Beginner Tips for Freestyle Swimming
Do you want to become a better freestyle swimmer? Whether you are a seasoned swimmer or just starting to learn how to swim, understanding the proper technique for swimming freestyle is important. Having a good foundational knowledge of proper swimming techniques can prevent future injuries and increase the length of your swims. Let’s dive into the basics of swimming freestyle.
Before you can even dip your toes into the water, you need to have some basic swim gear. A swimsuit is a must. You want the suit to be tight enough to be form-fitting and not drag in the water but loose enough that it doesn’t cut into your shoulders, waist, or thighs. Most swimsuit companies have sizing charts, so grab a tape measure before you buy a new swimsuit.
Goggles are almost as important as a suit. They allow you to clearly see where you are swimming. The type of goggles is dependent on your preference for function, fit, and fashion.
A swimsuit and goggles are the most important pieces of gear for a swimmer, and all other gear can be helpful but not necessary. Some other optional pieces of gear are caps, ear plugs, nose plugs, snorkels, fins, pull buoys, and kickboards.
Now let’s get into the meat and potatoes of swimming freestyle. Below are the basic mechanics and helpful tips for each component of the freestyle stroke.
Freestyle requires active floating. Your entire body should be at about the same horizontal level on top of the water. If you find your feet sinking slightly, don’t fret. It’s an easy fix. Your body is like a see-saw, and your feet are likely sinking because your head is too high out of the water. Make sure your face is fully in the water. If you are worried about your wet hair getting in the way, a cap will help keep your hair out of your face.
If, even after re-aligning your head, you notice your feet are still sinking, continue to focus on the see-saw analogy. Imagine a cross or a lowercase ‘t’ along your body with the intersection at your heart. Press down slightly into the intersection, and your hips and feet will naturally pop up.
If you are still struggling to keep your feet afloat, use a pull buoy (an hourglass-shaped float) between your legs to keep the lower half of your body higher in the water.
Your arms will be at opposite ends of your body while swimming freestyle. Although they are not mirrors, they are in sync, and it helps to imagine your arms as two parts of a whole. When one hand is at the top of the stroke above your head, the other hand is at the bottom of the stroke near your hip.
You will propel yourself forward with a strong underwater pull. Your arm should be engaged, not floppy. Your hand should cup the water and act as a paddle, pushing the water back towards your hip.
In general, it takes less energy to move your arms the closer they stay to your body and the surface of the water. It is also an indication of saving energy if you create very few bubbles or splashes. For long-distance and endurance lap swimmers, conserving energy is key. Keep your fingertips close to the surface of the water and try to create as few splashes and bubbles as possible when your hand enters the water in front of your head.
Do you want to focus on perfecting just the arm movement of your freestyle stroke? If so, use a pull buoy or hand paddles to hone in on your arms while still keeping your feet afloat.
For beginner swimmers, the kick’s primary function is to keep your hips and legs at the surface of the water. Once you successfully master active floating and body alignment, then your kick can start to function as a propeller.
Unlike your arms which remain fairly stiff during the underwater pull, you want your legs to have flexible movement. Your legs are not stick-straight during the kick. It is also common for beginner swimmers to have the opposite problem – bent knees. If you bend your knees too much, your kick will resemble a bicycle pedal, which is not an efficient motion in the water. To avoid bent knees or too-stiff legs, start your kick from your hip and engage your core.
The rhythm of your kick is up to you, but a popular choice is a six-beat kick. It is six kicks for every full arm rotation which equals three kicks for each side. The rhythm is similar to a waltz. You kick downward on the same side as your arm that is at the top of your stroke.
It may feel strange at first because it is the opposite motion of walking. When you walk, your arm and leg on the same side of your body move in opposite directions. When swimming freestyle, your arm reaches the top of your stroke and begins to push down into the water at the same time your leg on the same side is also pushing downward to start the kick.
If you are struggling to master the kicking rhythm and motion, you can use a kickboard to really hone in on your kick.
Freestyle is a long-axis stroke, meaning the power and momentum are derived from your body rotation. Backstroke is also a long-axis stroke, whereas butterfly and breaststroke are short-axis strokes. In short-axis strokes, the power and momentum are derived from an up-and-down movement, like an undulating wave. In long-axis strokes, like freestyle, your hip and shoulder rotation is most important to your forward movement.
