The Merits of Stroke Work

author : EnduRight
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Do you do that same freestyle stroke over and over? Why triathletes can benefit from swimming other strokes besides freestyle.

Like a world-class chef who uses only the sharpest knives in his or her kitchen when engaging in their art, the triathlete must keep his or her racing tools sharp for race day. For the swimming leg of a triathlon, athletes must keep their freestyle stroke fine-tuned and primed for race performance. In addition to traditional methods such as freestyle drill work and speed work, swimming non-free or integrating “stroke work” into your workouts can help keep your freestyle sharp and ready for competition.

Swimming lap after lap of sub-race pace freestyle will dull your racing stroke. Because the percentage of most athletes’ swimming volume is slower freestyle, the muscle memory we develop over time mirrors the swimming technique used in that volume. While it is important to mix race-pace and supra race-pace training into our training, we must swim slower volume to build our aerobic engine. However, the balancing act of aerobic versus threshold training creates a catch-22: It is impossible to build our aerobic engines at slower speeds without dulling our freestyle. On the other hand, including too much speed work into our training volume increases our risk of over-training.

Incorporating stroke work into our training allows us to supplement aerobic conditioning without dulling our freestyle technique. Backstroke, like freestyle, is a long-axis stroke and most of the balancing and propulsive principles of backstroke are applicable to freestyle. Unlike butterfly or breaststroke, it’s much easier to regulate your heart rate while swimming backstroke, allowing you to swim longer distances in a given set. Mixing a set of backstroke swimming with freestyle drills is a great way to increase aerobic base and endurance while working on freestyle technique. An example of a simple 1000 yard/meter set would be;

4x250 @ 0:15 rest – (100 backstroke – 50 Freestyle Drill – 100 backstroke)

Although the short axis strokes – butterfly and breaststroke – do not have as many technical similarities to freestyle as backstroke, they still provide beneficial freestyle training adaptations. What I particularly like about the short axis strokes is that they build functional freestyle strength without compromising freestyle technique. The mechanics of the catch on both the butterfly and breaststroke mimic that of free, so the focus while swimming these strokes should be on this portion of the stroke.


While swimming the short axis strokes, the athlete’s emphasis should be on maintaining the integrity of the high elbow position from the catch throughout the path of the pull. Because the physical demands of the short axis strokes are far greater than the long axis strokes, limit the distances and duration for short axis strokes. An example of a 1000 yard/meter set incorporating all strokes while building functional freestyle strength through short axis stroke work would be:

4x25 Fly @ 0:10-0:15 rest
200 @ 0:15 rest (50 Freestyle Drill – 50 Breaststroke – 50 Freestyle Drill – 50 Backstroke)
8x25 @ 0:10-0:15 rest (Odd 25s: Fly, Even 25s: moderate kick)
200 @ 0:15 rest (50 Freestyle Drill – 50 Breaststroke – 50 Freestyle Drill – 50 Backstroke)
4x25 Breaststroke @ 0:10-0:15 rest
200 @ 0:15 rest (50 Freestyle Drill – 50 Breaststroke – 50 Freestyle Drill – 50 Backstroke)

Keep the tools in your race day tool box sharp and ready for performance. Stroke work will help you supplement your aerobic conditioning and build functional strength without compromising your freestyle technique. Additionally, stroke work will break up the monotony of sub-race pace freestyle swimming that dominates most of our swimming training volume.


Matthew has coached American & World Record holders as a swimming coach at Stanford and Arizona State. He operates EnduRIght, an online coaching company. Please contact him at [email protected] or through


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date: August 5, 2008