Swimming Strokes: Our Guide to Styles and Techniques

What are the 4 Basic Swimming Strokes?

There are four main strokes in swimming, some are easier than others but they are all good to practice if you can. Although learning all of them would be great, it might only be needed if you are swimming professionally or in a competition. If you are swimming for fitness you can use the swimming style that you prefer, or learn a new one to get a different type of workout.

Breaststroke

This is a popular swimming stroke with casual swimmers. It is easy to learn and gives you the option to keep your head above water, you can be extremely efficient if you swim breaststroke with a good technique.

  • Swimming Breaststroke: Your arms move in a small semi-circle movement in front of the body and your hands should be slightly cupped.
  • Correct breaststroke technique: Focus on keeping your legs in a streamlined motion, without kicking too wide before scooping inwards
  • Learn from the best: Peaty times each stroke with perfection. His position within the water is high and he finishes each stroke in a fully extended position with his arms and legs outstretched.

If you would like to learn more, you can read our guide on Breaststroke swimming

Freestyle

Freestyle is one of the most popular strokes and is sometimes referred to as front crawl. It is the fastest of the four swimming strokes and is performed by keeping your head down whilst alternating arm strokes and kicks.

  • Swimming Freestyle: You keep your head position in line with your spine, keep your head down towards the bottom of the pool and tuck your chin into your chest.
  • Freestyle Breathing: Rather than raising your head to take a breath, turn your head to the side and keep one side of your head submerged.
  • Kicking Motion: Small, quick kicks will help you to be speedy and efficient. Keep your legs as straight as you can and point your toes.

Would you like to learn more? Check out our guide on Freestyle swimming

Butterfly

People normally swim the butterfly stroke over a shorter distance as it is one of the hardest swimming styles you can use. You will see people in competitions using this stroke but if you want to learn it make sure you have a swimming lane free as it takes up more space when swimming. You use your arms and shoulders to lift your body out of the water whilst kicking with your legs.

Backstroke

This is a great swimming stroke for breathing as your mouth is out of the water the whole time. This stroke is performed on your back so you are looking up at the ceiling, you then swim by alternating your arms and stretching out to hit the water to propel you forward whilst kicking with your feet. Remember to keep an eye on the pool edges and stretch out your arm when you are near the end to ensure you don’t hit the edge of the pool.

What is the fastest Swimming Stroke?

The question of which swimming style is the fastest is dependent on a number of factors, not least your own ability and preference. However, we will discuss which swimming style is fastest on average and the merits of each of the four main swimming strokes: front crawl, backstroke, breaststroke and butterfly.

The Fastest Stroke: Freestyle

Of the four swimming strokes, freestyle is the fastest stroke. The quick leg kick combined with the fact that one arm is continually cutting through the water whilst the other circles around for the next stroke give this stroke the edge.

It is reasonably easy to do for casual swimmers although requires a little more focused technique than the breaststroke.

Our article on how long it takes to swim set distances gives you a rough comparison of freestyle against the other three strokes for both male and female swimmers. Since the article was published, it is worth noting that Caeleb Dressel now holds the male world record for 50m freestyle with 20.24, set at the ISL Grand Finale in 2020. Now whilst you might not fly through the water like Caeleb Dressel or Sarah Sjostrom, the relative time they took to swim 50m compared with the world records for the other strokes is worth noting.

These times give you a rough idea of how the strokes compare in terms of speed but how they compare for different people will be highly individualised based on the strengths and weaknesses of the individual swimmer.

Which Swimming Style Is Fastest?

The Slowest Stroke: Breaststroke

In our article on good breaststroke technique, we discussed how to master the breaststroke to help you cut through the water like an Olympian. So, you might be surprised to find out that breaststroke is, on average, the slowest of the four swimming strokes.

This is largely due to the stop-start phases of breaststroke which mean that whilst you are powering through the water with your arms, there is a point of significant slow-down when you pop up out of the water to breathe and whilst you recover your arms ready for the next stroke.

By process of elimination, you may have already guessed that butterfly and backstroke slot into the middle of the pack when it comes to the speed of each swimming style.

What is the easiest swimming stroke to learn?

The easiest stroke to learn is breaststroke as it is the slowest stroke and you don’t have to put your head under the water. It’s also the first swimming stroke to be taught to children when they start swimming.

What is the hardest stroke in swimming?

The hardest stroke to learn is butterfly as it requires a lot of effort and strength to perform this swimming stroke. However if you do learn this stroke and are looking to lose weight, it is one of the best strokes for burning calories.

Tips to Improve Your Speed

Mastering the breath is perhaps the most obvious place to start when optimising your swimming stroke for speed. If you are gasping for air and struggle to maintain your speed when you take a breath, there is room for improvement. Aim to breathe consistently and anticipate when you will need to take a breath to make sure that each time you breathe is well-timed and efficient.

Getting a swimming coach is another great way to take your swimming up a level, allowing you to become more efficient in the water and have better swimming form. A swim coach can give you tips on how you can improve by analysing how you move in the water and can spot things that you can’t detect yourself. Your coach can also help structure your training to help you build towards that all-important target, helping you see incremental improvements as you get closer to where you want to be. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, they can give you an extra nudge on the days when you feel less confident or motivated to do your session. This can have a huge impact, not only on your performance but also on your well-being.

If you don’t have the finances to get a coach, there are a number of drills you can perform to help improve your swim speed. The Global Triathlon Network provide some workout ideas that you can use to improve your top-end speed in the water, helping you become a faster and more efficient swimmer. Much like a runner’s cadence, a swimmer’s stroke significantly impacts performance.

Taking your training away from the water can also help you when you get back into the pool. Having good core strength is really important for swimmers and it can be really rewarding providing that you consistently put the effort in with your strength training and practice a routine that works for you. This routine from MySwimPro shares some swimmer-specific core strength training that will have a huge impact on your performance if you lack core strength and stability. Having a strong core gives you the ability to better control your body position in the water, making you more efficient and less injury prone.

If you are an open-water swimmer, then investing in a wetsuit can have a huge impact on your ability to improve your swim stroke due to the added buoyancy that a suit can provide (link to article). For more information on this, we recommend reading our wetsuit article where we take a closer look at the benefits of wetsuits and some things that you can look out for.


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