• Technique

Backstroke basics for the freestyle-only swimmer

Backstroke is a handy stroke to perform when returning through the surf and it’s a great way to mix up your swim training. If you need to learn the stroke, we’ve got a few basics to set you on your way.

Freestyle, or front crawl, is the stroke of choice for ocean swimmers, yet there are two other strokes that are important to master if you want to become as efficient as possible in the surf – backstroke and breaststroke.

In this article, we’re going to focus on backstroke.

Backstroke is used in ocean swimming when returning to the shore, through the waves. Not only does it allow you to take some nice deep breaths before you take on the break, but it’s when you really want to get a good idea of what’s happening behind you, that it comes to the fore.

Rolling onto your back and looking back past your toes, across the swell lines or to the wave/s behind you allows you to take in the situation, ensure you’re well-positioned in the surf and prepare for what’s approaching.

Watch this Sighting Backstroke video lesson on OceanFit to see how the technique is performed.

If you haven’t learnt backstroke, or you need a refresher, the good news is that it’s an easy stroke to master, given it’s similar to freestyle.

Take a look at these five steps to learn the basics of swimming backstroke.

1. Become familiar with the stroke of backstroke

Before you start to learn backstroke, become familiar with the stroke of backstroke and its basic mechanics.

While backstroke is similar to freestyle, with its alternating arm strokes and kicking pattern, it is vastly different.

Watching videos online or observing a swim squad at the pool is a good way to observe the basics of backstroke before attempting it yourself.

2. Learn the correct body position

When swimming backstroke, ensure your body is as horizontal and as streamlined as possible, with your head and spine in a neutral position and your eyes looking upwards.

Your feet should be together and your chest and hips pushing up towards the surface of the water.

Beware: If your hips drop your whole body will start to sink and you will become less streamlined making backstroke harder to swim.

When swimming backstroke you want your hips up and head back

3. Practice backstroke kick

A Backstroke kick is similar to a freestyle kick but on your back. A continuous, alternating action that originates from the hips and goes no wider than the width of the body.

When backstroke kicking, flick your feet upwards to break the surface of the water in an alternating motion while keeping your feet and ankles relaxed and only slightly bending your knees.

While the kick helps propel you through the water, that is not its main purpose, rather it is to support and balance the arms of the stroke.

A good way to practice backstroke kicks for beginners is to lay on your back, holding a kickboard to your chest and practice narrow backstroke kicks.

A swimmer demonstrating backstroke kick coming from the hips with floppy ankles and feet

4. Practice backstroke arms

While the arm stroke of backstroke is similar to freestyle it is also very different.

In backstroke, begin with your arm at your side before raising it up and backwards over the surface and your body before entering the water above your head. Your little finger should enter the water first and in line with your shoulder.

Next, your arm pulls through the water to your hip with the palm of your hand and forearm providing you with propulsion through the water before repeating this whole process in a continuous circular motion.

Tip: As your arm rotates above your body, have your arm brush past your ear before entering the water.

5. Backstroke breathing

You might be thinking there’s no pattern to backstroke breathing, aren’t you just on your back?

Well, yes you are, and while you’re on your back, breathing can happen naturally but inhaling and exhaling in time with each arm pull can help keep your breathing constant and your arms in a steady rhythm.

While you can learn backstroke on your own, we suggest joining an adult swim squad or getting private lessons to help ensure you are using the right technique when learning backstroke.

  • Written by Ocean Swims on 24 January 2023
  • (Updated on 6 August 2023)

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