In Swimming, what is the Backstroke?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 06 February 2020
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The backstroke, or back crawl, is a swimming stroke popular both for exercise and in competition. Using a combination of long arm strokes and flutter kicks, this style of swimming allows for powerful movement through the water. The stroke allows for easier breathing, as the head and nose are kept above the water level most of the time. Practicing backstroke can be excellent exercise, though care should be taken to perform the stroke correctly, as arm and shoulder injuries can occur.

To do a basic version of the stroke, the swimmer lies on his or her back. Legs should be held straight, with toes pointed, but should not be stiff in the water. The leg motion for the stroke is a simple fluttering kick, taking care to keep splashes small and movement focused for maximum power. While kicking, the swimmer moves arms in a windmill motion, straightening each one while out of the water and bending the elbow and cupping the hand slightly when under water.

Breathing during the backstroke is easier than in many other swimming styles, as the nose and mouth are out of the water. Usually, swimmers match their breaths to the arm strokes, inhaling when one arm comes out of the water and windmills, and exhaling when the opposite arm repeats the movement. The head should rest in the water, not tipped back or lifted, as this can impede movement and result in water getting into the nose and mouth.


Because the head is facing away from the direction of movement, it is important to be aware of the length of the pool in order to avoid crashing into the wall headfirst. Periodically check the distance by tipping the head back and glancing toward the end of the water. Distance can also be established by checking depth markings on the sides of the pool, not the markings nearest to the ends, and then count the strokes it takes from the marking to the water's edge. Although stroke number may vary slightly, knowing the approximate distance will help prevent accidents from occurring.

In competition, backstroke is the only swimming stroke performed on the back. Because of the backward position in the water, competitors typically start races from inside the pool, as opposed to diving in from starting blocks. Races in the stroke are done at several distances; backstroke also is one of the forms of swimming used in medley or mixed-stroke races.


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