Story by Jonathan Cain of SwimLabs

Learning how to move is one of the first important things that we master during our early developmental years.  Whether crawling, walking, running or riding a bike, we all develop a “movement philosophy” regarding the best way to move our bodies around efficiently. This makes the techniques involved in running and biking second nature to us. We don’t need to spend a lot of time thinking about why we are able to run or bike faster- we just move our legs faster.

When it comes to swimming, people often assume that they can apply this same “movement philosophy” to their stroke, only to find that merely moving faster doesn’t have the same effect in the water as it does on land. This is because swimming requires a slightly different philosophy than running or biking, and also explains why out of shape swimmers tend to swim as fast if not faster than athletes from other backgrounds and higher fitness levels.

The major difference between running, biking and swimming is all about the application of leverage. In running and biking I am constantly in contact with the ground, so I can leverage my body forward against that position. This means that I can keep the turnover of my legs fairly high and still be constantly pushing forward. In swimming, I have no contact with the ground so I have no leverage other than what I can create with my stroke. If I only focus on moving my arms as quickly as possible, I will likely veer towards using a “windmill” type stroke.

A windmill stroking movement looks just like it sounds like- the swimmers arms move around in a circular pattern at a high rate of speed. This movement tends to make it difficult for swimmers to articulate their arms into positions that best create leverage against the water.

This is not the only problem with this style of stroke. It also tends to unbalance a swimmer towards their hips, it requires more energy than other stroking styles, and it can lead to repetitive motion injuries in the shoulders and elbows.

An easy way to tell if you are using a windmill styled stroke is to swim a fast-paced 50, paying attention to how you coordinate your arms to one another. If you find that your arms seem to be continually moving in an uncoordinated pattern, you are probably using windmill styled stroke.

The best alternative to a windmill movement is a forward coordinated freestyle. The goal with this type of stroke is to coordinate your arm movement so that your recovering arm is entering the water as your stroking arm moves into a vertical position in front of your shoulder.  This requires the swimmer to briefly pause their arm movement as it extends forward to properly coordinate each stroke. The biggest benefit of this style of stroke is that it conserves energy and creates a better foundation for you to leverage yourself forward through the water.

The best way to practice this is with Pausing Catch Up Drill and one of the best (and cheapest) swimming tools- capped half inch PVC pipe cut to the length of your shoulders.  The idea behind this drill is two fold: first, the PVC will give you tactile feedback to ensure that you “catch up”, and second, the “pause” during the catch up will let you “feel” what it’s like to hold your arm in a front extension for a longer period of time.

To do the drill, start in “superman” position with both arms extended forward, holding the PVC pipe. Stroke with one arm while your opposite arm remains extended forward holding the pipe. When your arm returns, hold the pipe with both hands for around two seconds before starting your next stroke.

Practice Set

Focus: Forward Extension and Arm Coordination

Tools: PVC pipe cut to the length of your shoulders (or use a kickboard)

  • 8×50 Freestyle, moderate pace  (Odds: Pausing Catch Up w/ PVC; Evens: Forward Coordinated Freestyle)
  • 100 Freestyle, moderate pace, Forward Coordinated FR


Frequently Asked Questions

  • Isn’t it bad for me to swim Catch Up because I would never do it in a race?
    • Not at all! Using this drill allows you to focus on one thing at a time, making it easier to learn more complex movements.
    • What if I want to make it harder?
      • Try the same drill without the PVC pipe. If you want to make it really hard, try it with a pull buoy and the PVC pipe.
      • How can I tell if I am doing it right?
        • The best way to tell if you are doing it right is to have a video analysis of your stroking mechanics done.  

Focusing on how to use a forward coordinated freestyle is a great way to conserve energy as you swim while also setting a great foundation for you to swim faster.

SwimLabs Swim Schools are state of the art swimming facilities outfitted with video analysis and Endless Pools for a truly unique underwater experience.  At SwimLabs, recreational and competitive swimmers can swim in a unique environment that provides them with the knowledge to learn, experience to continually improve, and the passion to enjoy a lifetime of healthy activity and competition. They currently operate locations in California, Colorado, Illinois and Virginia.