There is much more to swimming than Front Crawl, Backstroke, Breaststroke and Butterfly. These four strokes are the ones you will see in officially-regulated pool-based competition (such as the Olympics), and for this reason are the ones commonly taught to children at swim school, but there are many more ways to swim. Swimming strokes evolved over history (butterfly was unheard of before the 1930s) and there are some old-fashioned strokes still in use today. Other strokes are specific to different applications. Learning alternative strokes can be fun as well as enhancing your skillset.
Old English Backstroke:
You’ll often find older people swimming old-English backstroke at your local pool as this was probably the way backstroke was taught when they learned to swim as children. The backstroke has evolved over time as sports science found ways to make it more efficient. Old English backstroke involves pulling both arms at the same time, whilst the legs kick a breaststroke pattern. A double pull combined with a breaststroke kick is extremely powerful, but the rhythm of the stroke is a bit stop-start. Modern backstroke has a more continuous, flowing rhythm. A double backstroke pull is a shallow, wide pull underneath the water, whereas the alternating pull of modern backstroke allows the body to roll and achieve a much deeper pull, closer to the mid-line, which is more efficient. The body shape creates more drag in old-English backstroke compared to it’s modern equivalent. It is easy to see why the evolved modern version is used in racing, but there remain benefits to including old-English backstroke in your workout. A double backstroke pull is great for stretching the anterior shoulder muscles, which are often tightened due to poor posture. More drag in the water effectively provides a resistance training workout, so you can develop more muscle strength when swimming an otherwise “inefficient” stroke.
In side-stroke, the swimmer faces one side, usually with the head out of the water at all times. Legs can kick either a breaststroke-type shape or a front crawl style. Arms scoop in a way similar to breaststroke, but due to the body position, they are not aligned. One arm stretches further ahead of the swimmer and the other stays closer to the chest. It is neither a fast nor efficient stroke, but provides an ideal position for swimmers who wish to chat to one another. Though this may seem a silly reason to those people who swim for fitness, there are genuine uses for being able to chat whilst swimming. Teachers and coaches who do one-to-one lessons, or people who are acting as a support buddy can guide and correct whilst in the water and can stay close to their swimmers, keeping an eye on them as they swim. When rescuing a casualty in the water, lifeguards or water rescuers will often swim side stroke when towing their patient to safety. In this position, they can easily look forward and behind and can reassure their patient or check their condition as they go. There is also nothing wrong with chatting while you swim for the sake of enjoying a social activity. Many people do not like to use swimming as a vigorous exercise and prefer to swim gently as a form of relaxation, stretching and gentle mobility. If chatting to someone else motivates you to get in the water and enjoy it, then why not?
Head-up front crawl:
When you learn front crawl, one of the first things you are probably taught is to put your face in the water. Front crawl typically involves keeping the head down for a couple of strokes before rolling to the side to breathe. So why would you want to swim front crawl with your head up all the time? Again, this is mainly a lifesaving stroke. When swimming to rescue someone, you should never take your eye off the person you are saving. In water, especially in rivers or sea where underwater current or waves play a part, it is easy for the casualty to drift away from where you first spotted them. You can waste valuable time swimming in one direction only to find there’s nobody there, then having to re-locate them and swim to where they have now appeared. Triathletes and open water swimmers can make good use of this technique because in open water, there are no lines drawn on the floor like there are in the swimming pool and it is easy to swim off-course. Being able to look ahead occasionally without interrupting your stroke (called “sighting” in triathlon or open water swimming) helps you to check your bearings without losing speed. Swimming front crawl with your head up looking straight ahead is much more strenuous than swimming with the face in the water. As well as driving you forward, the arms have to press down on the water to give you lift. For this reason, head-up front crawl can be a good drill to throw into your training sessions to build muscle.
Head up breaststroke
Swimming breaststroke with the head out of the water is useful if you want to talk to or keep an eye on another swimmer (for example if you are supervising a child or buddy in the pool) or simply to combine fitness with socialising. Swimming breaststroke with the head up can be used for lifesaving, allowing a rescuer to approach a casualty whilst maintaining sight at all times.
Reverse breaststroke kick
Kicking breaststroke whilst laying on your back can be a very restful and gentle way of swimming. Sculling with your hands provides balance. You can breathe very easily when laying on the back and a breaststroke kick is a good way to stretch and strengthen the legs. Many people begin learning breaststroke on the back because breaststroke is a complex stroke to learn. On your back, you can sit up and see what your legs are doing. Once you have memorised the moves, you can flip it over and practice it on your front. A reverse breaststroke kick is useful for lifesaving or towing an object as it is a powerful kick. When towing a casualty or pulling an object through the water, a backstroke kick would be too tiring.
Often dismissed as the way babies swim or “the wrong way to swim front crawl”, doggy paddle can be used as a strenuous training drill! Keeping the head up and short underwater arm pulls requires serious upper body strength. Instead of grabbing at the water, let your hands scoop/scull and this builds muscle in your forearm as well as developing a good “feel” for the water.
A turtle swim uses the arm and leg actions of breaststroke but instead of each side of the body mirroring the other, the arms and legs move alternately. In order to maintain balance, the right arm pulls at the same time that the left leg kicks, then the left arm pulls whilst the right leg kicks. It is breaststroke alternating diagonally. A benefit to a turtle swim is the ability to break habits. The more we swim, the more we develop muscle memory for a stroke. Being able to break this habit is a mental challenge that enables us to think more about exactly how our arms and legs are moving, which can help us to make improvements. As a survival technique, a turtle swim teaches us to use our arms and legs in a different order to what we have become used to, which can help us to continue swimming when one of our limbs becomes incapacitated due to cramp or other injury.