Beyond Freestyle for Better Triathlon Swimming

Triathlon is focused on freestyle swimming, the fastest and most-efficient stroke, so it’s not surprising that many triathletes eschew skills such as flip-turns and non-freestyle strokes during practice. However, there is value in executing flip-turns and learning other strokes that will benefit your freestyle swimming and boost your overall confidence and comfort in open water.


There’s no obvious, direct benefit from knowing how to flip-turn on race-day but there’s plenty of value in knowing how to flip-turn during the many hours of swim practice over the course of a season:

  1. Overall comfort in the water – being able to do a forward roll and timing your push off from the wall develops good proprioception and confidence in the water
  2. Develop breath control – a flip-turn is a very short, hypoxic exercise as you time your breath after the flip and push off from the water underwater. This skill has value if you’re swimming open water in crowded or choppy conditions where your timing to get your normal breath can be compromised by a wave or other swimmers
  3. Maintain overall swim speed – braking at the wall for an open-turn will slow down your average swim speed in a given training session so learning to flip-turn more appropriately mimics the continuous swimming that you experience in open water
  4. Your lane-mates will thank you – a flip-turn is generally quicker than even the best executed open turn so if swimming in a lane with others, the ability to make a smooth change of direction via a flip-turn will enable you to maintain the pace and rhythm of the lane

Non-freestyle strokes

Learning a few other strokes, besides freestyle, will help triathletes in several ways. The four swim strokes are interconnected so improving one stroke will transfer to the others. Further, including other strokes adds variety to your workout, strengthening the muscles and joints in different ways.

  1. Feel for the water – developing a ‘feel for the water’ is important for triathletes. Learning other strokes and propelling yourself forward through the water in different ways serves to enhance a swimmer’s sense of touch and power in the water
  2. Butterfly – while this is often considered the most difficult stroke to learn, it is a great stroke for building strength and endurance in the swim
    • Dolphin dive - Knowing how to dolphin dive can have direct benefits in open water swimming as you enter, exit and navigate waves in the water
    • Core and back strength – butterfly strengthens the lats, rhomboids, core and back as the power of the stroke comes from engaging the more powerful upper back, rather than relying on arm and shoulder muscles
    • Timing and propulsion – learning the form of butterfly and timing the kick perfectly with your stroke can carry over to the shoulder hip connectivity and timing you experience in freestyle
    • Power - One of the biggest mistakes of amateur triathletes is to underestimate the force applied underwater to create propulsion. You must train and develop to ensure each pull is an acceleration of water behind you, which sounds obvious, but stand and watch most triathletes and you will see the pulling hand moving at a single speed from entry to exit. Butterfly forces acceleration, and is a great tool in awareness of the needs for proper prolusion. Of course, to sustain this power requires real muscular resilience, a part of the reason will believe triathletes should be very ‘swim fit’ within the overall spectrum of race performance.
  3. Backstroke – the stroke with most in common with freestyle, backstroke is more or less flipping the arm motion of freestyle on its back
    • Mobility – the backstroke can help strengthen opposing muscle groups and improve balance thereby improving mobility in the shoulders and chest (open up the chest versus rounded position
    • Hip connectivity – swimming backstroke emphasizes the hip snap action of long axis strokes like freestyle
    • Body position – helps increase body awareness (tautness) and the ability to keep the hips in a streamlined position while maintaining a stable head position