6 Phases of the Freestyle Pulling Cycle-Release Phase

The Six Phases of the Freestyle Pulling Cycle

The Release Phase

The following is an excerpt from our forthcoming book, Fundamentals of Fast Swimming.

Once the propulsion phase of the pulling arm is completed, the objective of the swimmer is to release the arm and hand from the water, bringing them over the surface for another pull. Since the hand and arm start moving forward again, reducing frontal drag through this motion becomes a primary concern, particularly while they are still under water. On the face of the imaginary 2-foot clock, with the swimmer moving from left to right, the hand moves from the 9 o’clock position at the end of propulsion back to very near 12 o’clock, precisely where it began its underwater journey moments ago. The duration of the release phase is brief, .10 to .15 seconds, yet it is important.


        Gary Sr. completes the circle with the release phase in .12 seconds, finishing right where he started the pull.   


Zane Grothe is in the release phase of his right arm. He turns his little finger upward and slides the hand and arm forward, leading with the elbow, to cause as little frontal drag as possible (VM technology).

Depending on the type of arm recovery, there are two different release motions typically seen in elite freestylers. With a bent arm recovery (low octane), the elbow tends to lead the hand as it moves forward. With a straight arm recovery (high octane), the entire arm tends to leave the water as one unit and at the same time. In either release technique, once the propulsion phase is completed, the hand should turn sideways with the thumb down (or vertically) in the water to reduce frontal drag as it moves forward and leaves the water.

Not infrequently, we see swimmers try to hang on to their grip on the water too long and continue pressing upward with the hand as they release it. When this happens, from the deck, one can observe the swimmer’s hand throwing water upward and to the side behind them. While pushing hard at the end of the propulsion phase is important, particularly with hip-driven (video) and hybrid  freestyle (video) techniques, it is also important to know when to let go. At that point, the hand should turn sideways with the little finger up to release it with the least amount of frontal drag as it slides forward. From the time the release phase begins to the end of the early recovery (upward trajectory), the hand and wrist should go into a relaxed position. The relaxation of the wrist and hand during these two phases of the pulling cycle, no matter how brief they are, is important in allowing the muscles of the arm and back to recover for another pulling cycle.

We often refer to the technique of relaxing the hand and wrist during the release and early recovery phases as the magic of the relaxed wrist. Every elite freestyler, even sprinters, do that. Yet we find most beginner adult swimmers or triathletes are unable to let go and relax their wrists during these two important phases. Their arms look as if rigor mortis set in on the recovery, stiff and contracted. As a result, their pulling arms fatigue more quickly. They cannot sustain the strong forces through the pulling motions for long, which demand a lot of energy.            

When done properly and at race speed, not every stroke offers any true recovery time. Freestyle, butterfly and backstroke do offer some brief arm rest during the release and early recovery phases of the pulling cycle, by relaxing the hand and wrist. When offered some vacation time, take it. It will serve you well. Relax the wrist and the hand on the release phase and slide them out of the water as cleanly and quickly as possible. 

Yours in Swimming,

Gary Sr.


  1. Hi, there’s one thing that’s not clear to me and that’s the kick/hip and hand synchronization in freestyle guided by the hips, i mean when you kick, the hand , in what position of the clock is it? I think it’s at 6:00 but I’m not sure, and just at that moment that the hand is at 6.00 is when you turn your hip strongly?

    1. With a 6 beat kick there are 3 down kicks that occur with each leg during one complete pulling cycle. Typically, the strongest down kick occurs after the opposite hand enters the water. The pulling hand can be in the front quadrant, at the shoulder or in the back quadrant with that kick, depending on the freestyle technique and stroke rate. 
      In hip-driven and hybrid freestyles, the hip turn occurs just after the end of the back quadrant propulsion, when the hand is in the release phase. 
      Hope this helps!