What’s the fastest swimming stroke?

Ever wondered what the fastest swim stroke is to help propel you in the water? Andrew Sheaff looks at the four options and provides a winner…

Man swimming freestyle in a pool

Many individuals want to know which swimming stroke is fastest. This is article is going to provide you with the answer, and more importantly, provide you with a straightforward explanation as to why the strokes differ in speed.


Of course, depending on how much you practise each of the strokes, the answer may vary slightly for you. If you’ve never swum backstroke in your life, it probably won’t be very fast! However, there is a pretty rigid speed hierarchy, and that’s no coincidence.

Which is the fastest swim stroke?

Swimming speed is all about creating propulsion and reducing drag. The more propulsion that’s created and the less drag that’s created, the faster you go.

Creating more propulsion is like having a giant rowing oar as compared to using a tiny paddle. The bigger oar is always going to move you through the water faster. Creating propulsion is like pushing the gas pedal.

When it comes to reducing drag, think about it in terms of cars. Which car is going to be faster, the sleek sports car or the big truck? The sports car will be always be faster because it slips rather than plows through the air.

Swimming works the same way. The more your body slips rather than plows through the water, the faster you go.

How does this relate to the different strokes? Each stroke is governed by different rules, and those rules have a dramatic effect on how much propulsion can be created and how much drag can be reduced.

As a result, certain strokes tend to allow for more or less prolusion and create more or less drag. That means each stroke will have a different potential for creating speed.

The more propulsion that can be created while minimising drag, the faster the stroke. Let’s take a look at the different strokes to see which allow for the most speed.

Is there a stroke faster than freestyle?

When it comes to swimming on the surface of the water, freestyle is the king of speed. The body is moving straight through the water, with little change in body position. That means the amount of drag that’s created is relatively low.

Additionally, the rotation of the body allows for the arms to be put in optimal positions to create a lot of propulsion. Because of the limited amount of drag and the large amount of propulsion, freestyle is fast.

The one challenge with freestyle is breathing. If breathing is not performed effectively, it can really slow one down. Fortunately, breathing can be improved with exercises like Paddle Cap Freestyle:

If we’re including all modes of water travel, there are some individuals that can perform underwater dolphin kicking faster than freestyle. Dolphin kicking is fast because there is so little drag. The stroke is literally performed in streamline!

Additionally, because it’s performed underwater, all of the drag that is typically experienced at the surface of the water is eliminated. However, dolphin kicking is obviously not sustainable due the lack of oxygen, and it’s only relevant for pool swimmers.

The verdict

No, there is not a surface stroke faster than freestyle. However, some individuals may be able to swim faster by kicking underwater over short distances.

Is backstroke faster than freestyle?

Backstroke is similar to freestyle in that you’re moving through the water nice and straight. However, it appears that a larger amount of the body is submerged underwater when swimming on the back, which means that there’s going to be slightly more drag.

The biggest difference between freestyle and backstroke is that it’s much more difficult to place the arms in effective pulling positions on the back. The arms are in weaker positions and it’s harder to create a lot of propulsion.

That means backstroke creates more drag and less propulsion than freestyle.

The verdict

No, backstroke is not faster than freestyle.

Is butterfly faster than freestyle?

When it comes to creating propulsion, butterfly is on par with freestyle. Both arms are used to move water backward over a long distance. Where butterfly speed really takes a hit is in the creation of drag.

Because both arms pull at the same time, both arms need to be recovered at the same time. To recover both arms out of the water requires lifting the upper body out of the water, which pushes the hips lower in the water.

This motion creates a lot of drag at a time when little propulsion is created. That means there is a lot of ‘stop and go’ motion to butterfly, which creates even more drag, further limiting speed.

The verdict

No, butterfly is not faster than freestyle.

Which swimming style is slowest?

For most individuals, breaststroke is going to be the slowest stroke. Unfortunately, breaststroke has everything going against it. It’s the only stroke where the arms are going to be recovered under the water.

It’s also the only stroke where the legs are going to be fully recovered underwater. That means a lot of drag.

To make matters worse, the arms only pull to the chest before they’re recovered, allowing for half a pull. Speed in breaststroke is limited by more drag and less propulsion.

The verdict

Breaststroke is the slowest stroke.


Top image credit: Getty Images