The Path to Becoming an I.M. Swimmer – Breakdown of the Four Strokes

Foto Gian Mattia D'Alberto/LaPresse 20 Dicembre 2019 Las Vegas - USA sport nuoto 2019 ISL - International Swimming League Nella foto: SETO Daiya Photo Gian Mattia D'Alberto/LaPresse December 20, 2019 Las Vegas - USA sport swimming 2019 ISL - International Swimming League In the picture: SETO Daiya

The Path to Becoming an I.M. Swimmer – Breakdown of the Four Strokes

Has anyone ever asked you what your favorite stroke is? What did you answer? 

For some swimmers, coming up with one favorite stroke might be difficult. This is especially true for those who love to swim the 200 or 400 individuals medleys, where they must be proficient in all four strokes in order to perform well. I.M. swimmers are some of the most well-rounded athletes you’ll find on a swim team. Each of them utilizes a wide variety of skills in a very short amount of time and each must devote a certain amount of practice to each of these skills. 

It’s exhausting just to think about it! But it’s not impossible to learn how to be an I.M. swimmer. In fact, it can be fun and can add a little excitement to your meet day.

The Three Bs and the Free…

Butterfly (B #1)

Ah, butterfly. The bane of some swimmers and – arguably – the most difficult of the strokes to learn. It is also the stroke that is swum first in the I.M. 


Photo Courtesy: Mine Kasapoglu / ISL

“One of the hallmarks of the butterfly stroke has nothing to do with the arms: the dolphin kick. This kick is what gives the stroke its power and drives the forward momentum,” an online article at states. 

The basic thought behind the kick is to keep your legs together while propelling the body forward with an upward-downward motion. Each of the kicks should also be equal in power. 

Breathing is another important factor when talking about butterfly. When competing, a swimmer should keep their head forward and in line with their shoulders. This position will increase speed and mobility in the water, while also making turns easier. Keeping good form also leads to less fatigue and increased performance. 

In the I.M., it is important to have a fast and effective butterfly. However, you must also not tire yourself out too much. There are still three strokes left to go!

Backstroke (B #2)

When improving your backstroke, it is important to remember to stay flat in the water. You should hold still and not allow your head to move up too high. Having an awkward head position can lead to imbalance, which is not good when swimming in an important race. A good rule of thumb is to make sure that the water level covers your ears, while your eyes are looking up and back. 

When kicking, be sure to kick from the hips rather than the knees and always keep your ankles relaxed. Kick as hard and fast as possible – many good backstrokes have a reliable kick. If you do enjoy swimming the I.M.s, it is also important to remember when to do a flip turn and when not to do a flip turn.

Flip turns should be done ONLY when a swimmer is turning into another length of BACKSTROKE. They should not be done when transitioning into breaststroke. A back-breast flip turn will result in a disqualification… and nobody wants that. So be sure to getting the timing right!

Breaststroke (B #3)


Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Ah breaststroke! Another stroke that most swimmers either really love or really hate. It can also be one of the toughest strokes to perform correctly from a technical standpoint.

“Having excellent body position in the water. Keep your hips high and focus on swimming downhill,” Olivier Poirier Leroy breaks down breaststroke in his online article 6 Tips for How to Swim Breaststroke Faster.

Swimming “downhill” would make this sport a lot easier! Swimming shouldn’t be an uphill battle. Body positioning can have a huge impact on your stroke’s effectiveness, so one should always remember to charge forward with their stroke. Power arm propulsion helps to make up those extra meters in a race.

Having a good breaststroke kick is also important. Staying flexible and fit can help keep to create stronger breaststroke kicks. Doing yoga or other forms of flexibility will help to loosen up hips and ankles in order to make for a better kick in the water.

The Freestyle

Freestyle. The final stroke of the I.M.! All that hard work is almost over. It can be tempting to ease back into an easy, lackluster pace when completing the final 50 or 100 of an I.M. event. However, this freestyle can make or break a good race. Many swimmers have been passed and touched out in the last few lengths of their swim.


Jay Litherland; Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

In order to ensure that this doesn’t happen (under any circumstances), swimmers should take a few things into consideration.

Give everything you have left to this last length. Even though the first three strokes were probably tiring, you should still be sure to keep a good, solid kick. Just as in backstroke and butterfly, a freestyle swimmer should kick from the hips instead of the knees. The kick should also be as fast as possible.

Also, a freestyler’s arms should extend fully and pull as much water as possible. The swimming should be smooth. Perfecting an effective reach could potentially lead to a touch-out win.

What to Do Now?

Well, now comes the fun part. Put it all together. Develop individual strokes, but also work on swimming them back to back in the I.M. order. And remember – I.M. swimmers are some of the most well rounded athletes in this sport. If you want to be one, go for it.

Both the 200 and 400 I.M. events can be exciting races for swimmers and spectators alike.

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Bob Niebauer
1 year ago

Ms. Dunn has done it again! Great article! You can tell it was written by a woman who has experienced the highs and lows of swimming Individual Medleys! Thank you!