Ever since its introduction as an official event at the 1990 Olympic Games, freestyle has been by far the fastest swimming event at the Olympics. Since then, the sport of swimming has gained popularity and times have sped up exponentially. For example, the winning time of the 100-meter freestyle at the 1908 Olympic Games was 65.8 seconds, whereas a century later the same event was won in a speedy 47.2 seconds.

These consistent time reductions are partially due to advances in technology, such as drag reducing swimsuits and wave absorbing lane lines. However, superior training knowledge and ever-improving freestyle swimming techniques are what made the difference. This article will help you avoid some of the most common freestyle technique mistakes and help you optimize your workouts like today’s top athletes.

Freestyle Swimming Technique

Freestyle swimming is both the fastest and the least regulated of all four contemporary strokes. According to the international swimming federation (FINA), the few rules state that swimmers must touch the end of the pool during each length and cannot push off the bottom, hang on the wall, or pull on the lane lines during the race. Other than the above, any form or variation of strokes is considered legal in the freestyle race.

While freestyle swimming could therefore technically be swum in any of the four contemporary strokes, front crawl is almost exclusively used in competition as it is the fastest of all swimming strokes. Consequently, the term “freestyle swimming” is often used interchangeably with “front crawl swimming.”

3 Common Technique Mistakes and How to Fix Them

In front crawl, the windmill motion of the arms combined with a constant flutter kick results in strong forward propulsion while keeping the body streamlined. To reduce drag and optimize propulsion, here are three of the most common mistakes made when swimming freestyle:

1) Stop bending your knees past 120 degrees

Many swimmers try to bend their knees more to increase the force of their downward kick. However, the amount of force you can get from this extra knee bend is not going to be greater than the amount of drag that gets created because of it. Therefore, avoid bending your knee more than 120 degrees. The best way to tell how much your knees are bending is to have someone record you underwater.

Even though your leg muscles are much bigger and stronger than your upper body muscles, they only play a minor role in propulsion force. The main function of the freestyle flutter kick is to balance your body on top of the water and optimize your streamline.

2) Do not let your hands cross midline

Throughout the catching and pulling phase, your hand should never pass the midline of your body. This becomes especially tough when you get tired, as it requires tremendous upper body strength and focus.

Starting with the catching phase, proper hand entry into the water should be straight above your shoulder, not your head. Once your hand enters the water it is crucial to pull the water straight back while keeping your forearm as vertical as possible. Try not to cross your arms along the center of your body during the pull, as this will inhibit you from moving in a straight line.

If you are having trouble with proper hand entry or if you notice your hands crossing midline at any point during your pulling phase, be sure to check out the drills laid out in workout #2 below.

3) Stop fixating on squeezing your fingers together

This is one of the most common mistakes taught by swim coaches all around the world. Too many swimmers are taught (incorrectly) to focus excessively on keeping their fingers tightly together. While it may seem logical to not let any water slip through the cracks between your fingers, keeping your fingers completely shut may slow you down.

Thanks to the surface tension forces between your fingers, you will grab onto more water every stroke if you keep a slight space between your fingers. According to this fluid dynamics study, keeping an optimal finger spread of about 12 degrees (roughly corresponding to the resting hand posture) can increase the drag coefficient by about 8.8%, allowing swimmers to enhance propulsion and “grab more water”.

Four 1-hour Workouts

All three of these workouts should take you about an hour to complete depending on your skill level. Each one of the following workouts targets different aspects of your freestyle swimming stroke and are excellent for swimmers or triathletes trying to improve their efficiency in the water and increase their speed.

Workout 1: Aerobic Capacity

The foundation of any endurance athlete is aerobic capacity base training. These slower workouts, with little rest, will make your body highly efficient at fat burning and hereby broaden your base endurance. Even though some swimmers only swim short events that last no longer than 60 seconds, a strong aerobic capacity remains crucial for them, as it allows you to complete other high-intensity race-specific workouts.

