Sunday, 17 March 2013

Theories on Propulsion & the High-Elbow Catch in Freestyle

Improving technique in freestyle swimming is difficult at best - knowing which of the many stroke elements to focus on in order to maximize return in your swim times is challenging. Many swimmers, and I include myself here, try to power through the stroke in the hopes that greater physical strength, more effort, and sheer willpower are the magic ingredients that will get us to the other wall fastest. While it's true that strong arms, legs and core muscles are important in swimming, the result of pushing through a swim without paying attention to proper form is typically a minimal reduction in swim time - you might go a little faster - followed by aching/injured joints. 

If your goal is to go faster in the pool, it should be done safely by focusing on elements of technique that help propel you forward quickly but don't end up causing injury. And, swimmers should be adopting techniques that are efficient, which means two things; (1) the technique actually works, it proves to be the best way to propel forward quickly, and (2) the technique becomes natural and takes as little effort on your part as possible to perform - no swimmer wants to waste energy in the water. In other words, focus first on improving your stroke technique before you worry about pulling and kicking harder.

Sheila Taormina, 4-time Olympian and triathlon world champion, writes in her book "Swim Speed Secrets" that a high-elbow during the catch phase of freestyle is a key technique used by many of the world's most successful Olympic swimmers. Granted, if you're reading this, chances are you aren't in training for the Olympics, but why wouldn't you make the most of what can be learned from the fastest swimmers of our time? Every Masters swimmer has their own style and strengths, and for most of us trying new things takes patience and a lot of hard work. Adopting new techniques can be exhausting at first, as your body adapts to different ways of moving it, but the payoff is worth it...

Taormina focuses on several elements used to gauge efficiency in freestyle, we'll start by looking at theories on propulsion as they relate to the catch phase of freestyle. Propulsion simply means movement forward, and in freestyle, the propulsive phase of the stroke is what happens underwater: your hand enters the water, stretches forward, catches the water (known as the "catch"), and pulls back alongside your body to exit at the hip. This is what propels you forward. In the early years of swimming, it was believed that keeping your arm straight during this underwater part of freestyle pull was the most efficient way to propel forwards. Go ahead, give it a try the next time your jump in the water for swim practice. Feel like you're propelling forward quickly? Probably not. And, your elbow and shoulder joints are taking the brunt of the resistance caused by the water, so if you're a Masters swimmer (and not a mighty Olympian) chances are you'd have shoulder injuries in no time. Starting in the 60s, theory on propulsion changed and swimmers began to adopt an "S" shape to their pull, so that the arm no longer pulled straight back but instead followed the path of a long "S" shape underwater. The change came about due to a focus on fluid dynamics - to put it simply, a swimmer can exert more force by pushing against as much still water as possible, and the "S" shape allows the swimmer to "catch" and push against a larger amount of still water. More "catch" = more propulsion = forward faster. While today we still continue to use an "S" shape in freestyle pull, the focus on increasing propulsion includes a closer look at ways to make movement forward even more efficient and ultimately faster. 

In her book, Taormina looks specifically at the catch phase of the underwater pull by comparing the strokes of former and current Olympic freestylers. She argues that most swimmers use a straight arm during the catch phase - even if they follow through with an "S" shape during the rest of the pull-though - and bend their elbows too late to truly "feel" and "catch" the water in the most efficient way possible. 

Here, we demonstrate Taormina's perspective on the catch as it relates to the theory on propulsion. Our swimmer is balancing one arm on a kickboard during the demonstration:

 Her hand enters the water, reaches forward, and "catches" the water to begin her armpull. In the photo to the left, the catch phase is performed with a straight arm, which first pushes water down to the bottom of the pool, instead of back.

During the remainder of the pull-through, the arm is angled in such a way that water is pushed backwards and the swimmer now propels forward more quickly.

2 things to note:

1- the catch shown in the first photo does little to help propel the swimmer forward, but rather the swimmer is pushing water down to the bottom of the pool, which is a wasted opportunity to gain forward momentum.

2 - even with an "S" shape added to the stroke, most swimmers still perform the catch phase with a straight arm pushing downwards. Again, a wasted opportunity to move propel forward at an earlier point in your pull.

Now, let's look at how a high-elbow catch changes the way water moves:

The swimmer's elbow remains high, while the hand alone performs a kind of scull motion by starting to point downwards to the bottom of the pool. Water moves backwards at a much earlier point in the stroke, which means she'll get more propulsion out of every arm stroke. 

More propulsion out of every arm stroke = an opportunity to go faster. Looks like a simple change, right? Probably not, especially if you've been using a straight-arm catch for years. Even worse if you're one of those people who drop their elbow when they pull underwater. Ouch. Developing a high-elbow catch takes time and practice, but you should start feeling the benefits early on. Make sure you follow your own progress by asking your coach for regular feedback. Underwater video-taping is also an important element in adopting new techniques - it's the only way you'll see what you're actually doing with each stroke and whether or not you've succeeded in adopting correct form. 

There are a few key things that will help you develop an efficient high-elbow catch:

1. Understand the mechanics of the high-elbow technique. Think of your arm as having 2 parts, or "levers".

The first lever runs from your shoulder to elbow, and the second one from elbow to hand.

Now look at the position of lever 1 while lever 2 performs the catch phase. Lever 1 will drop downwards as the hand begins to pull back, but the elbow should continue to stay high.

Don't drop your elbow!

2. Visualization: use the concept of "levers" to imagine yourself rolling over a barrel. Don't push the barrel down, pull yourself over it by pushing it backwards.  

3. Drills, drills, drills. Here's a few, keep at them until you can see the difference in your catch:

4. Flexibility: work on stretching the muscles in your shoulder, neck and arm to help you reach forward further and catch properly.

5. Strength: once you're able to perform the high-elbow catch, start working on building some power behind it and for your pull-through as well. More on that to come!

Happy swimming!

Written by Nadine Bennett, c/o St-Laurent Sharks Masters Swim Club.
Not to be copied, reposted or distributed without club permission.
March 16th, 2013

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