The secret to an efficient stroke lies in these essential elements.

Freestyle is a balance of four major components: breathing, body position, kick, and arm strokes. Everything about the stroke and technique fits into one of these categories, and each category must be built strong to make your stroke efficient. If one “pillar” is weak, the others must hold up more than they’re designed to, and the stroke crumbles.

Breathing

If you breathe correctly, swimming can be easy and you can go for miles. However, if you feel like you are struggling to complete even the shortest distances in the pool, maybe it’s time to overhaul your breathing. Here are some tips:

Don’t hold your breath. Ever. Try holding it while running or cycling, and you will quickly realize how important this pillar is for all sports.

Maintain a continuous and gentle exhalation when your face is in the water.

Exhale over 2 to 3 seconds, and do not empty your lungs completely.

Inhale quickly when your face is out of the water.

Body position

Swimming is “active floating,” meaning that all energy should be spent on moving your body forward and not on holding it at the surface. Learning to relax and float is the foundation of the body position pillar.

Start each lap in “superhero” position with arms extended in front, legs lightly kicking and heels breaking the surface.

Don’t push your butt up! This will cause your legs and feet to sink. Try pushing your hips down with a slight arch in your back.

Relax your shoulders and arms on a downward angle so your fingertips are 4 to 6 inches below the surface.

Maintain a neutral spine and neck by looking straight down at the bottom of pool when not breathing.

Kick

The kick is not used for propulsion in distance swimming as much as it is used to help the core stay strong and create a counterforce for the pull. A poor kick can cause your legs to sink or scissor outside of your body, causing additional surface area and drag through the water. Skipping the kick altogether—and not engaging the core muscles—will make your underwater pull less efficient. Add kick sets (with and without fins) into your weekly swim practices to improve your overall efficiency.

The kick is a gentle flow from the hips to the toes, like a dolphin’s full-body undulation.

The total distance the foot moves up and down is only about 12 inches.

Maintain a quick tempo, aka “flutter kick,” similar to how a small propeller moves a boat.

Feel the tops of your feet splashing down on the surface of the water, making a light splash.

Arm strokes

This is the propulsion, or the motor, of your stroke. Once your vessel is built with efficient breathing, body position, and kicking, you can focus on moving it forward through the water.

Don’t use energy and effort to hold your arms out of the water. Swing your arms through the air quickly and let them splash into the water.

Enter the water with a flat hand, palm facing down, to reduce strain on the shoulder joint.

Keep your hands and arms from crossing the center of your body. Pull and push underwater toward your feet to move forward.

Get the maximum out of each stroke by finishing all the way to your thigh with a strong tricep extension.