Sometimes we don’t ask questions, even if we should, because we take things for granted. In today’s blog we’re answering one of those questions. Just why don’t we all just swim with one stroke, in the same way? What’s the point in learning different swim strokes? Why on earth do we do that?
To answer this question, we need to realise that the swimming stroke techniques are useful in different situations. They really do have a purpose and using one stroke in the wrong situation could be dangerous. It’s also interesting to note that some strokes were invented, or introduced, and their history is well documented. For example, the front-crawl wasn’t swum in western Europe until a Northern Native American from Anishinaabe called “Flying Gull and Tobacco” introduced it during a swimming competition in 1844. Sometimes there is a fashion element, sometimes its about display, but we’ll cover some of the practical reasons here.
Although it’s not the best technique, breast stroke is commonly used in calm water because it allows the swimmer to keep their head above water, breathe and maintain line of sight with other swimmers. One of the practical reasons for knowing this stroke is if you were swimming in polluted or eye damaging water, or have trouble holding your breath, or needed to see something, you can keep swimming without having to stop.
The same is true of the “doggy paddle,” of course, but a well-trained breast-stroke will normally be stronger and faster.
Front crawl is known as one of the fastest swim strokes and is used in competitive swimming when speed is desired. It’s also used and modified for situations when speed is really necessary; lifeguards, for example, are taught a variant called “head-high” front crawl which allows them to keep their eyes (although normally not the mouth) out of the water whilst swimming quickly to rescue someone. The military normally drill their soldiers on front-crawl.
One of the major downsides of front-crawl is that it’s the waterside equivalent of sprinting: you can tire yourself out quite quickly if you don’t pace yourself or aren’t a strong swimmer.
Butterfly-stroke is a difficult stroke designed to showcase the swimmer’s skill and strength. Its’ safe to imagine it as a competition stroke because although it’s competitive with front-crawl in terms of speed, the technique, strength and exertion required by the swimmer, it is very different. Swimmers of butterfly stroke are swimming a stroke which must be swam correctly, and which tests the body. And why not? Butterfly stroke also incorporates the dolphin-kick, useful for both mermaid swimming and monofin swimming.
Back-stroke is easy for breathing. Although you can’t see where you’re going, on calm water backstroke is the stroke you are least likely to unintentionally breathe in water. If holding your breath or breathing in water is absolutely your top concern then back-stroke is your safest choice, keeping your head flat, above the water, and swimming backwards, means the flow of the water as you move forward isn’t heading towards your mouth and nose. It’s also possible to swim relatively quickly with backstroke.
Honourable Mention: Travel Stroke
US Navy Seals taught and developed their own swim stroke called Travel stroke which is intended for endurance. The travel stroke was designed to allow the swimmer to move as far as possible using as little energy as possible. In certain survival situations getting out quickly isn’t the problem but rather it is the distance you’ll have to cover. If you think about a sinking ship far from shore, your real problem is cold and distance, not speed. Beach lifeguards often now learn this swimming stroke so that they can get to people swept out to a long distance.
Incidentally, various militaries have developed their own swimming strokes for various situations, such as the combat swim.
So, what’s the point in learning the different strokes?
Knowing the four main swim strokes gives you a good range of strokes to use in different survival, competitive and health-and-fitness contexts. As your swimming develops and if you use swimming professionally, you might even learn special swim-stroke variants designed to help you do your job better. That’s why we teach them! 😊