Why you should be swimming ‘off strokes’ regularly

Don't just stick to freestyle in the pool – targeting weaker strokes, like butterfly, breaststroke and even backstroke, has a number of benefits


While many triathletes typically focus on their race stroke when training, there are a number of benefits to tackling the weaker ones, as Fiona Ford explains…


There are many advantages to including ‘off strokes’ – or individual medley (IM) – to bring technical, strength and physiological gains to your triathlon swimming. If you’re new to medley strokes, it’s best to start with a technical block of sessions to master butterfly (fly), backstroke and breaststroke, in a progressive manner starting with the kick, drill and eventually the full stroke.

Including short medley sets in your training programme is beneficial in simulating racing environments where the athlete adapts to cope with unexpected demands or unfamiliar conditions. The demands of switching between butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle in a medley set effectively lifts your anaerobic and lactate threshold. IM sets are physically demanding and utilise a greater number of muscle groups. Incorporating a short IM set, followed by a freestyle ‘race pace’ set over 85-95% of your target race distance, is an effective way of conditioning the body to deal with anaerobic discomfort.

Typically, squad feedback – over a two-to-three-month training cycle with a focus on other strokes – indicates perceived significant strength gains in their swimming. Swimmers tend to feel more effective in freestyle as a result, applying the concepts of body rotation from the hips (backstroke), effective streamlining and kick (fly), and optimal catch/pull (breaststroke).

How to improve your breaststroke

Breaststroke technique for triathletes

Backstroke and butterfly significantly improve core muscle function, hip flexor range and streamlining in the freestyle stroke by reducing drag issues caused by a low leg position. Medley sets, including drills and kick practice, add variety to sessions, without overly relying on swim aids like paddles and pull buoys. By developing flexibility, range of movement and strength across large muscle groups, there is reduced risk of overuse injuries.  

How to swim butterfly

How does swimming butterfly improve your front crawl?

Finally, an understated competitive advantage is the progression, persistence, determination and practice required to master new skills, and the benefits this brings about maintaining a positive attitude for success.


For more swimming advice, head to our Training section