Types of Swimming

Swimming is both a recreational and competitive sport. Swimming can be enjoyed in lakes, the sea and other open-water sites. Competition swimming usually takes place in a pool where each stroke, must be in a form that meets strict regulations. In competitive swimming there are four styles, or strokes, that are contested. These are freestyle, back-stroke, breast-stroke, and butterfly. Races cover a variety of distances from 25 metres to 1500 metres.


Also known as the ‘crawl’ or ‘front crawl’ is generally the fastest stroke and has the most flexible competition rules. Rules state that a swimmer cannot push off the bottom of the pool or pull on the lane line. They must also touch the far wall with some part of their body. Swimmers are free to use any type of stroke, though freestyle is usually swimming face-down with alternate arm strokes; side-breathing; and rapid, alternating up-and-down kicks that are also known as scissor kicks. At the start of a race, swimmers either dive from a starting block or from the side of the pool. In multi-lap races, swimmers an open turn or a flip turn are acceptable. When doing a flip turn, the swimmer touches the wall with their feet and at the end of the race tough the wall with one hand..


Sometimes described as ‘upside-down freestyle’ back-stroke has alternating arm strokes and rapid, alternating, up-and-down kicks. However, the swimmer must be on their back, with shoulders never turned more than 90 degrees, since this can lead to race disqualification. The only exception is in multi-lap back-stroke races when swimmers perform a flip turn. At this point swimmers can turn onto their stomachs for one continuous arm pull, but when their feet leave the wall, swimmers must be on their backs. At the start of a back-stroke race swimmers are already in the water with their feet against the wall, and they hold on to either the gutter or the grip built into the starting block. At the race finish, back-stroke swimmers touch the wall, ideally with one hand, whilst still on their back.


Also known as the ‘frog stroke’ since the kick is said to look like a frog’s kick. In breast-stroke, the swimmers arms and legs must move simultaneously, on the same horizontal plane, and identically to each other. The arms and legs usually stay underwater, but a swimmer’s head must break the surface at every stroke. With the arms, the stroke begins and ends with the swimmer in a streamline position where the hands are together in front of the head and legs together with toes pointed. The hands then scoop water out to the sides, before sweeping in towards the centre of the body and then pushing forward to repeat. It is against the rules for swimmers to pull their hands down past their hips. In addition, elbows must be kept in the water when the hands go back to the starting position. On the breast-stroke kick, the legs are stretched out backward, the feet are moved together towards the posterior. Then the feet point outward in preparation for the thrust phase, before returning to the original position. There is just one kick for every arm stroke.

Breast-stroke races begin with a forward-facing dive from the edge of the pool or a starting block. At the beginning of each lap, swimmers can do one pull-down, which is one huge pull where the hands sweep down to the thighs, together with one giant kick to the surface. A swimmer’s head must break the water’s surface on the first stroke after pull-down. Swimmers can also do one dolphin/butterfly kick in the first part of the pull-down, before the first breast-stroke kick. At the end of each lap of a breast-stroke race, swimmers must touch the wall with both hands, simultaneously and on the same horizontal plane. In multi-lap races, swimmers use open turns, not flip turns.


A new stroked developed in the 1950s, in an attempt to swim breast-stroke faster, the butterfly has a double over-the-water arm stroke and a dolphin kick with an undulating, dolphin-like movement at the surface of the water. This is a stroke that requires some coordination. Both hands go in and come out of the water at the same time on every stroke. The swimmer does a dolphin kicks, when the hands enter the water, and again when the hands exit the water. A swimmer’s feet kick up and down together, with the feet close together. Most swimmers lift the head and shoulders to breathe, but some swimmers breathe to the side, as in freestyle.

Butterfly races begin with a forward-facing dive, and swimmers must finish each lap by touching the wall with both hands simultaneously in the same place. At the start of a lap, swimmers can do underwater dolphin kicks, but must bring their head above water at or before 15 metres. In multi-lap races, swimmers will do open turns, not flip turns.

Individual Medley Events

This is a race where a swimmer swims each stroke for one-quarter of the total race distance. The strokes are swum in the following order: butterfly, back-stroke, breast-stroke, and freestyle.


In a relay, four swimmers compete as a team. A swimmer may swim only once in a relay, and must swim one-quarter the total distance of the race. In a freestyle relay, all swimmers swim freestyle. In a medley relay, each swimmer swims a different stroke. A medley relay the strokes are in the is swum in the order of back-stroke, breast-stroke, butterfly, and freestyle. While freestyle relays begin with a forward-facing dive, and medley relays begin with a back-stroke start, all the other swimmers in a relay team can begin with a rolling start once their team-mate touches the wall. A rolling start is where swimmers stand at the back of the starting block, and generate momentum by swinging their arms, and taking a step to the front of the block.