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Master Your Swim Technique: Learn to Build Your Own Speed Boat

By Kevin Crossman | Oct. 04, 2017, 4:23 p.m. (ET)


I try to help my athletes understand complex movements in the simplest of ways, and swimming is certainly complex. In order to master your swim technique, you need to understand the basics. We’ll break down your freestyle swim stroke in layman's terms to help improve your form for faster swim times. In 20-plus years of coaching swimming, I’ve found the following sequence is one of the best ways to teach all ages and abilities the progression of freestyle. 

I want you to think of a swimming stroke like a boat on a lake. To do so, what's faster: a speed boat or a tug boat? Why? What are differences? I'm sure thoughts came to your mind like of course a speed boat, speed boats are long and narrow and they have gigantic motors. Now, I want you to build a boat using these three components: frame, motor and throttle.

Build Your Frame

The first and most important piece of any boat is to construct a frame. The frame is your posture in the water (or sometimes streamline when leaving a wall/start). Your frame should be: strong, connected and straight. Your frame must be solid enough to handle all conditions (whether it's a pool, ocean, lake, river, wavy, windy, etc.).

To start, I encourage you to practice this posture on land in front of a mirror. This provides you instant feedback and you can see the following: is the neck in line with spine, feet close together, standing tall, hands by side? Next, try this frame in the water in a floating position (face down). If in a group setting, see whose frame floats the best (or floats at all). Quickly you will be able to assess whether you are a sinker or floater. Typically, if you are sinker, within seconds your legs will drop to the bottom. Sinkers will need to add gentle kicks to their keep legs up. Once you have built a nice frame, then move to the second component.

Add in Your Motor

Where is a motor positioned on most boats? The back of the boat, right? I want you to think about this one before we go too much further. You would never put a motor on the back if the frame wasn't sturdy, would you? So, keep your frame strong as we move through the motor. 

The motor is very important, even for triathletes! The motor is your kick. The kick should always be thought of after establishing a correct posture (frame) in the water. As we know, some boats come with little horsepower and others have huge amounts. Chances are you will see similar traits in your kick too, but nonetheless, the boat won't start to move unless some kicking starts to create propulsion.

I encourage you to perform a series of 25s and practice holding the frame and working the motor at different speeds. If you feel the frame is falling apart or simply moving too slow (or even backward), try a pair of fins to help you move forward. Try to maintain proper head position and avoid too much bending of the knees.

Gain Speed with Throttle

Once you have confidence with the first two components, the final piece is the throttle. The throttle is the arm stroke(s). You can put a huge motor on any boat, but if the you don't know how to adjust the throttle, you'll never reach your potential speeds. The throttle will only run if you keep the motor on, and the motor only runs if the frame is sturdy. Follow me?

It is fair to assume, that with the throttle on — and the frame/motor working — you should be swimming faster. You now have a proper foundation and can practice building a boat for freestyle. Next you’ll want to work on proper arm stroke (catch, pull, recovery, hand entry, tempo, etc.).

Five Tips Before Getting Started

  • Yes, you can create a boat with the absence of a motor (kick), but the goal here is to build a speed boat. Try this three-step process repeatedly, and I'm confident you can bring your swimming to the next level.
  • Front mount snorkels will make this process much easier and quicker to learn.
  • If you’re a sinker, start with a pull buoy placed gently at the ankles while building the frame.
  • There’s nothing wrong with allowing fins throughout this process but gradually wean them off.
  • If you stop kicking once attempting the throttle — most likely this will only be caught by video or a coach — quickly correct it. If still struggling, return to practicing with just the motor — your kick.

Good luck! 

Kevin Crossman is a USA Triathlon Level I Certified Coach and owner of T3 Coaching, LLC. He is a graduate of SUNY Cortland, and has been teaching physical education and coaching varsity swimming since 1999. He has been a USA Triathlon Certified Coach since 2006. In 2016, he earned the New York State High School Swim Coach of the Year award. Crossman can be contacted at

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.