A High Elbow vs. Elbow Led Recovery

If you asked 100 people what is important in an effective freestyle stroke, more than anything else they would say "high elbows", referring to a classical high elbow arm recovery over the water:

This style of arm recovery is used by many swimming greats such as Michael Phelps, Ian Thorpe and Rebecca Adlington (shown above). But is it the only way to recover effectively over the water?

Actually no, many other great swimmers recover with a straighter arm, opening up slightly at the elbow to bring the hand much higher:

Users of this style include great athletes such as the Brownlee brothers, Richard Varga (above), Michael Klim and Sharon van Rouwendaal.

This works well in open water because it keeps the hand well clear of waves, chop and other swimmers in close proximity. However it is also frequently used by pool swimmers too - especially if it feels natural and "right" to them.

So if keeping the elbow as the highest point isn't the key to an effective arm recovery, what is? We would say that it's actually about *leading* with the elbow. Watch this short extract from a recent Swim Smooth Video Analysis by Paul Newsome to find out more:

As Paul discusses, fundamentally we are looking for the elbow to lead the arms recovery. Here's Olympic Gold Medallist Sharon van Rouwendaal showing this in action:

The problem comes if you start to lead with your hand before your elbow:

This is symptomatic of swimming flat in the water with not enough body rotation or roll in the stroke.

We can clearly see this below with Coach Cyndy demonstrating. First Cyndy is flat with no rotation in the body; we can see how the arm recovery has to be awkward and round the side with the arm leading:

But with good rotation the arm carries much easily over the surface, elbow led:

As Paul mentioned in the video, a Finis Tech Toc is a great tool to help you develop more rotation in your stroke which will give you a much more relaxed elbow-led recovery:

For more information about Tech Tocs and to purchase visit: shop.swimsmooth.com/products/finis-tech-toc

Also check out Swim Smooth's full step-by-step stroke correction process to develop more rotation in your stroke in the Guru here (subscription required):

Swim Smooth!


Antony said...

Great tip to focus on! When paying attention to this detail, I find myself doing this well on my breathing side, but on the off-breathing side, I tend to exhibit the hand-leading issue. I try to correct this by rotating/rolling my body more towards the off-side, but that feels like too much of a dramatic swing, literally. Is this a common feeling?

Also, I tend to breathe to one side for most of my longer swimming distances as I need the O2, though for short distances (100 yards or less) I breathe bilaterally. I am wondering if this single-sided breathing is contributing to this asymmetry.

So what's a good way to correct this? I do have a swimguru account, so any pointers there would be fine.

AmyP said...

Thank you for this insightful post. I am a swim coach in Las Vegas and will definitely be using this post as an example of how my young swimmers need to make sure to "lead" with their elbow instead of their hand. It is definitely important to teach the younger swimmers these tips before they start to develop bad habits, instead of waiting until they have been doing it wrong for a lenghty point of time. I will be looking for more advice from your site!

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