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Swimming Faster Backstroke

Updated on November 12, 2012

Technique Tips for Swimming Backstroke More Efficient

Backstroke, one of the most commonly practiced swimming disciplines, has many subtle facets to technique that when executed, can make you a more efficient backstroker. Why practice to become more efficient? Because in swimming, EFFICIENCY = SPEED!

As a lifelong competitive swimmer, and 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials participant in the 100 and 200 Backstroke events, I know how to take a backstroker from being good to being great. In this article, I will detail some seldom taught tips that backstrokers at the highest level use to swim fast.

Head Position

To use a sailing analogy, the head, in swimming, acts as a sort of rudder for the body. Wherever the head goes, the body will follow. The most common mistakes a swimmer will make while swimming backstroke all have to do with head position. If you tuck your chin into your chest, your entire body will sink. If you dunk your head too far back, you will choke on water, and you will increase drag from just your head. If you move your head back and forth while swimming, your body will follow, swaying back and forth in the water.

To correct head position, you may have head the old swim coach adage "put a teacup/penny on your forehead and swim." While this may work, it will inevitably end in you spending more time diving down to the bottom to retrieve your fallen forehead marker than actually swimming. My advice is as follows: KEEP YOUR EYES STILL. If you keep your eyes still, and focus on one thing on the ceiling directly above you, your head will naturally move less. Think about when someone calls your name from somewhere in your periphery. Do you move your head first or your eyes? If you are perceptive, you'll notice that your eyes skirt towards the caller first, and your head follows. This is because your eye movements often times precede your head movements when you are trying to look at something. My trick to keeping good head position is to relax my head in a neutral position (like you're laying it on your pillow at night to sleep) and to keep my eyes perfectly still. Try it out!

Body Position

In backstroke, your body position needs to me as high in the water as possible. Your body's floating level depends on your body mass (muscle-fat ratio) but mostly on your head position. Keep your head positioned as detailed above and you'll be in the sweet spot.

While swimming backstroke, like freestyle, the body pivots back and forth along an imaginary axis that runs from head to toe. This is why freestyle and backstroke are called the "long axis strokes." Just like in freestyle, use your hips and shoulders to drive your body from side to side.

Arm Stroke

The emphasis for the backstroke arm stroke is on reaching, rotating, rolling, and recovering-- The Four R's. First, we will detail Reaching.

Reaching is the part of the stroke when your hand passes over your face and is about to enter the water above your head. If your head is pointing directly as 12 o'clock, the hands should enter the water at precisely 11 and 1 o'clock. Any more and you are over reaching, thereby putting unnecessary pressure on your shoulders and decreasing power. Any less and you are not getting as much out of your pull as possible. Once your hand has entered the water, reach as tall as you can above your head.

Rotating begins when you are reaching as tall as you can. In order to reach as far as you can, you must rotate onto your side. Just like freestyle, the swimmer who reaches and rotates the farthest will be the most efficient, and thereby the fastest swimmer, in the long run.

Rolling happens when you are pulling your first arm through the water and your next arm is coming over the water. In backstroke, we roll from side to side evenly in order to achieve the greatest area on our pulls and to cut through the water in a streamlined fashion. During the roll and pull, keep your arm bent at a 90 degree angle from shoulder to elbow to wrist for optimal power. Sweep your arm through the water until you reach your hip.

Recovery is the part of the stroke when you have completed one full underwater pull and are lifting your arm out of the water to begin the next pull. Make sure you lift out your arm with the thumb leading. This will decrease pressure on the shoulder and reduce chance of injury. When entering the water in the reach phase, place your hand in little finger first. During the recovery turn your hand from thumb leading to little finger leading. Do this by turning the little finger outwards away from the body.

Kicking

The backstroke kick should be done with relatively straight legs, thus engaging the muscles for propulsive power, and not the knee joint. Remember to point your toes down as your kick to maximize surface area with which to catch water and propel yourself forward.

There you have it! Go out and swim some fast backstroke!

Recovery Phase: Notice how the swimmer has her arm exiting thumb first. Also notice the body position. She is rolling from side to side with each arm stroke, all while keeping her head perfectly still and relaxed.
Recovery Phase: Notice how the swimmer has her arm exiting thumb first. Also notice the body position. She is rolling from side to side with each arm stroke, all while keeping her head perfectly still and relaxed.
A Breakdown of Backstroke Technique. Notice in Frame 5 the 90 degree angle bend in the swimmer's arm pull. Also notice the long straight legs with pointed toes used for kicking, and the roll from side to side.
A Breakdown of Backstroke Technique. Notice in Frame 5 the 90 degree angle bend in the swimmer's arm pull. Also notice the long straight legs with pointed toes used for kicking, and the roll from side to side.

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