Swim Smooth’s Adam Young reveals the Olympian technique trick that you can use to record your best ever swim splits.
Hopefully you enjoyed watching the Olympics in London and saw some great racing in both the pool and open water. When you watch swimming on TV you have the benefit of the underwater cameras, which enable you to see the Olympians’ strokes underwater.
One aspect of their technique you might have noticed during the Games coverage is something called an Early Vertical Forearm (EVF), which is an important part of an efficient freestyle stroke.
A good EVF technique lets you generate more propulsion for the same effort, moving you more quickly through the water.
Early Vertical Forearm
When you swim freestyle, your hand enters the water and extends forwards – this is known as the catch phase. After the catch phase, your hand moves downwards and your elbow bends (see figures 1 and 2). This is where the propulsive part of the stroke is initiated – where you start to engage with the water so you can push it behind you.
During this phase, your elbow should be higher than your wrist and your wrist higher than your fingertips (see figure 3). This position allows you to press the water backwards towards the wall behind you, not downwards or to the side. This is critical because when you press the water backwards you move forwards, giving you maximum propulsion for your effort.
Elite pool swimmers like Michael Phelps and Rebecca Adlington have incredibly flexibile upper backs and shoulders so are able to get their forearms nearer to a true vertical position (figure 4) – otherwise known as an ‘Extreme EVF’. This allows these swimmers to engage with the largest amount of water possible but it’s difficult to do – even Adlington and Phelps can only manage it on their left sides and are less vertical on the right side of their strokes.
The good news is that you don’t need an extreme EVF to swim quickly. In fact even elite triathletes (who swim in the 16-18min range for 1500m) don’t have extreme EVFs – they merely get their forearms quite vertical in a normal EVF position. As an age-group triathlete, this should be the arm position you aim for too.
Bringing it together
A knock-on benefit of introducing a better catch/EVF technique to your stroke is that it tends to increase your stroke rate. It shouldn’t take many sessions for you to adapt to swimming with a slightly faster stroke rate. One way to make the adaptation easier, and reinforce the new sense of rhythm it needs, is to keep your lead hand constantly moving. It should be extending forwards or tipping downwards or bending at the elbow or pressing on the water. It should never pause.
A good EVF can be elusive for most swimmers for two main reasons:
Right feels wrong
Most age-group triathletes have quite a poor catch technique and tend to press the water downwards, with a straight arm, to the side or even forwards. You’ll feel pressure on your palm if you do this because you’re changing the direction the water wants to travel in. By improving your catch and using the EVF technique to press the water backwards, you’re effectively helping the water on its way rather than changing its direction. This feels lighter and different to what you might expect.
You might have felt this lighter pressure while trying to improve your catch and thought it must be wrong. Or you might have noticed an immediate lifting in your stroke rate and assumed you were slipping through the water with your hand. Both effects lead many swimmers to believe they’re on the wrong path and should return to their old stroke technique. When developing your catch and EVF technique, expect the changes to feel strange at first but persevere and remain objective about the results.
Over-lengthening your stroke
Traditional advice suggests that you should make your stroke as long as possible to be an efficient swimmer. But this can cause the lead hand to come up towards the surface at full extension, shoving the palm forwards and causing the wrist and elbow drop. From here, it’s nearly impossible to achieve a good EVF position during the catch that follows.
Try experimenting with your hand entry and extension so that your hand goes slightly deeper the closer you get to full reach, perhaps 20cm beneath the surface (see above). One good way to practise this it to swim with fins to give you support and help you become more relaxed in your movements. Experiment by reaching your hand forwards to different depths until you find one that’s right on for you. When you do, you’ll notice that you can hold your elbow higher than your wrist much more easily during the catch that follows.
This article was originally published in Triathlon Plus magazine. Save time and money by having every issue delivered to your door or digital device by subscribing to the print edition or buying digitally through Zinio or Apple Newsstand.
You’ll find loads more triathlon training advice in triradar.com’s Training Zone section.