The Hybrid Freestyle For Middle Distance Events

In The Three Styles of Freestyle, former Race Club coach Mike Bottom describes three distinctly different techniques that are frequently used today by top freestylers. One, called hip-driven freestyle, depends on having a strong kick and results in a longer hold of the arm/hand in the front lift position, and a larger rotation or counter-rotation of the hip to generate more of a stabilizing force. This technique is used more commonly in distance swimmers who rely more on their legs to sustain speed. Examples of hip-driven freestlyers include Grant Hackett, Ous Mellouli, Ian Thorpe, and Katie Hoff. A shoulder-driven technique relies on a higher stroke rate with a more immediate catch in front in order to sustain the speed. Shoulder-driven distance freestylers would include David Davies, Ryan Cochrane, Kieren Perkins and Federica Pellegrini. The third technique coach Bottom describes is the body or core-driven technique, which he also teaches with a straight-armed recovery. This technique teaches a symmetrical rotation of the body, connecting both the hips and shoulders uniformly and equally in motion.

The 50 meter sprints are dominated by the shoulder-driven freestylers and while there is a mixture of shoulder-driven and hip-driven freestylers in the 400 and 1500, we are seeing a new hybrid technique emerge for middle-distance freestylers, from the 100 to 400 meters, which results in an asymmetrical swimming stroke. This technique, which is being used by Michael Phelps, Paul Biedermann and Jason Lezak, to name a few, may just combine the advantages of both hip-driven and shoulder-driven techniques for these middle distances.

What one sees from above with this new hybrid freestyle is an asymmetrical, almost jerky motion, as it appears one arm is moving faster than the other. In fact, the time it takes each arm to move through a stroke cycle is the same (otherwise, the arms would soon become totally out of synchronization), but the way they move through the stroke cycle differs. In Phelps stroke, for example, he breathes to the right side. With his left arm, he uses a classic hip-driven freestyle, holding in front, depending on his massive leg strength to create lift and propulsion. However, with the right arm, he goes into a more immediate catch, which has the effect of increasing the stroke rate over a conventional hip-driven technique. The left arm, which spent more time in front, catches up to the right arm in the stroke cycle by using a quick release and a hurried recovery, thus creating the jerky-appearing motion. Underwater, what one sees is the left hand in front of the shoulder when the right hand enters the water, and the right hand past the shoulder when the left hand enters the water; two very different positions.

Combining the shoulder-driven technique on one side, which clearly favors speed, with the hip-driven technique on the other, a technique used more commonly for distance events, this new hybrid freestyle may just be the ideal technique for the middle ground. I’m not sure who should be given the credit for being the first to use this hybrid technique, but based on the success of the three examples I mentioned, we may see it used a lot more in the future.

At the Race Club camps, we feel strongly that there is not one technique that is best for every swimmer or in any stroke. Each technique must be designed for a swimmer based on the strengths of the swimmer and the distance swum. Every swimmer, in order to maximize his or her ability in the sport, will need to learn and apply different ways of swimming the same stroke. Race Club swimmer, Nathan Adrian, for example, changes his stroke technique during his race, in order to improve his performance.

15 Responses to The Hybrid Freestyle For Middle Distance Events

  1. Ben

    I love this! You more often than not will read about freestyle technique meaning a smooth rotation. You don’t hear much about this hybrid technique (I call it a ‘gallop’). I think it is an excellent technique for the 100-400 (100-500 SCY)! I also think too many kids try to mimic it because they see it on TV, but they lack the strength to properly execute. Like this article gets at, there isn’t one set stroke style for every race…it is all dependent on the swimmer.

    • Gary Sr

      ‘Gallop’ is a good description of this technique!

      Gary Sr.

      • B_normandin

        Mr. Hall,
        On this “Gallop” Technique, you mention that on the hip driven side, Phelps propels himself with is powerful kick.
        Is he using a six beat (3kicks per arm stroke) on both sides? Hip and shoulder driven?
        As for hip rotation, should the swimmer rotate on his hip driven free, but keep his hip flatter on the shoulder driven free?


  2. Nico Messer

    I think this is somewhat an “old school” freestyle stroke. Grant Hackett was probably one of the first to use it effectively and take advantage of it. As far as I remember most coaches in the past would tell their kids that they’re doing catch-up freestyle and they have to move on in order to swim fast. Which obviously isn’t the full truth but we may not have known better back then.

    One thing is for sure. If you master this (or the Three Styles of Freestyle) you’ll be able to swim more efficient wasting less energy and thus swim faster for a longer time!

  3. James Stuart

    I admit this – I don’t know what types of freestyle stroke I swim – I gonna ask others swimmers to see what stroke I swim. Interesting comments indeed about freestyle.

    • Nico Messer

      I think it’s almost impossible for you to know if you haven’t seen yourself swimming. It’s a good idea to ask others but think about having someone film you the next time you go to a pool. Only once you’re able to put images in your head and feelings while swimming together you’ll know what type you’ll swim and if you’re able to switch from one to the other. And I’m not talking about feeling great on a good day and feeling heavy on an average day. But I’m sure you’ll get there … first step is always the drive to improve and learn something new from your swimming.

      • James Stuart

        I am not sure if I can afford under water camera or video whatever, its hard to pick which stroke style suits me

        • Nico Messer

          I’m not talking about the professional footage we could provide you with but there are more and more water proof digital photo cameras that make decent enough quality videos you could use.

          Look at Nathan Adrian, he’s using the Three Styles of Freestyle in one single 100m freestyle race. If you get to the point where you can master more than one, this is going to be a real “weapon”.

          • James Stuart

            César Cielo Filho uses traditional freestyle (dunno what his free stroke name is) and so Fred Bousquet uses windmill freestyle (hip driven free?) and they stick on it, not trying other stroke. Only I felt swim naturally during 50 free I swam like elbow bit bend and swam like windmill so what its stroke is? I was struggled alot if I swam my usual free stroke during 100m free. At 200m I swam normal freestyle dunno why, I think that style I swam on 50m is takes lot of strength and energy.

  4. Ben

    Matt Biondi in the 88 olympics, 100meters free as a limping looking stroke.
    I don’t know if he was the first one to use this hybrid style. Reminds me of Lezak with is huge kick.

    • garyhallsr

      Biondi was one of the first to use a hybrid freestyle technique.

  5. Caleb

    Does it matter to which side is the hip and which side is the shoulder? Are we concerned the athlete may develop a muscular imbalance with this technique and form, using one shoulder more than the other? Are there dryland exercises your recommend to counter any imbalance?


    • garyhallsr

      With the hybrid freestyle, the hand that enters opposite the breath side should be pushing down to help elevate the head and body for the breath. The hand on the breath side should push forward, holding longer in front, as the head dips underwater at this surge point. The motions are different, but I am not certain breathing to one side will cause a shoulder problem on the opposite side, it the pulling motion is correct on both sides. Many dryland exercises will help strengthen the shoulders but increasing extension flexibility of the shoulder is extremely important in making this technique work better.

  6. Ben Bradley

    You seem to contradict yourself from the text to the last comment. With Phelps description you sat right hand goes quicker into catch but then in comments say breathing arm reach forward further

    • garyhallsr

      You are right. In the body of the text above the arms should be reversed. He pushes forward with the right hand after the breath and pushes down with the left hand, partly to lift the head for the breath. Because more time is held in front with the right hand, the right arm recovery speed is faster than with the left arm. Sorry for the confusion.


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