Guest Blogger: Swim Good Freestyle with renowned Sports Biomechanist Ryan Hodierne

Ryan Hodierne is a Sports Biomechanist from the Singapore Sports Institute (SSI). He was the Performance Analyst for the South African Swimming team at the London Olympic Games prior to joining the SSI.

Some of the famous South African Swimmers he has worked with are Olympic Gold Medallist Chad Le Clos and Cameron Van Der Burgh during the 2012 London Olympic Games. He did analysis on each of their performances and compared them to their competitors which gave them a clearer idea on their own stroke mechanics and their competition.

To me this is crucial in a race as we can clearly see our competitors strengths and weaknesses through the analysis and use it to our advantage. 

The National Training Squad had the opportunity to work with him prior to SEA Games and World Championships which also attributed to our success during the Games.


Fun Fact: Nicknamed “The Sniper”, you often don’t see him during competitions as he is filming our races from a far. He then analyzes our races and gives us tips on how we can work on the mistakes that happened in our race. 


Without further ado, he’ll take over from here…


Thanks Pang for the very kind introduction.

Hi everyone, I would like to start off by saying that there is no such thing as a “perfect stroke” for Freestyle swimming due to the fact that each swimmer has their own way of swimming; However, there are a few pointers which you can adhere to in getting your Freestyle stroke both efficient and powerful, and I would like to share it with you all today.

Let us first get clarity on a freestyle stroke and its constituent parts:
– 1 stroke cycle: the time taken from the hand entry of one hand until the time that same hand re-enters the water.
– There are 4 phases of a stroke cycle:

Side view (Video + Break down of 4 phases): 

1) Catch phase – following hand entry to the onset of pulling action
freestyle pull 1

2) Pull/Power phase – following the catch phase to hand exiting the water
Body Position

3) Exit phase – final propulsive phase before the hand exit
freestyle pull 2

4) Recovery phase – entire portion the hand is above the water
freestyle pull 4 - Copy-2

Front view (Video + Break down of 4 phases):

1) Catch phasefrontal freestyle 1

2) Pull/Power phase
frontal freestyle 2

3) Exit phase
frontal freestyle 3

4) Recovery Phase
frontal freestyle 4

For most of what is to come, we will be investigating the catch and pull phase of the freestyle stroke cycle. I feel there is enough to get to grips with in this phase to keep you busy.

I am sure most of you have heard of or attempted the high elbow catch during the freestyle stroke. I am often concerned as to whether we all understand the reason for this high elbow position, and whether we can comprehend that it is way easier said than done – I am often at fault for this when analysing strokes.

The concept of the high elbow catch technique is an attempt to maximize the surface area we expose to the liquid medium (water) that we find ourselves in as swimmers.

plank vs pole

Think about it, if you were in a paddle boat and had two tools of propulsion at hand; namely a round pole/bar and a flat wooden plank. Which would you use? Why?

I would like to think that it’s quite obvious… the plank right! The greater the wetted surface area we expose in the direction of the applied force, the greater the resistance; thus leading to better propulsion (provided you have the strength to resist the opposing resistive force from the water).

freestyle high elbow angle

Above is a demonstration of a high elbow position from the catch phase of the freestyle stroke.

The idea is to pull our body past the point of initial catch, and not to move our hand passed our body. This would be easier if we swam in syrup, but the same principle applies in water. Just by maximizing the surface area of our inner arm, palm and hand that we expose to the water during the catch phase, we can maximize this propulsive portion of our stroke toward the exit phase.

You would have noticed in the example given earlier of the pole and plank, I mentioned “provided you have the strength to resist the opposing resistive force from the water” – this is the crux of the high elbow technique. One needs to be strong to optimize this technique pattern. The bigger muscle groups require recruitment together with good shoulder mobility and scapulae stability. This requirement is to not only move more powerfully through the water, but more importantly to safeguard you against injury. The more common injury in swimming is shoulder impingement. What causes this?

If we consider the hand position we assume when preparing to launch ourselves out of the pool once the session is done… We position both hands on the pool deck around shoulder width apart (never too narrow nor too wide), we then splay our hands open for maximum surface area for better grip and as a broader base of support. Then with a high elbow action we exert force downward, with our hands remaining stationary, in order for our bodies to move passed our hands in attempt to raise our centre of mass enough to exit the water. Following a final wrist action we propel ourselves up and out of the water onto pool deck.
The reason we do this, almost unconsciously, is because our bodies (muscles and nerves) interact very cleverly with our brains in determining what the strongest and most efficient way is to get ourselves out of the pool. Now this same action and orientation is what is required during our freestyle swim stroke (one arm at a time) – the only difference here is that we are lying prone within a different medium, that being water. Humans, being better adapted to land, our minds find it tougher to relate to water as we do not experience a similar resistance on our hands within the water as we’d experience pressing down on the pool deck.
Common faults in the freestyle stroke:
– Reaching too wide – we often render ourselves at risk of shoulder injury
– Too little bend in the elbow (limited flexion) through the catch and power phase – we lengthen the lever arm we are pulling through the water, thus putting more strain on the shoulder girdle.
– Entering too narrow and stroking over the mid-line and under our bellies – we cause ourselves to be unstable and less able to apply the appropriate force required for propulsion.

Keeping all this in mind (I hope it has made sense) there are other factors to the freestyle stroke that should not go unnoticed.

I cannot emphasize enough the need for a perfect streamlined body position. This we can practice in training every single time we enter the water from a dive or kick off the wall from a turn.

Head position is crucial for the perfect streamline. Aim to keep your head in a neutral position and as a continuation of your spine – as you would be, standing at attention.

Body PositionA good streamlined body position with the hips level in relation to the head, creating minimal drag for much improved swimming efficiency.

Lastly, the freestyle kick is seldom prioritized. Depending on the distance you swim, I prefer that you have a rhythm to your kick that is in sync with your stroke or breathing pattern. More often than not I notice swimmers getting complacent and resorting to kicking from the knee. This in actual fact creates more resistance than it does propulsion! Good consistent kicks with pointed toes and power being generated by the butt is best.

I wish you all the very best with your training and preparation towards the next major event. Who knows, I may be out there zooming in and sniping to analyze your stroke; if so, it means you’re good!

Once again, thanks Pang for this opportunity.

Remember, swimming fast shouldn’t necessarily feel hard. Aim towards “maximal speed with minimal effort”, that’s when you know you are swimming fast.


So that’s it for Ryan’s guest blog! Hope you all have learnt how to efficiently swim Freestyle after reading this post. So in swimming, it’s always about learning how to generate the most velocity with the least energy required.

It’s definitely been a real privilege to be able to work with one of the most professional biomechanist in the field. Hope my preparation will go well!


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