Mike Bottom, Head men’s swim coach at University of Michigan and former Head coach at The Race Club, was the first to describe three unique styles of freestyle; shoulder-driven, hip-driven and body-driven (DVD available at www.theraceclub.com). In body-driven freestyle, Mike associates this style with a straight-arm recovery, rotating the hips and shoulders more in unison. Seldom do we see endurance swimmers using a straight-arm recovery, so rather than split that into it’s own category, let’s focus on the other two.
First, let’s ignore the fact that there are two different ways of kicking, 6 beat (using 3 kicks per arm stroke) or 2 beat (one kick per arm stroke). Some swimmers combine these and use a 6 beat on one cycle, followed by a 2 beat on the next cycle. Although either kick can be used with either shoulder-driven or hip-driven technique, there are good reasons to use one or the other that I will explain.
Hip-driven freestyle, utilized by Ian Thorpe, Grant Hackett, Eric Vendt, Larsen Jensen, Kaitlin Sandeno, Libby Trickett (Lenton), is a slower-stroke-rate freestyle (typically 60 to 70 strokes per minute). The hand holds in front after the entry, before initiating the propulsive motion backward. The biggest advantage of the hip-driven technique is that the slower time of the arm pull cycle enables the swimmer to get a bigger hip turn, thereby generating a greater counter force to pull against. The result is a longer distance per stroke. Even though this technique can generate greater power per arm stroke, in order to be fast, one must couple it with a six beat kick….and hopefully a strong six beat kick.
Shoulder-driven freestyle, utilized by Peter Van den Hoogenband, Federica Pellegrini, Janet Evans, Nathan Adrian, Ryan Cochrane, Dave Davies is a faster-stroke-rate freestyle (typically 80 to 110 strokes per minute). It is characterized by a quicker catch of the entry hand and a quicker release, creating more arm strokes but with less time to rotate the hips. Therefore, not as much power is generated from each arm pull, but since there are so many more of them, the frequency can make up the difference. Usually the shoulder rotates more than the hips with this technique, thus the name. One can use either a six-beat or two-beat kick with endurance shoulder-driven freestyle. In sprinting, which is virtually all done with shoulder-driven technique, only a six-beat kick should be utilized.
There are increasing numbers of swimmers, particularly for middle distance swims (100, 200 and 400 meters) who draw on the advantages of both techniques and opt for a hybrid freestyle, using one arm with shoulder-driven technique and the other with hip- driven technique (Lochte, Phelps, Lezak, Biedermann, for example). Some refer to this technique as the gallop for the asymmetrical appearance from above. It also depends on good strong legs and requires breathing every cycle to the same side. But it can be used in open water if the legs are strong enough.
So which technique is right for you? Chances are, unless you grew up in a swimming pool and in spite of how strong your legs might be, you are not a good kicker. If that is the case, then using a hip-driven technique might feel very relaxing and smooth to you, but it is nothing more than a Sunday stroll in the pool. You really have three choices. You can continue to swim slow using this technique. You can develop a strong kick, which may take years of work and improved ankle flexibility. Or you can develop a shoulder-driven freestyle technique. The third choice may not be the easiest, but if you want to get faster, it may be the best.
Turning your arms over at 80 to 100 or more strokes per minute requires a different level of fitness, but it can be done. In fact, most of the world’s fastest endurance women swimmers use this technique and probably half of the men do, as well. You simply need to start training at a higher stroke rate to reach this level of fitness. One of the best tools out there for this is the Tempo trainer by Finis, which is a little metronome that fits under your cap. When training, you will need to set the frequency of the beep according to how long your sets are, but slowly and steadily you will build up to where you can sustain the same high stroke rate for a mile or longer in practice.
For most triathletes, I recommend this higher-stroke rate technique, with either a 2-beat kick or a soft 6-beat kick. You may be losing some speed and propulsion from saving your legs like this, but the high stroke rate should get you out of the water the same or faster than the hip-driven technique. Either way, you should more than make up for it with a better bike and run. Does this mean you shouldn’t worry about training your legs in the pool? Not at all. Don’t forget you still need lift and counter-force from your legs to help you swim faster. We will talk about the four functions of the legs next time.
Publisher's note: Gary Hall, Sr., is the Slowtwitch.com swim editor. He swam for the U.S. on three Olympic teams, earning three Olympic medals. The Halls (Gary Sr. & Jr.) became the first father/son team to each make three Olympic appearances. Gary Sr. operates The Race Club in the Florida Keys, where swimmers of all ages and abilities go for coaching, camps, video and individual instruction.
For more instructional videos, you can visit the Race Club website - TheRaceClub.net