10 Steps To Swimming Faster Freestyle

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During my recent stay in Hawaii, I had the opportunity to take a clinic on swimming faster freestyle.

The clinic was taught by Karlyn Pipes-Nielsen, who was recently voted one of the top ten master's swimmers of all time by Swimming World Magazine. She has set over 200 Masters World records, she's in the International Masters Swimming Hall of Fame, and she holds numerous course records in California and the all over the Island of Hawaii.

She also mentioned to me that her 77 year old mother who she lives with also swims, and can do a Half Ironman swim in around 30 minutes.

So this lady knows what she's talking about!

Her information on swimming faster freestyle included some stuff I've personally never heard before, and after the clinic, I went down to Dig Me Beach and swam the entire Ironman Hawaii swim course more comfortably than I ever have (of course, I'm sure that part of that was also due to the work I've been doing with the guys over at SwimSmooth.com)

So what exactly did I learn during Karlyn's clinic?

1) Breathing: Hum or sing your air out when your head is in the water. Nice relaxed open mouth. No “breath holding”.

2) Head & Body Position: Look just slightly forward, but don't strain your neck and definitely don't bury your head and tuck your chin.

3) Shoulder Rotation: Imagine you're paddling a surfboard. You don't actually need much rotation, and most shoulders try to rotate shoulders too much so that their “hips turn”.

4) Hand Entry: Put your hands flat (no “pinky up” or “thumb up” angle) exactly at the width you would put them at if you were doing a pull-up at the gym. That's your power position.

5) Take A Break: After your arm enters the water, reach forward and take a very slight break, that you barely even think about as a “break” or “pause”. This gives you a quick, powerful glide.

6) Pull: Don't think about an S Pattern. Instead, just pull like you would if you were paddling a boat, or a surfer paddling a board. Hand just goes straight back through the water.

7) Catch The Water: Use a high elbow catch, which means your fingertips point towards the bottom of the pool as you pull. I'm a huge fan of the Catch Masterclass DVD (which I talked about in my six essential pieces of swim gear post) for learning proper catch.

8) Power or “Umph” at the Front: Your power phase occurs early in the front of your stroke, not in the end at your hips. Press hard in the beginning, then quickly let go and get your arm into reach for the next stroke. Think: reach big, pull short.

9) Release & Recover: After the “umph” phase, let go of the water and get your arm into recovery before your hand gets back to your hip. Straight, round, or bent elbow in recovery doesn't matter – just do what feels natural for you!

10) Kick: Think about turning your toes inward and keep your kick small and quick. Your big toes can be tapping against one another as you kick.

For those of you who want to see exactly what these concepts look like when put into practice, check out this video of Karlyn swimming:

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Questions, comments or feedback? Leave them below!

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34 thoughts on “10 Steps To Swimming Faster Freestyle

  1. Maia says:

    Hi Ben

    I’ve been swimming my entire life and have always loved the sport! Your tips have helped me an awful lot and my record times have improved a lot. A couple months back I fell during a hockey match and messed up my knee… any time strain is put on my knee it gives me problems and many times I have to stop swimming because of the pain. Any suggestions on what to do?

    1. Take a look at this page https://bengreenfieldfitness.com/2012/07/episo… (specifically the question from Joe) and you might also benefit from this http://www.bulletproofknee.com/

  2. kkarlis says:

    Some of the tips will definitely help when it comes to swimming faster than all the friends in the pool. Thank you. Thank you very much.

  3. paul says:

    Sun Yang — the WR holder in 1500m freestyle — does the same stroke but with an asymmetrical kick. They call it the High elbow catch or catch up. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uncOBURz-6o
    SwimSmooth has an app that shows the same same as the video but without such a sharp elbow bend.. They say the longer you do it, the more extreme the elbows bend.

    1. Nice, I'll check this out, Sun.

  4. cortthesport says:

    Great recap! I've watched a lot of her videos at the Vasa site. She's such a beautiful swimmer and gifted at describing what she can do so naturally.

  5. allow me to fix those links

    i wandered into karyln's _wrist awareness_video
    &lt https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RZO738a8WQw>
    it helped. during the olympics, paul newsome pointed out what becky adlington does.
    &lt ;http://www.feelforthewater.com/2012/08/bend-it-like-becky-part-2.html>
    i began to that and could not believe the difference it made! i "bend it like becky" regularly now.

  6. i wandered into karyln's _wrist awareness_video &lt https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RZO738a8WQw>
    it helped. during the olympics, paul newsome pointed out what becky adlington does. &lt ;http://www.feelforthewater.com/2012/08/bend-it-like-becky-part-2.html>
    i began to that and could not believe the difference it made! i "bend it like becky" regularly now.

  7. Phoebe says:

    Do you concentrate on pushing the air out through the nose AND mouth? What about taking it in…. this part is challenging for me and I often end up gulping up water. Hence the breath holding. Yikes!

