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:

Swim Smooth!


Anonymous said...

I was told the high elbow vertical forearm should be used in triathlons as in a crowded mass start you are then less likely to contact arms with other competitors than with the more swinging straight arm type recovery.

Adam Young said...

Hi Anonymous - who told you that? Try it and you'll find it doesn't work very well at all! The momentum from a higher recovery really helps when it gets a bit "busy"!

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