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Swimming Mechanics – Reteaching the Freestyle Action

Swimming is largely a technical sport, and arguably the most technical of the three that triathletes have to master. Furthermore, when an athlete has poor stroke mechanics, the benefits of general fitness and training, strength work, wetsuits and swim squad will all be limited! When this is the case, the best results will come from reteaching the entire freestyle action, so proper mechanics are developed. ETPA run an innovative stroke correction program called Swimfast which was created by Mat Tippett and continues to be developed by Mat and Jamie Edwards. The program breaks down the freestyle action into four fundamental components and reintroduces them in a sequence of drills. The program utilises a combination of specific swim drills, and Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) in order to ‘retrain’ the muscle firing patterns and different components of the nervous system. This is the final article in a series of four which has broken down and then aimed to ‘reteach’ the freestyle action. This issue will touch on the recovery –the part of the stroke where your arm is out of the water. It will then finish with some specific skills that everyone can use in the open water that will assist come race day. The following teaching sequence and methods have shown great success rate over the last 10 years of teaching.

Part 4 – Recovery

The recovery part of the freestyle action is often overlooked. This is because the arm in recovery is not affecting forward movement, so it mustn’t be important…


Whilst it is not directly affecting forward movement it can have an affect on your buoyancy and buoyancy definitely can affect efficiency in the water!

Imagine you are lying flat in the water – buoyant and relaxed. Now imagine you lift one arm straight up toward the roof of the pool. What would happen? You would sink because you have changed your centre of gravity. Using this, we can now look at how recovery can affect swimming efficiency.

The goal of the recovery arm is to return the hand to the front to start the next stroke. For the reason stated above, you should aim to keep the elbow high, but the arm should be bent. The hand should be close to the body and just above the surface of the water. Doing so will eliminate any unnecessary up and down, or side to side movement because by keeping it tight you are minimising big changes in your body’s centre of gravity. This will balance your stoke, making you more efficient.


Try this sequence of drills. When doing so really try and think about your body position in the water and how it can be affected by the movement of your recovery arm.

Thumb drag – Thumb drag can be completed in catch up format or at normal swimming speed. Perhaps begin with catch up and then progress. Simply, drag your thumb up the side of your body starting at the thigh (where you finish your stroke) up until your armpit during the recovery phase. Note that this is literally touching your body the whole time!

Finger Tip Drag – Again, start with catch up and progress to normal swimming speed with this drill. For finger tip drag, (literally) scrape your fingers along the surface of the water from the point at which your hand finishes the stroke right through to the point where your hand enters the water to start the next stroke. Think about keeping the hand close to the body and the elbow high.

Thumb and Finger Tip drag – Combine the two drills above and drag your thumb up the side of your body whilst, keeping your finger tips in contact with the water surface. Once you have completed this sequence, say 4 x 25m of each drill, complete another 4 x 25m efforts concentrating on your recovery arm but as ‘normal swimming’. The end result of this sequence should be an increased understanding in the relevance of the recovery arm to buoyancy.

Race day skills

The SwimFast program concludes with some specific race day skills courtesy of Mat. He is an expert in this field having executed the skills he preaches at an elite level leading to him winning several Ironman and 70.3 swims and being renowned for his swimming ability during his stint at racing professionally.


Unlike on the bike it is perfectly legal to draft during the swim. Here are some key points to remember:

  • Drafting off the hips is better than on the toes, which is better than swimming alone

  • Drafting works best if you swim off a slightly faster swimmer

  • If executed correctly you will swim faster, and more efficiently

  • It will feel easy! Don’t make the mistake of thinking it is too easy and swim off on your own

  • If you want to breath to your right, sit on the right hand side of the person you are drafting off

  • You have to be close. Tuck right into their hip.

  • Your head should be at their hip

  • Relax!

Race starts The first 100-200m can be critical to your swim performance. Practice your race starts in training! Know the course and format of the swim and train accordingly. Some races are beach starts. Practice wading, and porpoising. Some races are deep water starts: Here is a video showing deep water start technique Key factors for a faster deep water race start:

  1. Dominant hand is in front

  2. Legs are curled up

  3. Continuous treading water/sculling action

  4. Explosion up and out of water

It is also worth spending some time conditioning your body to be able to swim out the first 100-200m hard. If you are able to swim out hard, at 90-95% and then switch off back to your race pace you will be better positioned for a better swim because you will be surrounded by faster swimmers. It is important to condition yourself, so you don’t blow up. So try a session like 5 x 200m deep water race starts, and then swim 1km at race pace off the back of the set. Sighting

Practice sighting in open water to ensure you swim straight, and swim the course, not any extra! You should sight every 6-10 strokes by lifting your head and looking up out of the water. You are essentially looking at the buoys but factors such as sunlight or distance may mean that isn’t possible. In this case, look for markers on the horizon or shoreline that stand out instead. Incorporate your sight with a breath so as not to disrupt your stroke, and remember to return to your streamline swimming position. Also, note that looking and sighting are different… Make sure you sight every 6-10 strokes. We hope you enjoyed our four part series on swimming mechanics and drills. We run the SwimFast program regularly throughout the year. Like us on facebook for info on all things Triathlon and email to make a booking or ask questions. Enjoy your swimming!

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