Swimming Backstroke Rules

Swimming Backstroke

Most swimmers know that breathing is the thing that coaches yell at you for. That is, unless you’re a backstroker. Backstroke gets a reputation for being the second easiest stroke following the freestyle, and that’s because it’s known as “freestyle on your back.” When done correctly, the backstroke helps medley relays get head starts and can be an extremely exciting race to watch. Even Missy Franklin, one of the youngest and formerly best swimmers on the USA team, was an iconic backstroker, and her races continue to inspire young swimmers everywhere. Despite the straightforward nature of the backstroke, it’s one of the easiest strokes to get disqualified for due to the technical difficulty of the turns and the unique start. Keep reading to learn about the technicalities of this extremely fun and vital stroke.


Of the four major strokes, backstroke is the only one that doesn’t utilize the starting block. Instead, swimmers start in the water and use either the gutter or the starting grips. The technical aspects of the start require careful focus, as incorrect positioning during the start can lead to a disqualification. The swimmers must line up on the starting end of the pool facing the blocks with their hands placed on the gutter or the start grip. Both hands must be placed on the starting grips or gutter prior to the start of the race. The swimmer must then place both feet on the wall just below the gutter.

At least one of the swimmer’s toes on both feet must make contact with the starting pad. The toes must not be in the gutter, above the lip of the gutter, or with the toes curled over the gutter. This rule also applies when using the gutter instead of the starting grips. The swimmer may not bend the toes over the top of the touchpad. The swimmer must assume the correct position prior to the starter saying, “taking your mark.” Once the starter has said the above, the swimmer may pull themselves up in order to gain more momentum at the start. The swimmer may not leave the starting position until the starting signal has been given.


Throughout the race, the swimmer must remain on their back. Following the start, the swimmer must push off on their back and must break the surface of the water prior to the 15m mark. After the 15m mark, some part of the swimmer must be above the surface of the water until the turn. If the swimmer does not break the surface of the water before the 15m mark, they will be disqualified.


At the end of each length, some part of the swimmer must touch the wall. During the turn, the shoulders may be turned past vertical toward the breast, after which an immediate continuous single or double arm pull may be used to start the turn. The swimmer must return to their streamline position, with the hands interlaced over the head with the biceps pressed against the ears and on the back prior to leaving the wall. If the swimmer chooses not to use the flip turn, they must touch the wall on the back prior to the turn and leave the wall on their back.


When the swimmer has completed the designated distance, they must touch the wall on their back with some part of their body above the surface of the water. The swimmer may touch the wall underwater so long as their lower body or feet remain above the surface. Should the swimmer not finish on their back, they will be disqualified.

Backstroke Rules Summary

  • The swimmer must start the race in the water utilizing either the start grips or the gutter. Some part of the swimmer’s feet must touch the starting pad.
  • The swimmer may remain under the surface of the water until the 15m mark, after which some part of the swimmer’s body must break the surface of the water.
  • Once the swimmer has completed one length of the pool, the swimmer is allowed either one single or double freestyle pull prior to the turn. Following the turn, the swimmer must leave the wall on their back.
  • Following the completion of the race, the swimmer must touch the wall while remaining on their back. The swimmer may touch the wall underwater as long as some part of their body remains above the surface.