Front crawl: what are the different stages of the stroke?

Greg Whyte explains the sequence of a good front crawl stroke and shares his top tips and drills

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As triathletes, our aim in the swim is to optimise swim stroke economy, which basically means we need to expend as little energy as possible for maximum speed. So, unsurprisingly, having good swim technique is of paramount importance. And in front crawl, the most popular and efficient stroke for a tri swim, the stroke can be broken down into the following stages and elements:

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 Stage 1: Entry & Stretch

The hand enters fingertip first, followed by the hand (palm down) and forearm in line with the shoulder (the elbow should be high, above the hand). The hand then pushes forwards through the water, just below the surface, without crossing in front of the face. Maximising stretch will optimise stroke length.

Top tip: Avoid slapping the water (and wasting energy) by ensuring fingertip entry

Drill: Head-up drills help to optimise hand entry

Stage 2: Down-sweep & Catch

Flexing the arm at the elbow, the catch begins when the palm is facing directly backwards. Again, elbow should remain high (above the hand) and the forearm and upper arm push backwards. The importance of this phase is to place the hand and arm in the correct position to begin the propulsive phase.

Top tip: Imagine you’re swimming through a cylinder, the body roll should remain in the cylinder to reduce drag.

Drill: Catch-up (where the entry hand waits for the opposite hand to touch before starting the down-sweep – using a stick can really focus the mind on correct technique)

Stage 3: In-sweep and Up-sweep

The in-sweep begins just outside the line of the shoulder in the catch phase and finishes under the body in the mid-line (the arm should be flexed to around 90° at the elbow). From the end of the in-sweep, the arm extends slightly (not completely) and the palm pushes towards the thigh into the up-sweep, the most propulsive phase of the stroke where the hand is accelerated to its maximum speed.

Top tip: Touch your thumb at mid-thigh as it approaches the surface to ensure maximum stroke length

Drill: Accelerate the hand as rapidly as possible, so that you flick up of water on hand exit (making sure the thumb touches mid-thigh prior to exit)

Stage 4: Release & Recovery

During the recovery, the elbow should remain high (above the hand) as it moves forward in a high arc. Relax the arm and expend as little energy as possible during recovery.

Top tip: A common mistake is to allow the hand to lead the recovery, swinging it away from the body, which causes the body to wiggle and increase drag. Focus on keeping the hand close to the body and the elbow above the hand throughout the recovery.

Drill: Touch the thumb of the recovery arm in the armpit during recovery to ensure a high elbow – not as easy as it sounds!

Other key elements of the front crawl stroke

Kicking

Kicking is often the nemesis of every triathlete and, accordingly, can be their weakest link. Kicking is less important to a triathlete compared with a pool swimmer (particularly in wetsuit swims), however, optimising technique remains instrumental in fast, economic swimming. Generally, kicking provides little in the way of propulsion for a triathlete (particularly in a wetsuit). However, kicking is important in balancing and stabilising the stroke. Triathletes should work on kicking in training to improve technique and economy.

Top tip: Relax kicking. Excessive kicking significantly increases fatigue in return for limited propulsion. That said, including kicking in swim training is crucial – however bad you are at it!

Drill: Sets of kicking with and without a kick board. Focus on enhancing body position.

Breathing

One of the most difficult aspects of the swim technique is breathing but adopting a breathing pattern that optimises economy is the primary goal. It’s important to remember that technique (avoiding the one-sided limp) and sighting (open water) are central to economy. To that end, bilateral breathing (breathing every third stroke) is optimal.

Top tip: Don’t look down. Raise your eye line to look slightly in front as this also improves body position. When breathing, use the roll of the body rather than excessively turning the head (look to the side/slightly backwards during breaths, not forward or up).

Drill: Breathe every three strokes for a length and increase the number of strokes per breath (5, 7, 9, 11) over subsequent lengths. Exerting control under fatigue will improve technique and economy.

Sighting

Unique to open-water swimming, sighting is a skill absent in pool swimmers. But for triathletes, sighting can mean the difference between success and failure in the first discipline. Poor sighting leads to poor navigation, extended swim distances and slower exit times. In addition, poor technique can also mean excessive energy expenditure and early fatigue.

Integrating sighting into your breathing pattern while limiting head movement as much as possible will reduce energy expenditure and stress. So including open-water sighting practice in your training sessions is critical and should be practised under fatigue.

Top tip: Spend as little energy as possible sighting. Looking for small objects in the water (i.e. buoys) to sight is difficult and futile, particularly in mass-start events. Use large, land-based objects (i.e. buildings, trees, masts etc.) as this will reduce time, save energy and help maintain your speed.

Drill: Swim open water and much as possible. In the pool, add sets that include sighting at regular intervals, i.e. every 10 strokes.

The intense technical nature of swimming combined with the limited availability of performance feedback (i.e. power meters etc.) means that coaching guidance can make the difference between progress and disaster. In addition, specialist support in programme design optimises all aspects of physiological development as well as technical development.

More than any other discipline in triathlon, coaching is central to performance optimisation. The intense technical nature of swimming combined with the limited availability of performance feedback (i.e. power meters etc.) means that coaching guidance can be the difference between progress and disaster. In addition, specialist support in programme design optimises all aspects of physiological development, as well as technical development.

Professor Greg Whyte OBE

Greg has been a competitive swimmer for over four decades, starting out as a national junior champion, before becoming a national and world age-group pool and open-water champion. He has also added Olympic, world and European medals in modern pentathlon to his vast list of accolades. 

Greg has also competed in triathlons for over three decades, exiting the water first on many occasions and last year was second out of the water at Norseman.

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Greg has teamed up with Luxury Sports Breaks to host an open water swimming camp in Croatia, in May and November 2020. T220 readers can take advantage of a 10% discount by quoting IKnowProf when booking.