Could A Straighter Arm Recovery Be Right For You?

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A few years ago on one of our coach education courses, we asked: What is the most important part of the freestyle stroke? One of the assembled coaches immediately put up his hand and said "High elbows, you've got to get the elbows high over the water!".

Do we agree? Not really! Many swimmers are better off using a slightly straighter arm recovery if it is the right thing to do for their natural style, for their level of shoulder flexibility and for the environment in which they are swimming - particularly if they are swimming in open water:

A high elbow arm recovery certainly looks elegant and has been used by many swimming greats such as Sun Yang and Katie Ledecky. Here Paul Newsome demonstrating it in open water:

Classic high elbow arm recovery (half speed)

If you're trying to use this style of recovery in a wetsuit you will quite likely end up with shoulder or arm fatigue as a result. Even in the most flexible wetsuits in the world (e.g. a slinky HUUB!) a controlled high elbow recovery is resisted by the suit's neoprene, working the shoulder and bicep muscles harder than they need to.

This is one of the reasons why most professional triathletes and open water swimmers use a more open arm recovery style:

Straighter Arm recovery style (half speed)

The straighter arm reduces the stretching of the neoprene around the back of your elbow and it uses the momentum of the recovery to reduce the work done by the shoulders. The result? Much more efficient open water swimming!

Old-school swimming coaches brought up on pool swimming may frown upon straighter arm recoveries but all the evidence shows this style is just as valid as a high elbow recovery. Aside from wetsuit swimming, there are many other potential benefits:

- A straighter arm allows much great clearance over the water's surface so your hand doesn't get caught by waves and chop.

- It allows you to swim closer to other swimmers without clashing arms with them, giving greater opportunities to draft.

- If you are quite inflexible in the shoulders then it may be impossible to swim with a classic high elbow without reaching the limits of your flexibility. This is a classic problem for Arnies and some Bambinos.

- If your natural stroke style is quite punchy a straighter arm recovery will probably just 'feel right' for you (aka The Swinger).

Take a little time in training to experiment with a slightly straighter arm recovery over the top of the water to see how it works for you. You don't need to go completely straight at the elbow, just open out the angle a little to create a higher recovery as we see professional triathlete Richard Varga do here (first out of the water at the Olympic Games):

Remember to keep the recovery smooth and loose in the shoulders - it's not a ballistic action. And as with any change to your stroke, expect it to feel a little odd at first but give it at least 3-4 sessions before judging whether it is right for you.

Swim Smooth!

PS. Don't confuse this with a high elbow stroke technique during the underwater portion of the stroke. Whatever you do over the surface of the water it's essential to bend the elbow underwater and press the water back behind you, to send yourself efficiently forwards. See here, here and here.


Dom said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Graham Williams said...

The straight arm recovery is often used by pool swimmers and it seems especially by those that have played water polo at a good level.
Here is a good example that I wrote about.

He went on to win his 10K in just over 2 hours and his style would suit Triathlon swimming very well

Mike A said...

I'm adapting to a straighter arm recovery at the moment, because I had serious shoulder fatigue after my first wetsuit swim (only 250m)! I've now done a few more of these, including a 750m lake swim, and the straighter arm recovery seems to be doing the trick.

Hugo said...

I think Swimsmooth is wrongly named since it encourages more of a swinger style than a smooth style. I used to be a 'smooth' but I'm morphing into a swinger the more I adhere to the swimsmooth philosophy. The problem is finding a name that won't attract the wrong clientele.

I definitely agree with the straight(er) arm recovery esp when increasing stroke rate and increasing efficiency in open water. A smooth style can get a real battering in open water whereas the swinger style is more robust. Let's be clear that I'm talking about swimming here!

Erkan GÜNAY (Turkiye) said...

ı dont have any knowledge about stroke technique for open water swimming but we should teach all wariations on age group swimmers.espcially we should measure shoulder mobility, flexibility and visual assesment on dryland. after than we should designed race strokes

steve Coz said...

Lets face it the guys winning the Ironman's are all using this straighter elbow technique it must work!

Jonathan Wilden said...

Went through the straight arm recovery with the Tri Surrey OWS squad this morning and all talked of the benefits. Those who switched from the smooth to the swinger style described the ability to do another loop with reserved energy in the shoulders. Also helped give clarity to the sleeves -v- sleeveless wetsuit debate when in warm water. Keep the sleeves and adjust the recovery.

Unknown said...
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Anonymous said...

This was paramount in me learning to increase my stroke rate a bit. Coming from a pool background I found out very quickly the higher/bent elbow recovery was fine in the controlled environment of concrete walls. Not so much in 3 foot swell. Same effort levels my open recovery takes me from ~ 60spm to the low 70's. It's so good I have abandoned the stroke I have used all my life in the pool for good! My former coaches are rolling over.

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