How to Get Better at Every Swim Stroke

Freestyle is important, but so is backstroke, breaststroke, and butterfly. Here’s how to improve your IM skills and became a stronger all-around swimmer.

Photo: Getty Images

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If you came here for tips on how to swim like Lucy Charles-Barclay or Alistair Brownlee, you may have found yourself in the wrong place. But if you’re looking to become a better all-around swimmer, this is exactly where you should be. Though all triathletes should know how to swim freestyle, they should also incorporate the other strokes: backstroke, breaststroke and butterfly. Collectively, these four strokes are known as an individual medley, or IM for short. 

Most triathletes focus exclusively on learning how to swim freestyle. The thinking often goes that because freestyle is what is used on race day, that’s the only stroke that needs to be practiced. But mastering all the strokes helps build complementary muscles, boost cardiovascular fitness, and hone your technique – all things that will ultimately make you a faster, stronger freestyle swimmer.

RELATED: A Complete Guide to Triathlon Swimming

Begin with breathing

This article will address technique tips and tricks for freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke, and butterfly. But every house must be built on a strong foundation, and in this case, that foundation is breathing. One of the primary challenges for adult swimmers is learning how to breathe while swimming. If you haven’t mastered this fundamental element of swimming, it’s best to begin by learning how to breathe while swimming. Once breathing is dialed in, the rest of the associated elements that come along with swimming become much less frustrating. This article by coach Joel MacCaughey covers the fundamentals of breathing: How to Breathe While Swimming.

Next, master the streamline

A lot of times triathletes swim like they want to fight the water, but let’s not do that! Instead, we need to learn to relax and glide. Every stroke we do will start with a tight streamline. This begins with a relaxed head position, one of the most important first steps in swimming efficiently. Your head should be looking down, rather than forward. From there, your body should follow a perfect alignment from the top of the head through the space between your feet. Everything should rotate around this line. Take a deep breath, push off the wall and glide. 

RELATED: Six Steps to a Better Streamline

Now, get the gear

Once you feel you have a handle on breathing and your streamline, it’s time to build on that by incorporating elements of technique. To do this, you’ll need a few tools:

  1. Pull buoy
  2. Snorkel
  3. Fins
  4. Kickboard
  5. Tennis ball

When used appropriately, all of these tools can help you to focus on very specific elements of your swim stroke. The snorkel is an important tool to work on form and rhythm by eliminating the extra movement it takes to breathe. With a snorkel, you get to practice quicker turnover and better core rotation, which ultimately makes you faster in the water. The pull buoy is a great way to get proper hip placement while swimming while also allowing you to focus on form, shoulder rotation and power. A kickboard can help you isolate your kick to really focus on technique, and fins can help with body positioning and steady kick. As for the tennis ball? Well, we’ll get to that in a minute, when we talk about breaststroke.

RELATED: Ask a Gear Guru: What Are the Best Swim Training Tools?

For now, let’s get started with the stroke we’re most familiar with: freestyle.

How to become a better freestyle swimmer

Freestyle is a stroke that we all spend time doing the most, especially in the sport of triathlon. There are ways we can modify the stroke to better suit the technique for open water. But again, these come after mastering the fundamentals. After tackling your breathing skills and streamline, use this video to guide you through technique tips for becoming a better freestyle swimmer.

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Quick tips to improve your freestyle kick:

  • Improve ankle flexibility
  • Improve ankle strength
  • Kick from the hip (not the knee)
  • Kick with a high cadence
  • 10% of your swim should be kicking

How to become a better backstroke swimmer

Backstroke follows similar logic as freestyle, but backwards. We can start with a streamline position just like freestyle but on your back. As you travel down the pool, kick your legs from the hip – do not bicycle kick! If you find your hips sinking, a tip to help is to either wear buoyancy shorts or place a pool noodle under the small of your back. While on your back look straight up at the sky or if inside the roof of the pool. Congrats! You’re now flat and gliding across the water. Below are some tips to improve your backstroke.

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RELATED: Benefits of the Backstroke for Triathletes

How to become a better breaststroke swimmer

Breastroke is one of the strokes that is tricky on the coordination front, because it’s all about symmetrical movements and then forcing movements and gliding. You need to learn how to explode, glide, relax, breathe and repeat. 

As with all strokes, we begin with the streamline, but in the breaststroke, you will use a frog kick. One of the tips in the video below will show the drill 3 kicks, 1 pull. This is a great drill to begin establishing a solid foundation to build up to finish the full stroke. 

While swimming breaststroke, think to yourself: up, out and around to complete a frog kick. The drills in the video below will walk you through isolating the stroke and kick. (You’ll also learn where the tennis ball comes into play as a swimming technique tool!) Work on each one individually, then combine them both to complete the full stroke. It will take some practice, but when it clicks, you’ll never forget it – as we love to say, it’s just like riding a bike.

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How to become a better butterfly swimmer

Most triathletes think butterfly is the hardest strokes, and they often avoid it altogether. But in my opinion, butterfly is actually one of the easiest strokes to master. 

Step number 1 is to learn how to properly execute the dolphin kick. Both feet need to be locked together and move in sync, like a dolphin or mermaid. Bend your legs a little bit at the knee toward your butt, then forcefully kick down both legs together. 

Once you’ve practiced the basic motion of the dolphin kick on land, give it a try in the water. Start with a streamline, then find a rhythm in your kick: 1, 2, 1, 2, breathe, repeat. Take a look at the below video for some tips and tricks to help you along your butterfly journey.

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One of the drills in the video showcases sculling. Sculling is an important and great “feel” drill that you can do in multiple variations. With a paddle, without paddles, seated position, laying forward or even backward. Sculling is any hand motion in the water that usually includes making “S” or figure “8” shaped motions in the water. The goal with sculling is to minimize elbow movement and maximize the movement of the hands and wrist, strengthening your forearms and allowing them to “feel” the forward movement. Speed is not the focus. 

The next step in learning how to swim butterfly is to move your hands and arms together. This will be a similar motion as freestyle, but both arms together in sync. You’ll push back past your body, then out of the water and around to meet both hands in front of you, together. In between the strokes, take two kicks. This will be the start of your butterfly mastery. 

RELATED: Why Triathletes Should Learn Different Strokes

Is it hard? Yes. Is it worth it? Also yes.

Learning to swim new strokes can be discouraging at times. So can unlearning bad swimming habits. If you’re feeling frustrated or overwhelmed, that’s perfectly normal! To get past the frustration, take a couple deep breaths, then get back to finding a good “feel” for the water again. Soon, you’ll find you’ve mastered all four strokes of swimming.

RELATED: How to (Finally) Become a Faster Swimmer

Marcus Fitts is a former collegiate swimmer, 2020 USA Triathlon Coach of the Year, and the founder of GRIT USA, an adult multisport development team that advances athletes to new limits, inspires communities, and enacts socio-cultural & economic change.

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