Imagine a pig cooking on a rotating spit. Now, imagine a line, similar to a pig spit, going from the top of your head, down the center of your body, and out from your toes. That line is your rotating point. Every stroke you take, your hips and shoulders will rotate around that center line.
When your hips and shoulders have rotated down, your arm will be at the top of the stroke entering the water and your leg will begin its downward kick. When your hips and shoulders have rotated up, your arm will be at the bottom of the stroke exiting the water.
Use that rotation to gain forward momentum. A good visualization technique is pretending your lower arm is an ice skating blade, and at the top of each stroke, you push forward during the rotation and give a quick one-second glide. Using fins is a great way to focus on the combination of body rotation and forward momentum. A short-bladed fin, such as the CAPAS Fin, will provide all the benefits of a fin without being too heavy on your legs and potentially impacting your kick.
Your head should only move when you are breathing. Otherwise, try to keep your head as steady as possible to act as a firm leader for the rest of your body. If you are swimming laps in a pool, one tip to help keep your head immobile is to focus on the pool line. In order to best focus on the pool line, make sure your eye vision is clear and you are wearing a good pair of goggles. A classic, comfortable google perfect for beginners is the Speedo Hydrospex.
Breathing is one of the hardest aspects of swimming freestyle because moving your head so far to the side can feel out of rhythm with the rest of the body movements. It is important to fine-tune the body rotation described in the previous section because that rotation will lead right into the movement for breathing. As you rotate one shoulder and hip down, the other side will naturally rotate up out of the water. Your head and neck are simply an extension of that rotation until your mouth is out of the water and you are able to breathe.
Swimmers frequently feel like their whole head needs to be out of the water in order to breathe. That is not true at all! In fact, we recommend trying to rotate just far enough to get your mouth out of the water while keeping your lower ear in the water. If you dislike your ears constantly being underwater, a pair of earplugs may help.
Some swimmers prefer to only breathe on one side. Although that works for many people, we recommend beginner swimmers try to breathe on both sides to keep the body movement balanced. A popular breathing pattern is breathing every three strokes.
If you are struggling with the rhythm of breathing, try a snorkel. You can ignore the difficult movement altogether if you breathe through a snorkel instead. Then you can focus solely on perfecting other aspects of your stroke before throwing the challenge of breathing into the equation. Using a snorkel can be intimidating; consider buying one with a built-in face mask like the Aqua Lung Smart-Snorkel so that you don’t need to worry about clamping your jaw or wearing a nose plug.
Put It All Together
Feel free to try each component separately. In fact, we recommend it! There are plenty of drills that directly address learning and perfecting each part of freestyle: body alignment, arm stroke, leg kick, body rotation, and head placement. Spend a few practices focusing on one component until you feel confident enough to move on to the next component.
Lastly, go for it! Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself. The only way to get in the groove and find the perfect freestyle rhythm is to practice. Grab your gear and get swimming!
Most Versatile Fin: TYR Sport EBP
Best Overall Snorkel: Omer Sub Zoom Pro
Best Goggle for Pool Use: Phelrena Swimming
Best Budget Earplug: Speedo Silicone Ear
Best Cap for Long Hair: TYR Sport Long Hair
Frequently asked questions
- Take your time and don’t expect to get good overnight.
- Find drills to focus on one or two specific areas (arms, legs, breathing) to perfect before putting it all together.
- Practice breathing exercises, even when you aren’t in the pool. Practicing a long exhale will get you acclimated to breathing out when your face is underwater.
- Find support! It can be hard to stay motivated when learning something new. A swim buddy, fitness app, or amateur club can help.
Learning any new skill takes time. Not only will it depend on your natural abilities, but it will also depend on how much time you are willing to dedicate to perfecting your new skill. Having a consistent swim schedule is a must.
If you are struggling to stay motivated, here is a great tip to remind yourself of how much you have already progressed: set up a camera or ask a fellow pool patron to film you swimming on your first day of practice and then film yourself again after ten practices. You will see major improvement!
For beginners, the number of laps is less important than the amount of time you spend swimming. Make time in your schedule to swim for at least 30 minutes each session. That is usually plenty of time to get your heart rate up and get into a rhythm
I need this tutorial last summer when I trying to teach myself to lap swim at the city pool!!