In swimming, speed is king. Athletes train tirelessly for years to move across the pool just a little bit faster. 

But what’s the fastest way to swim? The answer might surprise you! Let’s take a look at how fast each swimming stroke is, and how you can improve your technique to shave off extra time.

How Fast is Each Swimming Stroke?

The four competitive strokes aren’t created equal when it comes to speed. Breaststroke is by far the slowest stroke in swimming, and freestyle is the fastest. 

Here’s a breakdown of the maximum speed for each stroke, based on data from the fastest swimmers. 

  • Breaststroke: 2.17 yards/second = 4.4 mph (7.1km/h)
  • Backstroke: 2.5 yards/second = 5.1 mph (8.2km/h)
  • Butterfly: 2.55 yards/second = 5.2 mph (8.4km/h)
  • Front Crawl/Freestyle: 2.8 yards/second = 5.7 mph (9.2km/h)
  • Streamline (Front): 3 yards/second = 6.1mph (9.8km/hr)
  • Streamline (Back): 3.1 yards/second = 6.3mph (10.2km/hr)

Why Streamline is the Fastest Swimming Stroke

Yep, streamline on your back is the fastest stroke in swimming. Some would argue that streamline isn’t a real stroke, but we disagree. 

Every stroke has some element of streamline to it. Every race starts with streamline, and every turn includes a period in streamline. If you don’t understand the basics of proper streamline, you’re going to swim really slowly. 

Related: How to Have Perfect Streamline in Swimming

But why is streamline on the back faster than streamline on the front? It comes down to gravity. 

Most swimmers are great at engaging the front of their bodies to kick forward, but struggle with power and flexibility on the back side of the body to complete a solid dolphin kick. When you kick on your back in streamline, gravity helps your legs achieve a better down-kick. You don’t have to work as hard to get where you need to go. 

How Do Fish Swim So Fast?

While humans can swim pretty fast, we have nothing on fish. A black marlin, or sailfish, can swim up to 80 miles per hour (128 km/hour). How is this possible?

Hydrodynamics

First, we need to talk about hydrodynamics. When you (or a fish) move through the water, water molecules roll around your body to create space for you to swim. When you’re in the water, you are displacing water – the molecules have to go somewhere!

As the water molecules roll around and off your body, they create small, spinning vortexes that eventually detach from your body and end up behind you, forming what’s called a vortex street. When you look at the wake created by a swimmer, a boat or even a fish, you’re looking at this vortex street.

Related: How to Decrease Drag in Swimming

But if the water rolls off of our bodies the same way it rolls off of a fish’s body, why can fish swim 12 times faster than humans?

It comes down to the way they move through the water. Fish use their tails to flick water back and forth, which ends up pushing the vortexes of water from side to side to create forward momentum. 

And of course, fish are designed to swim 24/7. Their bodies are naturally more streamlined than humans’, which helps big time. 

How to Swim Like a Fish

While humans will never be able to swim as fast as a black marlin, we can certainly take a few lessons from fish to apply to lap swimming. 

  1. Kick in Every Direction: Engage all parts of your legs, glutes, low back and core to kick up and down. Maximize every kick for more propulsion. Practice kicking on your back, on your stomach, on your side, with a snorkel, with a kickboard. Get a good feel for your kick in different positions.
  2. Be Consistent: Your effort compounds over time. Fish are great swimmers because they’ve had thousands of hours of practice. We can’t swim 24 hours a day, but we can make the most of the time we do have to work out, and show up to the pool consistently. Hard work pays off!
  3. Improve Your Flexibility In & Out of the Water: Fish are very flexible, which is a huge advantage in the water. To improve your own swimming, work on flexibility out of the water with regular stretching, especially in problem areas such as the ankles, low back, upper back and shoulders. In the water, add equipment to boost your mobility even more. Fins can improve your ankle mobility during workouts.  

If you want to swim like a fish, think like a fish! To take your swimming to the next level and master all four strokes (plus streamline), download the MySwimPro app. Start a personalized Training Plan and swim 10% faster in just four weeks!

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