In competitive swimming, athletes race one of four strokes: freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke or butterfly. Freestyle and backstroke are considered long-axis strokes, meaning that the momentum a swimmer's body creates with the side-to-side rotation of these strokes is what gives the swimmer power. With breaststroke and butterfly, which are short-axis strokes, the rotation is not side-to-side, therefore the power comes from the hips.
In freestyle and backstroke, swimmers turn off the walls with a flip turn. Backstroke swimmers use a set of flags above their heads to count the number of strokes it will take them to reach the wall, turning over onto their stomachs with one stroke remaining. In butterfly and breaststroke, swimmers touch the wall with two hands, then pivot their legs inward and push off the wall that way.
Many coaches and athletes consider underwater dolphin kicking to be the "fifth stroke" in swimming. Dolphin kick motion starts from the hips and involves a snapping, wave-like motion, with both legs moving at the same time. Butterfly, backstroke and freestyle races all start with the swimmer dolphin kicking underwater until they break the surface, and breaststroke races start with a pullout that includes one dolphin kick. Dolphin kicking is the primary leg movement in the butterfly stroke.
For the purposes of this tutorial, it is assumed that the races take place in the United States and therefore yards will be used as the measurement. One yard is roughly nine-tenths of a meter. Race times are not typically converted from meters to yards or vice versa.
Also known as front crawl, freestyle is the fastest of the four strokes and is, therefore, the stroke athletes use to cover the most distance. Freestyle is used for competition in sprint and distance races, in 50, 100, 200, 500, 1000 and 1650-yard swims. Relay events, where swimmers complete given distances consecutively, are also commonly done in freestyle at total distances of 200 yards (50 yards for each of four swimmers), 400 yards (100 yards per swimmer) or 800 yards (200 yards per swimmer).
Freestyle is performed with a continuous, six-beat flutter kick, where the athlete's legs move up and down with their ankles pointed. Arm motions alternate, with the swimmer bringing one arm through the water down to their thigh while the other arm reaches forward, out of the water. Breathing is done by tilting the head side to side in what is known as rotary breathing. Freestyle swimmers breathe every three to five strokes, or less, depending on the distance of the race.
One important thing to note with freestyle technique: while the swimmer appears to be on their stomach, their body is never completely flat in the water, but instead continuously turning side to side. Without this side-to-side motion, many more strokes would be required to complete the same distance.
Backstroke is performed in a similar manner to freestyle, with a flutter kick and rotating arm motions. Like with freestyle, a side-to-side rotation is essential for efficient movement. With each arm rotation, the swimmer rotates the opposite shoulder out of the water while the underwater arm pulls down to the swimmer's thigh.
This stroke is raced competitively at 100 and 200-yard distances. Unlike with the other strokes, athletes swimming backstroke do not start each race from a raised starting block. Instead, swimmers enter the water and start the race by pushing off the wall, either from the pool gutter or with the assistance of backstroke handles attached to the starting block.
Breaststroke, which is thought to be the oldest of the four strokes, is raced competitively at 100 and 200-yard distances. Unlike freestyle and backstroke, swimmers doing the breaststroke move both arms at the same time in a wide pull. The pull combines with a kick resembling the motion of a frog. The stroke is performed in a sequence of pull, breathe, kick, glide. The glide, where the swimmer's legs and arms are fully extended for a brief time, is essential for efficient motion. Breaststroke swimmers take a breath every stroke.
Swimmers competing in breaststroke start from the starting blocks and upon entering the water perform a breaststroke pullout. After an extended streamline, where the swimmer's arms remain outstretched above their head, the arms come down to the thighs at the same time as a single dolphin kick. From there, the arms and legs complete the first breaststroke stroke just as the swimmer is breaking the surface. A pullout is performed off of each consecutive wall as well.
The butterfly is raced competitively at 100 and 200-yard distances and originated as an offshoot of breaststroke when an athlete performed butterfly during a breaststroke race. The athlete insisted that butterfly, as he was swimming it, was considered technically correct breaststroke, and he was right, which led to the recognition of butterfly as its own competitive stroke in 1933.
The stroke, like breaststroke, involves simultaneous arm motion, with the arms starting stretched in front of the athlete, then pulling down to the thighs and coming out of the water back to their outstretched position. Two dolphin kicks are performed for each arm pull, one when the arms are outstretched and one as they reach the thighs. The head is lifted for a breath when the arms are mid-pull towards the thighs.
An individual medley, or IM, is a combination of all four of the above strokes in the order of butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle. IM races are either 200 yards (50 yards of each stroke) or 400 yards (100 yards of each stroke).
Relay events can also be competed as medleys, in distances of 200 or 400 yards. Rather than a butterfly/backstroke/breaststroke/freestyle order for a medley relay, the order is backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly then freestyle. Backstrokers begin the medley, given that they start from in the water.