Misconceptions on the Freestyle Straight-Arm Recovery

SWCover 201412I was going through my stack of swimming rags yesterday, and I came across an interesting analysis of the straight-arm recovery in freestyle in Swimming World’s December, 2014 issue (“Freestyle Straight-Arm Recovery” by Rod Havriluk).  The article’s main intent is to put to the test the conventional wisdom that a straight arm recovery will make you a faster freestyler.

For those who aren’t technical wonks, a “straight arm recovery” in freestyle means that when the arm comes out of the water the swimmer keeps the arm straight like a backstroke recovery and swings the arm forward.  The alternative is a “high elbow recovery” where the elbow stays above the shoulder and wrist during the out of water portion.  Some swimmers, like Janet Evans, rocked the world using a straight arm recovery in her freestyle, so it’s an important issue to consider.

There were many great points worth attention in the article.  With many of our triathetes wanting to adopt a straight-arm recovery in open water in imitation of pro triathletes, we should look at what’s really going on here.

Problem of Correlation vs. Causation

Havriluk starts off the article with a great observation that we all need to be careful in our imitation of world-class swimmers:  “Many people believe that the technique of the fastest swimmers is worth copying, resulting in numerous misconceptions.  In reality, even the fastest swimmers have technique limitations, but they offset them with strength and conditioning.”  I like to describe this point as the problem of correlation vs. causation.  In other words, a swimmer is fast and she also happens to exhibit the technical characteristic (correlation) or the swimmer is fast because she displays the technical characteristic (causation).  As coaches or swimmers reading the trade rags, we need to be careful when attributing speed to a cause.  In this case, Havriluk sees the issue being more about causation.

Straightening the Arm Underwater at the Finish is the Key

Havriluk argues that the improvement of speed with the straight arm recovery is due more to what’s going on underwater than what’s going above water.  Forcing a straight arm recovery keeps the swimmer from pulling the elbow upward and out of the water too soon — what we like to call “short stroking.”  To get a straight arm recovery, you need to completely finish your stroke and keep the forearm deeper and moving backward through the finish of the stroke.  He attributes a loss of power in the sample swimmer from 50 lbs of pressure with the full finish to 30 lbs with the early exit of the arm.  Figure 1 in the article is quite good to show the difference in the early vs. later release.

At our Swim Studio, we’ve noticed another issue with shortening the stroke.  We find that our swimmers are not able to fully extend, lean forward on their balance point, and streamline the body if the arm releases the water early.  By getting a full finish, our swimmers’ bodies get into a more efficient position and reduce drag considerably.

Straight-Arm Recovery Slows the Finish

Getting the arm to fling straight up in the air can lead the swimmer to pitch the hand in the back to pull upward which increases resistance and slows the exit from the water.  We teach the pitching the fingers down and circling the forearm (elbow, forearm, and hand) wide to recover back to the front of the head.

Straight-Arm Recovery Slows the Catch Phase

By slapping the arm on the water high above the shoulder, the swimmer wastes time at the beginning of the entry getting the arm positioned below the shoulder to start the catch. Havriluk estimates a .2 second time loss at the catch to reposition the arm correctly.  We like the high elbow recovery and early entry at CBD because we find that it gets the arm more quickly into position for the by going directly to the “just below the shoulder position.”

Potentially Adds Shoulder Stress and Lateral Motion

Having the arm straight in the recovery phase puts a lot of weight above the body and stress on the shoulder.  If the straight-arm recovery doesn’t fall in the correct plane, it can either (a) cause side-to-side twisting in the body or (b) strain the shoulder over time.   A compact and high-elbow recovery keeps the weight low and in line with the streamlined body and reduces the stress on the shoulder by reducing the time that the elbow is over the shoulder.

Take Aways

Here are some of my take aways from the article:

  1. The Key is Underwater — The important issue is really making sure that the arm takes a full stroke through the water.  We want to eliminate short-stroking where the arm doesn’t straighten underwater because it affects the power of the arm stroke and the ability to streamline the opposite side of the body.  This wouldn’t be the first time that we miss what’s really going on in the stroke because the only part we can see if what we can observe from the deck or lakefront
  2. Straight-Arm Recovery is a Drill Focal Point not a Strategy — At CBD, we use the straight arm recovery in our stroke drills at times to force full lengthening at the finish of the stroke, but we replace it with an elbow circle at the back once the swimmer knows where the stroke should finish.  In other words, it’s a great learning tool but not a full-time strategy
  3. Use a High-Elbow Recovery and Slightly Steep Entry — Combining the high-elbow will the straightened arm underwater seems to be the best strategy.  The high elbow will not only allow the swimmer to keep the weight of the arm in the line of the body but it will also allow for the arm to enter “the mail-slot” and drive steep to the catch point
  4. Be Careful in Imitation — It’s important to study the fastest swimmers to see what they are doing.  However, you need to use video and analysis to determine if the swimmer is fast because of the quirk or in spite of the quirk

See you at the pool!

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