Friday, June 27, 2014

Trying A Straighter Arm Recovery

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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 user a straighter 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 to it:

- 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 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.

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