Why Do Elite Swimmers Recover Over The Water Like This?

If you've watched elite swimmers in the pool you might well have noticed they often recover over the surface of the water and angle their hands back behind them like this:





In fact our freestyle animation Mr Smooth also does the same as he swims:




If you noticed this you might have wondered why and if you should try and do the same?

The reason elite swimmers get their hand in this position (either consciously or unconsciously) is that they have been coached to swim using a classical high elbow arm recovery over the surface of the water:




This certainly looks pretty but with the forearm becoming so vertical, they run the risk of the hand hitting the surface of the water as they swim (as if performing old-school finger-trail drill). The backward angle of the hand gives them more clearance so they don't drag on the surface.

A high elbow recovery could be the right thing for you in the pool if your upper back and shoulders are flexible enough to achieve it. However in open water, where the water is much more disturbed, you run the risk of catching your hand, which would slow you down:




Far better in open water to use a slightly straighter arm recovery and bring the hand up and over more. This is why you see elite swimmers and triathletes swimming like this:





Even if you swim in a perfectly flat lake, the surface very quickly gets disturbed by other swimmers. In fact you can see this in both images above, the swimmers are moving through quite flat water but immediately around them it's turned to mush.

So, if you are a triathlete or open water swimmer, don't focus on developing a classical high elbow recovery because it will be a major hindrance when you are in open water. A loose relaxed high recovery is better, as we can see demonstrated by super-fish elite triathlete Richard Varga here:



You can study Richard's stroke in full in the Swim Smooth Guru here (subscription required): https://www.swimsmooth.guru/video/mb/richard-varga/


As you'd expect, our Miss Swinger animation shows this higher open water recovery style:



So should you swim this way all the time? All year round? In a word - yes! It's the right habit to get into for open water and it works perfectly well for pool swimming too. And, if like many adults you are a little tight in the upper back or shoulders, you'll find it makes for a more relaxed recovery that feels easier to perform.

Here's Swim Smooth Coach Fiona Ford practising this with her London triathlon squad:




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Still Trying To Glide? Check Out These Two Images

Who are the greatest female and male swimmers of all time? Undoubtably Katie Ledecky and Michael Phelps with 28 Olympic and 42 World Championship gold medals between them!

Check out these two underwater images of them at the same point in their freestyle strokes. They are both finishing one stroke at the rear and visibly starting to tip the fingertips downwards to start the next stroke at the front:





Why is that significant? Because in a single image for each, we can see that neither of these GOAT swimmers is gliding - there is no perceptible pause between one stroke finishing and the next starting. Both Katie and Michael are smoothly transitioning from one stroke to the next down the lap.

Despite our best efforts, there are (still!) many swimming coaches and coaching programs on the internet teaching swimmers to pause-and-glide when they swim. This is a massive mistake as water is 800 times more dense than air and by pausing in your stroke you instantly decelerate before having to reaccelerate on the next stroke. An incredibly inefficient and ineffective way to swim!

When you watch elite swimmers on TV they often look like they are gliding forwards through the water but this is an optical illusion brought about by the length of their strokes. The fact is they achieve that length through good streamlining and a great catch and pull technique, not by gliding.

You should follow the same philosophy in your own swimming, work on your stroke technique by improving your body position, becoming more streamlined and developing a good propulsion technique - transitioning smoothly and continuously from one stroke to the next.

Whether you are coached or self-taught, by actively trying to glide you are artificially lengthening the stroke - putting the proverbial cart before the horse.

Also see our classic posts:

Curing The Overglider: www.feelforthewater.com/2015/12/curing-overglider.html

Case Study: Scott The Extreme Overglider 5 Years On: www.feelforthewater.com/2015/09/case-study-scott-overglider-5-years-on.html?m=1

Swim Smooth Analysis: 2013 Barcelona World Championships: www.feelforthewater.com/2013/08/swim-smooth-analysis-2013-barcelona.html


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