A Farewell To HIGH Arms (Elbows)
Why can you look at a pool full of lap swimmers and immediately pick out most triathletes? There is a singular stroke they all seem to use, and it must be a learned stroke since most of them do not come from swimming backgrounds. So how is it that they all learn the wrong way to swim? I proffer 2 reasons. Either they try to learn by watching or they receive inaccurate advice.
Both methods result in the same flaw…the dreaded dropped elbow. Since swimming does not feel like it looks, it is nearly impossible for a novice to watch and then replicate the perfect stroke. Perhaps that is also why some swimming advice tends to be inaccurate, whether from amateurs (who don't know) or experts (who do not necessarily know how it really feels). In all the advice on swimming, "high elbows" is the catch-all secret to proper technique. This is inaccurate. All those athletes seeking the perfect stroke think they have high elbows. I suggest the feeling is not a "high" elbow as much as it is a "leading" elbow, or more accurately, shoving your elbow forward further than is comfortable and only achievable with a completely relaxed shoulder.
Triathletes are driven and precise or they would not be able to do what they do. So when instructed to lift their elbows, they do, but only to the midpoint of the recovery when it becomes no longer comfortable. Then the focus shifts to the hand as they aim for an exact target out front, using their hand. This is when the elbow drops and the stroke is rendered useless. With a LEADING elbow, the arm enters the water at the optimum angle of attack for the best grip on the water in the catch and engages the latissimus dorsi to assist in the hip roll.
To put it in terms of how it feels, much different than how it looks, it is extremely uncomfortable and surely awkward. The explicit biomechanical and muscle engagement descriptions are not nearly as effective as imagining it as a "chicken wing" recovery or as if the hands were attached to the elbows and the forearms did not exist. If you shove your elbow as far forward as it will go, and then some more, and then let your arm drop into the water, your elbow will always be higher than the wrist by default, without the conscious intention that removes all fluidity from the stroke. It is this goal to be precise that is the downfall of effective swimming. I suggest swimmers just lob their arms into the water out front, as if fly fishing, allowing for a more relaxed and graceful recovery.
Now the problem is how to imprint this new feeling. First, you must do the hated "catch-up" drill. Only when one arm moves at a time, can this new skill be learned. Since under water is Gorilla SwimmingSM (more about that in another article) and over water is the Chicken Wing recovery, trying to do both at the same time will just fry the motherboard. Take your time, experiment, relax, become a rag doll and see how much that improves your feel for the water. Second, as each arm recovers, drag the fingertips along the surface of the water without bending the wrist. Always try to point your elbow towards the direction of travel.
I would be remiss to end it here because there is also the opportunity to drop the elbow at the catch, although less so if the recovery was done well. After the hand and forearm have entered the water at an angle (as in landing a plane), a full extension is reached as the elbow straightens out. Here the potential misconception is in the body weighting. If there is weight on any part of the arm, or hand, and it is not directed to the chest/arm pit, the arm cannot be skating forward into the optimum position and cannot be utilized for pull power. The feeling of the transition from end of the recovery to beginning of the catch is as if your forearm were moving over a barrel or large exercise ball, being sent there by your core/hip roll, not your shoulder. Here again the elbow must be high and forward, enough to be able to feel the lat engage again. This is called the "early vertical forearm" and is another rotation around the elbow and is a similarly uncomfortable position as is the recovery.
A good clue to let you know if you are approaching a reasonable catch is that the water feels like solid JelloTM, not SpriteTM. You really do want to find the maximum resistance the water offers. It requires a relaxed hand and sensitive inner wrist and forearm to discern.
I think the qualities that make a triathlete successful are often at odds with good swimming technique for those who come late to the sport of swimming. However, it is not a lost cause! With high quality coaching by a knowledgeable expert, the proper directions can have a quick and lasting impact. Novice triathletes should not try to coach one another, but invest in swimming as they invest in their bikes!
Jacki Hirsty, swimming addict, has been at it for over 40 years. As a youth, she only made the B team, but as an adult she has been setting national and world masters' records. Go figure; some of us are late bloomers. She finally discerned that swimming efficiently does not feel like it looks and she now instructs and coaches by explaining the feel of proper form. She is constantly studying and testing theories and technique while she trains and competes. She has also taught clinics alongside many renown coaches including Terry Laughlin of Total Immersion, Karlyn Pipes-Neilsen of Aquatic Edge. More information is available at www.swimsmart.info.