In 1844, Europeans witnessed the trouncing of British breaststroker Harold Kenworth by an American Indian named Flying Gull, who completed the 39.6 m distance in 30 seconds. The Times of London described Flying Gull's stroke as "un-European" and consisting of "grotesque antics." Strange as the new freestyle stroke must have seemed to the uninitiated, the front crawl or freestyle is standard in international competition today and is the fastest of all four competitive strokes.
Freestyle is a long-axis stroke, meaning that you rotate from side to side, along an imaginary line that runs from you head, down your spine. You primarily rely on your shoulders for propulsion in the front crawl, but you derive power for your stroke from your core abdominal muscles and your upper back muscles, especially your latissimus dorsi or lats. Flexibility and strength through the hips and legs is essential for efficient kicking as are flexible ankles and stable knee joints.
When you face the water broadside, you create more turbulence and you must fight harder against water’s resistance. The solution is swimming on your side during freestyle, rotating from your left to your right side every time you take a stroke so your belly button faces the side of the pool. The ability to slip through the water, fish-like, expending as little energy as possible, makes you a faster and more efficient swimmer.
Proper breathing in freestyle takes practice, but it pays off in increased endurance and power. Breathing rhythmically involves blowing out air while your face is in the water and timing your breath so you are ready to take in more air just as your face rotates just above the surface of the water in alignment with your body’s roll. When you exhale, most of the air in your lungs prior to taking a breath the air flows in easily so you don’t have to gasp or gulp down air.
Keep your head low and your hips high to minimize water’s resistance against you. Practice kicking on your side so you get used to flutter kicking in that position and elongate your body in a streamline position as much as possible. The windmill arm stroke used by Flying Gull works for sprints, but it uses up a lot of energy and maximizes the distance your arm travels before it takes the next stroke. For distance swims, keep your recovery arm relaxed in the air. Keep your elbows high and lead with your elbow, followed by your wrist then your fingers. As you rotate your shoulder, enter the water with your fingertips first, minimizing splashing.