  8. Meridith says:

    I am a new swimmer although I learned many years ago as a child. I am pretty good at doing most strokes with the exception of the free style. Go figure! I take my time, breath out slowly thru my mouth(sometimes both nose and mouth) but by the end of one length I seem to run out of breath and I am panting. I do have a slight heart issue with a skipped beat or irregular heartbeat and haven't looked into finding out if this has anything to do with my problem.
    Any suggestions? I am in good health otherwise (for 61).
    Meridith G

    1. Irregular heartbeat won't affect this too much (I've trained some folks who have that skipped beat issue). I'd get the new book by SwimSmooth, which is here: http://www.swimsmooth.com/1004-8-3-11.html

    2. Misty says:

      Hi Meredith, also keep in mind, swimming is really different than land excercises. it takes a while to build up endurance in the water. The suggestion for "humming " underwater has really been beneficial for me as far as maintaining rhythmic breathing. make sure you arent holding your breath, bc that can also create breathlessness by the end of a 25 m pool. the book seems pretty informative as well.

  9. Misty says:

    does she mention exactly where to enter with the hand. sometimes i think i come in too early. if i just throw my hand way out, my shoulders and arms get much more tired..curious if she addressed this.

    1. As far in front of the body as you can get it, Misty…

  10. Chris Butterworth says:

    Love it! Swimming is probably the least natural exercise we do, especially from a "just to get in shape" standpoint. And the amount of speed / efficiency you can gain from good technique is remarkable. I used to struggle to swim 1,000 meters in 23 minutes. Then I watched a bunch of videos of Terry Laughlin's Total Immersion technique. Then I practiced, over and over again. Now I swim a mile in about 27-28 minutes. (and I'm less tired than I used to be!)

  11. Can anyone explain (simply) the reason that holding your breath is so bad? I am 100% guilty of this and am curious as to how fixing this will help?

    1. Holds in carbon dioxide and thus increases muscle tension. Also, makes you have to take that much more time to exhale and then inhale when you come up for a breath.

  12. Peter Lehman says:

    Thank you for posting!

  13. greg says:

    very good info, I no it is possible for 57 year old male like myself, to be able to swim a 30 min halfor 1 hour full marition.

  14. Anne says:

    I truelly appreciate user friendly hints!
    I can totally visualize what you are saying
    Wish I had this prior to 70.3 at rev 3 quassy
    Thank you thank you

  15. Jeff says:

    I said that backwards….I use bilateral during steady, recovery swims.

  16. Jeff says:

    Do you use unilateral breathing when you train and race? I find myself using uni-lateral when I am doing long, recovery swims but bilateral when racing or intensity drills.

  17. Yannick says:

    nice tips! these are the things i was thaught when i joined a swim team!!
    However i m still bit confused bout my kicking. my coach tells me to use a relaxed 2 beat kick ( in 1500 freestyle)that gives you enough power to propulse you forward. at the end of the race i usually kick harder and go bit faster.
    i had a 800 freestyle two days ago and i noticed that the swimmer next to me kicked pretty hard during the entire race a beat me by 45 seconds?

    what s your favourite kicing pattern (i also noticed that lot of top swimmer reduce their kicking in the gliding phase and in the pulling phase, they kick bit more)

    1. I think that swimmers should kick, but it's *triathletes* that need to be careful. I'm personally a 6 beat swimmer, but I am trying to teach myself 2 beat just to conserve energy for cycling and running…also just now starting to experiment with Aquasphere Alpha fins…

  18. Aniruddha says:

    Thanks for this info and video…

    I am good with most of the my swimming techniques, but often time I am out of breath…I know when I breath-in I am doing something wrong…Somehow that small time window is less for me to get in the air

    Any suggestions for improvement…

    1. Yes, you should be breathing slightly out when your mouth is underwater, then give yourself a slightly body rotation as you turn to get more air. That is enough time to get a big gulp of air. Check out GoSwim.Tv – they have some great drills there.

  19. Patricia Rosen says:

    I noticed she swings her arms out of the water and scrapes the water after entering as her fingers are curved up towards the surface.

    I am sure I'm not nearly as fast as this woman but I'm wondering about this as I have been taught my fingers need to point down and my elbow should lead… swinging the arm out and way fro the body seems to use a lot more energy than bringing the arm up along the side of the body.

    1. You mean on the recovery, as the arm is above the water Patricia? The phase of the swim stroke *does not matter at all* in the big scheme of things. Straight, bent, slightly bent, circular, whatever.

  20. angelo says:

    I would also would like to lose bodyfat

    1. Check out my response to Ann, Angelo, and also all the fat burning recommendations at: http://goo.gl/Zu02D

  21. Ann says:

    Thanks for this post and the video! Quick question: I love to swim and I feel very natural in the water. But, as I've gotten a little bit older (late 30s) I want to shed some bodyfat I've acquired. Should I ditch my swim workouts in favor of running or other land-based cardio? I've heard that swimming encourages bodyfat retention….

    Thanks and keep up the good work. Love the podcast!

    1. Swimming is great for burning body fat, Ann – especially if you can find a colder pool to swim in, which can amplify calorie burning even higher. However, if you love to swim and feel very natural in the water, you're probably very efficient at swimming, and would benefit from mixing things up so that you introduce your body to new calorie burning modes…

      The only type of body fat you'd retain from swimming would be brown adipose tissue, which doesn't look the same as belly fat, muffin tops, etc.

      1. Ann says:

        Great, thanks for the reply!

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