What are the Different Types of Competitive Swimming?

Kasey James

There are two main types of competitive swimming. The more traditional swimming race is done in a pool, but there also is open water swimming. This can include swimming in the ocean or other outdoor bodies of water, such as bays, rivers or canals. The main goal of competitive swimming typically is to swim a specific distance in the least amount of time, although some instances might have the goal of swimming the greatest distance in a specific amount of time.

During freestyle swimming, the swimmer alternates the arms and kicks the feet.
During freestyle swimming, the swimmer alternates the arms and kicks the feet.

Competitive swimmers who swim in a pool use four different swimming strokes; freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke and the butterfly stroke. This type of competitive swimming was started in the 19th century and has been included in the Olympics since the first Olympic games in 1896. Competitive swimmers typically train in a metric pool that is 25 meters (82 feet) or 50 meters long (164 feet), although some pools are 25 yards (22.9 m) or 50 yards (45.7 m) long. Most races consist of one swimming stroke, but other races are relays that include more than one stroke and sometimes require using all four strokes in one race.

The backstroke is one of the four strokes used by competitive swimmers.
The backstroke is one of the four strokes used by competitive swimmers.

The freestyle swimming stroke is one in which the swimmer alternates the arms pulling through the water while alternating the legs in a kicking motion. This is a fast stroke in which the swimmer will turn his or her head to the side for a quick breath when needed. The backstroke is similar, but the swimmer's back is to the bottom of the pool. In both strokes, the swimmer's hands reach in the direction that he or she is swimming and pull the water toward his or her feet. Breathing is easier in the backstroke because the swimmer's face is out of water.

The breaststroke can be a slower stroke. To perform the breaststroke, the swimmer faces forward and puts his or her hands together, then pushes them forward, then out and backward until they meet again while at the same time kicking the legs outward and back in unison, like a frog. The head bobs up out of the water for the swimmer to breathe and then down into the water with each stroke. The butterfly is characterized by a double-leg dolphin kick, and the swimmer faces forward, pushes the arms together over the water, then pulls them through the water down to the waist. The swimmer breathes as the arms go forward out of the water in this stroke, which typically is considered the most difficult one.

Competitive swimming in the pool uses all four of these strokes. Races usually are a determined metric length such as 100 meters (328 feet) or 400 meters (1,312 feet), although races in a pool measured in yards also are measured in yards. Swimmers usually start out on a diving block or on the side of the pool, dive in when the signal is given and swim as fast as possible to get the best time. This type of competitive swimming often takes years of training in order to succeed at a high level.

Competitive swimming also can take place in open water. Open water swimming is usually done in a marathon style. There is a determined distance, just like a swimming pool, but in the open water it usually is measured in miles or kilometers. The goal for these competitive swimmers is to get to the destination the fastest.

Sometimes in open water swimming, there is a specific stroke required. In other events, there no predetermined stroke, so swimmers can use any of the four main strokes as they wish or even doggy paddle when necessary. This type of competitive swimming might be more difficult and possibly more dangerous because of the uncontrolled factors of natural water, such as waves in the ocean and dangerous sea creatures such as stingrays and stinging jellyfish. It also can take years of training to excel at open water competitive swimming.

The butterfly is one of the most physically challenging swimming strokes.
The butterfly is one of the most physically challenging swimming strokes.

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Discussion Comments


While not a purely "swimming" competition, I think triathlons also qualify as a form of competitive swimming. Rapidly becoming more popular, triathlons are a marathon-type event that take place in three separate stages: swimming, biking and running. Competitors start with a predetermined open-water swimming distance, move on immediately to a biking race and finish with a run.

Athletes can compete in triathlons individually or as part of a team, in which one member of the team will compete in one part of the overall race. As the open-water portion of the triathlon poses a significant danger to non-swimmers, it is common for a triathlon team to recruit a competitive swimmer to compete in this portion of the race.

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