This particular workout is an all-time favorite among swimmers. It is an easy set to remember and it is an excellent way to build your endurance. All distances in this set should be swum at a moderate pace that makes you breathe deep and frequent enough to make you a little uncomfortable, but still allows you to finish the set without taking extra seconds of rest.

  • Warm-up: easy 400 (100 backstroke - 200 freestyle - 100 backstroke)
  • Main set: 100-200-300-400-500-400-300-200-100 all freestyle with 15-30secs rest in between
  • Cooldown: 200 easy your choice stroke

Total = 3100 yards/meters

Workout 2: Technique Drills

Whatever your current swimming level, it is always a good idea to further work on your technique. One great way to improve your stroke technique is to practice various swimming drills. Here are three excellent freestyle swimming drills you can do:

1. Catch-up drill

This great drill is performed by keeping your left arm paused straight out in front of your shoulder, until your right arm “catches up,” upon which the left arm goes through its full freestyle cycle and the right arm pauses out in front. By isolating arm movement, you are forced to use your kick to keep your body afloat in a horizontal line AND it also promotes proper hand entry that does not cross over the midline.

2. Closed-fist drill

This one is exactly what you think it is. Instead of cupping the water with an open hand, you will be making a fist. This drill may feel awkward since it takes away a lot of your pulling surface area, but it encourages you to swim with a high elbow which enables your forearms to pull more water.

3. Sculling

Sculling improves your proprioception – a fancy word for sense of self-movement and body position – by isolating specific weaknesses in your stroke. Sculling is performed by moving your hands and forearms quickly in a repetitive pattern while scooping as much water as possible.

Workout 3: Anaerobic Capacity

This is the most painful of all four workouts and consequently the one most often skipped; especially by long-distance swimmers and triathletes. However, to be a well-rounded athlete, you need to train your full range of systems. This includes occasionally training above the lactate threshold line to improve your body’s ability to process lactate, which allows you to go harder, longer.

This specific set is geared towards improving your freestyle speed, but does include some other strokes to give your freestyle muscles a little break. While the lactate threshold should be swum as close as possible to a 100% effort, make sure to conserve just enough energy so that you can finish set in its entirety.

  • Warm-up: 2 x 200 easy your choice stroke with 30secs rest
  • Neuromuscular activation: 4 x 25 SPRINT (1 fly – 1 back – 1 breast – 1 free) with 60secs rest, followed by 100 easy
  • Lactate threshold set:
    • 4 x 25 SPRINT free with 40secs rest
    • 3 x 50 SPRINT free with 60secs rest
    • Extra minute rest
    • 3 x 25 SPRINT fly with 40secs rest
    • 2 x 50 SPRINT back with 60secs rest
    • 3 x 25 SPRINT breast with 40secs rest
    • Extra minute rest 
    • 4 x 25 SPRINT free with 40secs rest
    • 3 x 50 SPRINT free with 60secs rest
  • Slow cooldown set:
    • 6 x 100 free with 20secs rest
    • 2 x 200 back with 30secs rest

Total = 2050 yards/meters

Workout 4: Strength

Just like in any sport, gaining strength is achieved by adding resistance to your movement. Swim-specific strength can be gained by using hand paddles which allows you to grab onto more water or you can add weight by using “power towers” or wearing extra clothing to weigh you down. The main sets of this workout should be swum at a strong pace with an emphasis on good stroke technique.

  • Warm-up: 4 x 150 easy (50 backstroke - 100 freestyle) with 20secs rest
  • Main set 1:
    • 6 x 25 freestyle with buckets with 30 secs rest in between to float back (video)
    • 4 x 100 freestyle wearing an old T-shirt with 15 secs rest in between
    • 4 x 150 freestyle with paddles with 20 secs rest in between
  • Main set 2:
    • 2 x 200 freestyle wearing an old T-shirt with 20 secs rest in between
    • 6 x 100 freestyle with paddles with 15 secs rest in between
    • 10 x 25 freestyle with buckets with 30 secs rest in between to float back
  • Slow cooldown set: 200 easy your choice stroke

Total = 3200 yards/meters