Common Freestyle Flaws and How to Fix Them

Even top swimmers can benefit from technique work, so working out stroke inefficiencies is time well spent.
Your weakness is your strength! Cliche? Yes, but like many cliches, this maxim contains an element of truth, since every imperfection presents an opportunity for improvement. And when it comes to swimming, ironing out wrinkles in your stroke can yield huge dividends in terms of improved efficiency and lowered splits.

What's more, regardless of your level of proficiency in the water, there is always room for improvement, so even the most talented swimmers can improve by continually tweaking and refining their strokes.

Start by Taking a Breather

Let's back up. Before we talk about technique, let's start where most problems begin in the water: breathing. When you're swimming freestyle, it's critical to exhale when your face is in the water so you are able to take a full breath when you roll to the side.

However, because they can't relax in the water, many swimmers hold their breath or only partially exhale, which subsequently prevents them from taking in a complete lungful of air. Invariably, these swimmers need to breathe every stroke and usually go hypoxic after a short swim, not from the effort but merely from lack of oxygen.

Prescription: Always focus on breathing while warming up and cooling down. This is the perfect time to smooth out your breathing and relax in preparation for the technique work and main set to follow.

Another useful exercise is to take five breaths on each side at the edge of the pool. If you are breathing to your left, place your right arm on the wall and rotate to the side, exhaling while your face is in the water and inhaling when you turn to breathe. This is not a physically demanding drill, but it helps to reinforce rhythm and relaxation.

Technique Troubleshooter

As noted, even top swimmers can benefit from technique work, so taking the time to work out inefficiencies in your stroke is time well spent. Here are a few of the most common sources of waterborne frustration for triathletes along with a few suggestions for improvement:

Crossover: When your hand enters the water at the beginning of each stroke, you must ensure it doesn't cross your body's imaginary midline running from head to toe. Crossing over puts a tremendous amount of strain on the shoulder joint and makes your body fishtail or swing from side to side, increasing drag.

Prescription: Single-arm and catch-up drills. Exaggerate the width of your entry point. At first it may feel as though you are entering far too wide, but this is simply because relative to where you were entering, it feels wide. Video analysis is usually necessary to monitor progress.

Entering too early: An early hand entry at the start of each stroke almost always causes the swimmer to drive down with his or her arm rather then extend forward. The driving-down motion causes an ineffective straight-arm pull that generates little power.

Prescription: Catch-up, finger-tip drag and single-arm drills.

Short finish: When you are sprinting, a shortened finish, which boosts stroke rate, is advantageous; however, for most distance swimmers, full or almost full extension at the end of the pull phase is much more efficient.

Prescription: Catch-up drill with thumb scrape on your leg to ensure you are completing the end of each stroke.

Dropping the elbow: Oftentimes, swimmers drop their elbows after their hands enter the water at the start of each stroke (instead, the elbow should remain high while the fingertips point down -- think of reaching over a barrel on its side). This freestyle no-no robs swimmers of speed more than any other flaw. A similar flaw with the same prescription is pulling with a straight arm. In both cases, most of the resultant force vectors are directed down.

Prescription: Fist and single-arm drill. Also, visualize pulling over a barrel with each stroke.

No long-axis rotation: This is also described as flat swimming, where the swimmer doesn't rotate from side to side. This flaw shortens the pull, reduces the length of the stroke and increases drag.

Prescription: Kick on side drill and catch-up drill.

Slapping and overextending entry: This is usually caused when a swimmer is working to lengthen his or her stroke; however, a long stroke must be generated by extending underwater and rolling onto the side. Otherwise, overextending on the entry can push a swimmer's body down in the water and lead to a straight-arm pull.

Prescription: Catch-up, finger-tip drag and single-arm drills.

When working on the above drills, take the time to do them properly and concentrate on the skills you are developing. With practice, your stroke will respond and you can enjoy increased efficiency and faster splits in the water.


Coach Steve Tarpinian is the creator of the new Swimpower DVD and author of Swimming for Triathlons. He is also a keynote speaker on swimming and triathlons worldwide. For more information, please visit www.swimpower.com.


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