There's a right way to freestyle.
Remember that you need not, and most likely should not, swim continuously. Fatigue will only exaggerate flaws in technique. You might try a 10-second rest for every 50 meters; it's fine to rest after each pool length, concentrating on one aspect of your stroke form at a time.
The Balancing Act. First, practice discovering a relaxed, balanced position in the water. Lay belly-down in the water and with your legs extended, consciously protrude your chest; this will bring your buttocks up like a see-saw and balance you. Relax your neck and look down and slightly ahead of you. This is the position from which you'll want to begin.
The Entry. Next, bring your right elbow up and out of the water, palm facing away from your body. You'll feel a need to rotate your left shoulder deeper into the water; do so. When your right arm is bent (at a 90-degree angle) above your head out of the water, with your hand about to stab the water 12 inches or so in front of your head, your head should be turned to the right, with your face out of the water. Inhale. The real surprise for many novice swimmers is that you should take a fresh breath with each, or at the very least, every second stroke. How is that necessary? For one thing, the strokes aren't as frequent as they may seem. Swimming fast does not demand a high cadence. A swimmer's rhythm is more like a figure skater's: power, followed by glide. Secondly, you should take only small amounts of air with each breath, concentrating more on a forceful exhale than a deep inhale. Never hold your breath.
The Catch. As your right arm enters the water, straighten it as if reaching for something floating on the water ahead of you. This will feel natural as your neck straightens and you rotate your face down into the water. As you affix your eyes just a few feet ahead, cup the water with your right hand and, keeping your elbow high, pull using both your hand and forearm as one large, powerful paddle. Begin exhaling now. Don't go for choppy turnover here--stay with the pull phase until your hand is brushing your thigh in a long, efficient stroke.
The Pull. You'll feel your torso want to rotate; go with it. Let the rotation of your hips provide the key power source, in the same way the hips rotate when you throw a baseball. Take care not to let your elbow drop into the water or get ahead of your hand. Think of the elbow as the end of a broom and your cupped fingers as the bristles. Note that power early in the pull is not as desirable as power once the hand gets past your navel on its way to the thigh. This is when you'll need to accelerate. For most of the pull phase, let your body travel over your hand as opposed to pulling your hand under your body. Once you graze the thigh (but never before), stop pulling, rest your arm and release your hold on the water. This important continuation of the pull past the thigh is also known as the "push" phase.
Repeat. Once your right arm is straight at your side, lift your left elbow up to the sky. Now the left side of your body will rotate toward the water's surface. Swing your left hand out of the water and into the pre-entry position, applying the broom principle--in reverse--to keep the out-of-water motion as efficient as possible. Rotate your head to the left, and as your face catches daylight, inhale once more. Stab the water 12 inches ahead of you (thumb and index finger first) to begin the left-side entry phase.
Follow your hand with your face. That is, as your hand comes up out of the water initially, you are turned toward it. As it hits the water, you're almost facing forward. Don't forget to extend before pulling. Then, once the pull begins, your face should be underwater. Exhale as you launch your body forward once more, rotating right as the left hand passes the navel.
During this, your right arm is recovering. The two hands should meet just below the sternum, but remember the plane of motion is different: the left hand is pulling water, the right hand is moving straight up and out of the water as the elbow points skyward, preparing for the reverse sweep motion that sets up re-entry.
Meanwhile, you're legs will naturally want to scissor. Point your toes and relax your knee joints. Don't attempt a piston-like motion; let your legs play along in the same tempo as your upper body. The name of the game is smooth efficiency.
(Adapted from Triathlon Training in Four Hours a Week by Eric Harr, Rodale, 2003, 242 pp. $18.95)
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Wearing goggles when you swim will increase your enjoyment dramatically--but not if they fog up. To avoid this, visit a sporting goods store and purchase anti-fog solution. Rub it on both sides of the lenses and leave it for several minutes. Only then should you rinse it off.