In The Three Styles of Freestyle, former Race Club coach Mike Bottom describes three distinctly different techniques that are frequently used today by top freestylers. One, called hip-driven freestyle, depends on having a strong kick and results in a longer hold of the arm/hand in the front lift position, and a larger rotation or counter-rotation of the hip to generate more of a stabilizing force. This technique is used more commonly in distance swimmers who rely more on their legs to sustain speed. Examples of hip-driven freestlyers include Grant Hackett, Ous Mellouli, Ian Thorpe, and Katie Hoff. A shoulder-driven technique relies on a higher stroke rate with a more immediate catch in front in order to sustain the speed. Shoulder-driven distance freestylers would include David Davies, Ryan Cochrane, Kieren Perkins and Federica Pellegrini. The third technique coach Bottom describes is the body or core-driven technique, which he also teaches with a straight-armed recovery. This technique teaches a symmetrical rotation of the body, connecting both the hips and shoulders uniformly and equally in motion.
The 50 meter sprints are dominated by the shoulder-driven freestylers and while there is a mixture of shoulder-driven and hip-driven freestylers in the 400 and 1500, we are seeing a new hybrid technique emerge for middle-distance freestylers, from the 100 to 400 meters, which results in an asymmetrical swimming stroke. This technique, which is being used by Michael Phelps, Paul Biedermann and Jason Lezak, to name a few, may just combine the advantages of both hip-driven and shoulder-driven techniques for these middle distances.
What one sees from above with this new hybrid freestyle is an asymmetrical, almost jerky motion, as it appears one arm is moving faster than the other. In fact, the time it takes each arm to move through a stroke cycle is the same (otherwise, the arms would soon become totally out of synchronization), but the way they move through the stroke cycle differs. In Phelps stroke, for example, he breathes to the right side. With his left arm, he uses a classic hip-driven freestyle, holding in front, depending on his massive leg strength to create lift and propulsion. However, with the right arm, he goes into a more immediate catch, which has the effect of increasing the stroke rate over a conventional hip-driven technique. The left arm, which spent more time in front, catches up to the right arm in the stroke cycle by using a quick release and a hurried recovery, thus creating the jerky-appearing motion. Underwater, what one sees is the left hand in front of the shoulder when the right hand enters the water, and the right hand past the shoulder when the left hand enters the water; two very different positions.
Combining the shoulder-driven technique on one side, which clearly favors speed, with the hip-driven technique on the other, a technique used more commonly for distance events, this new hybrid freestyle may just be the ideal technique for the middle ground. I’m not sure who should be given the credit for being the first to use this hybrid technique, but based on the success of the three examples I mentioned, we may see it used a lot more in the future.
At the Race Club camps, we feel strongly that there is not one technique that is best for every swimmer or in any stroke. Each technique must be designed for a swimmer based on the strengths of the swimmer and the distance swum. Every swimmer, in order to maximize his or her ability in the sport, will need to learn and apply different ways of swimming the same stroke. Race Club swimmer, Nathan Adrian, for example, changes his stroke technique during his race, in order to improve his performance.