how to improve swimming technique fitness

Looking to start swimming? Return to swimming and improve? We have provided an easy-to-follow 2-week training plan that will help your fitness and technique. Drill demonstrations are included. Just watch, print and take to the pool.  One of the best things you can do is take a session to the pool to help you accomplish more, swim further, and feel like you completed something worthwhile.

Download your 2-week training plan here

How important is technique when you are learning to swim?

Swim technique is harder to change later in life so the fewer mistakes made earlier when learning, the more effective you will be later in your swim career.

If you've never had swimming lessons/coaching, does this necessarily mean you will have poor technique?

Swimming is highly technical and not easy to change, even for advanced swimmers. It is actually an illogical and counter-intuitive movement and we naturally want to fight the water, so to get proper swimming technique right without instruction can be very hard. Some people are naturals but it is rare. On the upside, this means there is lots of scope for big improvements with some guidance.

Can you teach yourself better swimming technique?

This is not the easiest since most people struggle to imagine what they are doing right and wrong while in the water since it is such an alien environment. You can watch good technique, read good technique, even picture good technique in your mind but this is rarely translated into correct movements performed. Most of your swimming stroke happens behind you so you can see how hard it is to get it right. Video analysis can be a great help to narrow the disparity between what you think you are doing and what you are actually doing.

What are the main benefits of having a coach to help you improve?

They will be the eyes you need to guide you and describe the mistakes you make. They will help translate the technical points you might be misinterpreting into fluid swimming movements.

Which stroke is the hardest to master and why?

They all have their complexities but perhaps Butterfly is the most difficult due to the very specific timing issues; if your timing is out, you will struggle to take in air. There is also no slow option for Butterfly such as there is with the other strokes. An amount of momentum is needed for it to work and this can be tiring.

Butterfly swim technique stroke advice guide how to improve

What are the benefits of good swimming technique? Does it improve fitness as well as performance?

Good technique will exhaust you less than swimming with poor technique, so you can do more of it at a steadier pace. The fitness benefits are well documented but until the mechanics of your strokes are efficient, it will be hard to do much more then a few lengths. You are also less likely to injure yourself if the correct movements are made with the correct muscles.

If you've never thought about technique before, which stroke should you start with and why?

Front crawl and Backstroke are perhaps the two least tiring if done well. Backstroke removes the need to time a head turn, allowing for air to be taken when you want so could be considered an easier starting point. Front crawl can create concerns since to do it well you need to put your face in the water. Depending on fitness levels and starting point, Breaststroke might appear simple but done well is highly technical. Confidence, the ability to relax, and timing of the breath should be early aims regardless of stroke.

Are there different techniques you should employ for pool swimming versus open water swimming and why?

Swim movements do not necessarily need to change due to being in open water, but you will need to add in a method for sighting and looking where you are going. If you are swimming in a wetsuit, this will impact body position so we might take into account this change but legs still kick and arms still pull.

Read our expert wetsuit buying guide here

open water swimming technique wetsuit guide

What do you think is most important and why: stroke technique or breathing technique? Or do you need to have everything working together to swim effectively?

The two are inextricably linked. Controlled breathing allows you to swim relaxed with a stroke that can be reproduced over and over again. Swimming well with good technique allows you to breathe when you want. On dry land, breathing is not an interrupted stop/start function due to only being allowed a short window of opportunity to inhale when swimming. In the water, until you have better control of your swim technique, your stroke will dictate when you get to take a breath and that can only lead to further frustration.

What is your top technique advice for:

A swimming novice: Swim more frequently but perhaps for shorter periods. Tremendous gains can be made if you reduce the amount of time ‘unlearning’ between swims.

A swimming enthusiast: Work with a coach. Huge gains can be made for modest changes to your swim technique.

An experienced, high level swimmer: Check progress by performing some specific, reproducible swim sets each 6 weeks or so. Measure if you are getting faster, fitter or swimming further. Add some accountability to your swimming. It might help get you to the pool on those days you are not so keen to go.

Technique Pointers

Tips for breast stroke

  • A symmetrical leg kick is important as propulsion comes from the legs returning together and pushing water backwards.
  • Tuck the chin into the chest, head down, as you drive the hands forwards to keep narrow and streamlined

breaststroke advice swimming technique coach how to improve

Tips for front crawl

  • Arms pulling with the palms facing the bottom of the pool send you upwards not forwards. Check the palms are facing the wall you are swimming away from.
  • 90% of the people I see need to reduce the size of their leg kick. It is a far smaller movement at the hips than most imagine. 

Tips for back stroke

  • Your head must remain still with your chin kept high, otherwise you will snake down the lane with your hips sinking (if your chin is low).
  • This stroke needs a stronger leg kick than most imagine, helping support the body and keeping the body position high.

Tips for butterfly

  • Breathe as low as possible to the water when the head lifts. The mouth just needs to be clearing the water when the head comes up for air. Excess height sinks the legs.
  • Attempt 2 kicks to one arm cycle, most ‘general butterfly’ in public sessions involves 1 kick to 1 pull which usually has you swimming ‘uphill.’

About the author: Dan Bullock has been coaching since 1990, holding qualifications with the ASA, BTF, ASCA and the World Open Water Swim Association. Dan’s accolades include being National Masters Open Water Champion frequently since 2008, Former British AG Record Holder for 800m Front crawl and a European & World Masters medalist.