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Here’s Why You Should be Swimming Different Strokes

I don’t know about you but I get bored very quickly at the pool if I don’t change things up a little bit. Freestyle for 2000 or 3000 yards, although it’s a great workout, can get a little monotonous after a while. Why not spice things up with some different strokes? Most of you triathletes think you don’t need to swim butterfly, backstroke or breast stroke because that’s not what you swim in your event. What you don’t know is that versatility helps you develop as a swimmer and an athlete.

Swimming a variety of strokes can actually improve your strength in freestyle by engaging different muscle groups. It also increases your body awareness and decreases muscular fatigue from the repetitiveness of only swimming freestyle all the time. I’ve found that I never get bored swimming a variety of strokes because it really does break up the monotony.


I like butterfly the best because it requires significant upper body strength and endurance and requires good shoulder mobility. The most I can personally do is 2 lengths max but a good goal would be to work up to 100 yards. Butterfly works the lats, traps, and all the muscles of the back and shoulders. I like the butterfly kick for drills because it builds core strength like no other stroke.

Breast Stroke:

Breast stroke is a great go-to stroke when you are tired, need to become aerobic, or want to really work your legs with its unique style of frog kicking. Breast stroke gives you the benefits of pulling through the water but doing something a little different with your arms and breath. I tell my athletes to have a backup “safety stroke” such as breast stroke or back stroke to use if they are ever feeling anxious in the open water and need to regroup.

Back Stroke:

If you find that you are gulping too much water, need to come up for air while still moving forward or need to get around a buoy, back stroke is very useful. Back stroke is also a nice way to stretch out your pectoral muscles and shoulders if you need a quick break from freestyle. It also works your shoulder muscles nicely with added variety.


Sculling is a great way to work your upper body particularly your arm muscles, and it builds body awareness in the water. There are many ways to scull using a kickboard, pull buoy, or paddles. Although sculling isn’t really officially a stroke, I like to use it for drill work for building strength.

How to incorporate different strokes in your regular workouts?

You can use varying strokes during portions of a particularly hard set as the recovery. For example, 75 hard freestyle then 25 easy backstroke or breaststroke. Another great way is to do kick sets within freestyle efforts. For example, 50 hard free then 50 butterfly kick. If you really want to build endurance then throw in a few lengths of butterfly within your freestyle sets. For example, 25 fly/50 free/25 fly. Butterfly is a great way to build strength and endurance which will help you when you are tired at the end of your swim.

It's always a good idea to contact a swim coach if you think your technique could use some tweaking. You don’t need a lot of lessons- just one or two to give you some things to work on to make you more efficient in the water.

Here is a sample workout that incorporates multiple strokes:

Warm up: 400 done as 100 free/100 back/100 breast/ 50 fly/50 free

Drills: 400 pull (alternating 100’s breathing every 3 strokes then 5 strokes)

Main Set: 16X25’s with 10 to 15 sec rest (1 free/1 non-free)

4X125 with 30 sec rest (25 back/100 smooth/25 breast/100 smooth/25 free/100 smooth/ 25 fly/100 smooth)

4X75 with 15 sec rest (50 free/25 kick of choice)

300 done as 100 pull/100 fins/100 non-free

Cool down: 100 easy free

I’m confident you will find that when you vary your swim strokes even just slightly, you will be pleasantly surprised at how your swim times improve and how changing things up gives you a renewed enthusiasm for your swim workouts.

Have you thought about hiring a coach for your next triathlon event? Click the purple box below and fill out the form so we can chat about your goals!

Mary Timoney

Ironman University Certified Coach

USA Cycling Coach

ACSM Trainer


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