Swimming: Balance and the High Elbow
There is an enormous interest in swimming efficiently and perhaps, triathlon and triathletes are the reason for this. Triathlons world-wide growth is burgeoning with products, news, industries, coaches, clubs, teams, group coaching programs, articles like this and yes, technique theories.
In triathlon, performance at its most fundamental nature has one central principle that carries the day. That is, reducing any movements or a body position that may restrict forward momentum, energy, propulsion, force etc. In swimming for example, the better the streamline the less drag the swimmer will need to overcome. In cycling, aerodynamics is obviously a huge factor and triathletes are the very reason for so many innovations in bicycle, wheel, aero-bar and helmet designs - all for the purpose of reducing restrictions and maximizing forward propulsion. For the runner, braking forces resulting from a downward forced foot strikes slow the runner considerably as the resulting forces throw the energy in the wrong direction.
Because it takes a lot of energy and effort to increase speed to overcome the waters resistance in swimming it is especially important to maintain a narrow and streamlined and balanced body position. By reducing lopsided motions (and often this means correcting limiters outside of the pool) that cause the body ride low, move side to side and disturb the water unnecessarily there is a strong chance you'll swim faster with less energy.
There are more than a few examples in articles and online videos that are teaching what is frequently called the, "Early Vertical Forearm" (EVF). In fact, I noted some 200,000 text and video references during a Google search for this article. This is indeed an important position (the EVF) and is used principally by elite swimmers and to a lesser degree by triathletes. Still, there is a lot of interest in how to effectively position the arm stroke to reduce energy and increase forward propulsion.
The EVF of an elite swimmer however, isn't functionally possible to achieve without flexibility, mobility and stability (core and shoulder) and thousands of hours of pool time. Still, it is possible to improve and almost get this position through a number of ways - and I've written about those frequently in other articles. Yet, a very important and rarely, if ever cited and "fundamental" aspect towards learning the EVF is, "Balance".
First however, the swimmer must become as streamlined and minimize unnecessary movements that may increase turbulence. That means, from entry to exit all of your motions need to be smooth, effortless and controlled. You must first, as Jane Cappaert, PhD (formerly with the Center for Aquatic Research at USA Swimming) says be, "…slipping through the water in a nice horizontal body position." And this is where the processing of learning the EVF begins.
Body balance places the swimmer in the most optimal position to achieve the high elbow catch. A horizontal body position has a lot to do with moving the center of mass (from the hips) more forward. And to do this elite swimmers tend to use the technique of a, "modified catch up" stroke. At least one arm remains above the head during the pull/hold of the opposite stroking arm.
That technique effectively moves the "balance point" or center of mass forward and results in a more horizontal body position. With this position there is less energy required to overcome the resistance in the water. A higher body position means the swimmer can now more effectively position the entry, extension and the high elbow catch (early vertical forearm).
With the above as the "core" of your swimming stroke you can now go about learning how to achieve a higher positioned elbow. There can be other limiters too that may be restricting the forward propulsion you want such as, flexibility, mobility and with stability. So, get with a good physical therapist or experienced coach to have these evaluated. And lastly, keep in mind, reforming a swimming stroke takes time and a lot of laps, but with a good amount of deliberate practice or, "deep thinking" practice at lower intensities there will be a greater potential for better outcomes.
Marc Evans was the first USA Triathlon head coach for the inaugural Olympic-Distance World Championships, and coach of two-time Ironman champion Scott Tinley. He has written three books on endurance training and is the patent holder for the bestselling SPEEDO Contour and Swim-Foil training paddles. Marc was presented the "Award of Excellence" from the American Medical Association for his pioneering work in triathlon. He works with athletes of all ability levels from his facility near Lake Tahoe or comes to your venue for 1-on-1 and Technique in Motion workshops.