lats are in position to create more force.

The degree to which the elbow is held straight determines how deep the hand will go. As a consequence, it will determine the range of motion over which the arm is moving directly backward and where the majority of propulsion occurs.

Some elite sprinters demonstrate very straight elbows and very deep pulling actions. Consequently, they are creating a tremendous amount of propulsion in the latter half of the stroke cycle. Determining the appropriate depth for a swimmer is dependent on their strength levels, limb lengths, and current skill sets.

Effective, Constant Kicking Action

In the past, sprinters have been characterized by a significant kick, whereas distance swimmers have had a much more subdued kicking action. This is no longer the case as the fastest distance swimmers have had significant kicking action throughout their races. Watch the leg action of Ian Thorpe during his 100 and 400 freestyle races. It is very similar. While Ian Thorpe may be an atypical swimmer, his ability to medal at 100m, 200m, and 400m at the same Olympic Games speaks to the range of his abilities.

Use of Momentum of the Body, Torso, and Recovery

The timing of the freestyle stroke is closely connected to the rhythm of the rotation of the torso. Rhythmic freestyle is greatly aided by the effective use of the momentum of the recovering arms to help drive the rotation and timing. By aggressively and fluidly swinging the arms, swimmers can generate a sense of rhythm.

The major difference between sprint freestyle and middle-distance/distance freestyle is the result how the rotation is timed, as well as where the rotation is driven from. It’s important to appreciate that the timing of the rotation is related to the amount of patience demonstrated in the front end of the stroke.

Endurance Timing- Hip-Driven

The timing demonstrated during distance freestyle differs from a sprint-based stroke in that it is characterized by overlap timing driven by a delayed rotation originating in the hips. The majority of this rotation occurs after the entry as the hand is moving towards full extension in the front of the stroke.

The larger degree of rotation is coupled with the extension in the front of the stroke. The greater patience prior to catching the water allows for a greater degree of rotation in the hips, and the increased motion of the hips can help to dictate the rhythm of the freestyle stroke. The momentum of the recovering arm can be effectively coupled to the shift of the hips to drive the body forward.

The timing of the endurance freestyle stroke is also characterized by a much greater degree of overlap between the arms in the front quadrant of the stroke. This overlap timing becomes possible due to the patience exhibited by the extended arm, as well as the increased rotation of the hips.

The arm recovery in middle-distance and distance freestyle will help to facilitate the rhythm of the stroke if it occurs fluidly. While the elbow is typically bent to some extent, varying degrees of bend occur. What is important is that the arm is able to swing to some extent to create momentum.

Sprint Timing- Shoulder-Driven

In a sprint freestyle stroke, there is little to no rotation of the hips, which remain relatively flat through the duration of the stroke. The shoulders will rotate to a similar extent as with a distance stroke. However, the timing of when the rotation occurs is significantly different. The shoulders are typically near the end of their rotation as the hand enters the water and there is little further extension or rotation upon entry.

As the shoulders rotate while hips remain flat, the shoulders are already significantly rotated upon entry. Another important characteristic is the timing of the arms relative to each other. The arms tend to move in opposition to each other over the course of the stroke cycle, with one arm is finishing the stroke as the other is entering the water. This effect is created by the shoulder-driven nature of the stroke.

A final, and somewhat controversial, characteristic of freestyle sprinting is that of the arm recovery. Some successful sprinters have raced with very minimal elbow bend, whereas others have raced with significant elbow bend. In addition, some swimmers have recovered the arms very high over the water while other swimmers have recovered the arms relatively low.

Despite these differences, all of these champions have swung the arms in manner ballistic and used the momentum of the swing arm to facilitate the shoulder-driven nature of the stroke. Each champion has different limb lengths and strength levels and have used these traits to modify their recoveries to achieve the goal of a ballistic, shoulder-driven recovery.

Streamlined Body Posture, Especially Through the Breath

In freestyle, as with all strokes, effective body posture throughout the stroke is characterized by less movement, not more. In most cases, swimmers need to learn to remove undesirable movements as opposed to learn to add new movements. In this case, endurance and sprint freestyle strokes remain the same.

3 major obstacles to achieving optimal typically arise in freestyle- swimming ‘uphill’, lateral deviation of the hips, and an arched spine.

Swimmers have a tendency to swim with the head up and the feet low, hence the term swimming uphill. This position is characterized by increase resistance through the water. Swimmers can learn to reduce this effect by keeping the head down, leaning into the lungs, and creating a sensation of swimming ‘downhill’. This will allow the chest to lower the feet to rise and create a more horizontal position in the water. As rotation is present throughout the stroke cycle, swimmers must learn to shift their center of pressure from the middle of the chest when they are flat to the corresponding arm pit as they rotate.

A second major cause of resistance is a lateral deviation of the torso. This can be caused by either asymmetric arm recoveries, or excessively low and wide arm recoveries. As the arms are moving one at a time, the recoveries can pull the body out of alignment. The goal is then to find recoveries that minimize this effect.

Breathing errors can significantly impair body alignment. Any movement of the head outside of the alignment of the body will create a compensatory action somewhere else in the body. If the head is lifted too high, the hips will sink. If the head is pulled to the side, the hips will shift laterally to compensate. In addition, the arms and legs often act to correct errors in breathing. This not only creates more drag, but it prevents the limbs from performing their primary job, to create propulsion.

Swimmers should have the ability to take the breath independent of the recovering arm or body rotation. Swimmers who consistently breathe late or return the breath late will be disrupting the body line in doing so. This is particularly important for sprint freestyle as there is less time for the breath to occur. A ‘quick breath’ is becoming more and more prevalent in sprint freestyle. The purpose is to reduce the impact the breath has on body alignment, as well as the tendency to slow stroke frequency.

While swimming with an arched spine has similar effects as swimming uphill, it can also present itself differently. It’s possible to be level in the water, yet ‘sagging’ in the middle of the torso. This will create unnecessary drag. It also can impair rotational qualities and the connection between the legs and arms that moves through the torso. This error is more common in individuals with a more naturally curved spine. These swimmers must learn to bring the spine into alignment when moving through the water by maintaining tension in the torso.

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