Contributed by Bill Paine, Tech Masters (MIT)
For years, I have observed that many swim articles that turn the spotlight towards freestyle "technique" leave me with an unclear picture of what the "latest and greatest" contemporary wisdom is for this stroke. Especially the pulling motion! It seems that when anyone writes about the physics part of the stroke or other technical mechanics, things just get confusing. Then there are the videos. Sometimes they are shot so that all you see are blurry side-views that really don’t show you the actual arm pull. I’ve concluded, with regard to freestyle, that the pulling motion is one of swimming’s best-kept secrets.
In November 2016, 4-time Olympian and noted author, Sheila Taormina, delivered an enthusiastic, laughter infused, and extremely insightful presentation to 150 coaches at the National Coaches Clinic held in beautiful San Mateo, CA. Taormina confessed that this was her first time talking about the stroke to a group of masters' coaches.
Taormina’s session was called “Beyond Mechanics: Coaching a Propulsive Freestyle Stroke” and focused on the power generated from what happens underwater. For this article, I’d like to zero in on the arm entry and pulling motion. Of course, I have come to realize that it is much easier to demonstrate these mechanics on deck with my swimmers from Tech Masters (MIT), but for today, I’ll do my best to describe some key areas that Taormina highlighted, and offer my own words and descriptions to help you get started on improving your technique. And just so visualizing this is a bit easier, try to think of lying on your belly on the pool deck, and think of all the small tiles underneath you as if they were lines on a piece of graph paper.
Let’s start with hand entry:
The older and outdated method involved your hand landing in front of your head (fingers first), then tracking to a target that would be your centerline (think straight out in front of the center of your skull). The newer method suggests that your hand enters the water, fingers first, and moves forward and targets a spot that is in alignment with the width of your shoulders. As the arm is extended and the hand starts to "catch" water, the elbow pops up a bit, allowing the hand, wrist, forearm, and even other parts of the arm to become, in essence, a bigger paddle, thus giving you a bigger surface area, and for simpleminded folks (like myself), a bigger pull. Sometimes this is referred to as a "high elbow catch." This bigger "paddle" gets you more resistance and traction during the pull, which needs to move you forward down the lane. Don’t make the mistake of focusing on the "hand" pull because the pulling motion is bigger, so think of it as an "arm" pull.
As the hand/arm creates resistance and the pulling motion begins, the hand/arm starts to track in an outward direction. Remember the right arm tracks out toward the lane line on your right. The left arm tracks out to the lane line on your left. I sometimes tell my swimmers to think of the arm pull motion as being similar to a small "question mark." This is significant, because some coaches and swimmers like to think of the pulling motion as a straight arm pull, but Taormina thinks differently. After the catch and the elbow popping up a bit, your hand should track outward toward the lane line. This can be between 4 and 8 inches, or about one to two hand-widths.
Elbow position is key when learning this technique:
As the pulling motion begins, the hand/arm tracks outward. Now, right around the time the arm crosses, let’s say, the chin line, the arm starts to track inward toward the body. For some swimmers, in the old stroke, your hand and arm would move towards your centerline, which would be the middle of your chest, and then push backwards. But with the new propulsive freestyle stroke described by Taormina, your arm tracks in toward your body but not nearly as far -- only to a line that would be equivalent to your shoulder line. I know this is confusing, so visualize this: draw an imaginary line that would go from your nipple (can I say nipple?) to your feet. The arm never crosses this boundary during the pulling motion.
The last area of the pull to discuss is the "finish." For me, I used to tell my swimmers that your hand should pull as far back to where the coins would be in your pockets (if you were wearing slacks). This way, you would have big long finishing strokes, especially for distance swimmers. However, with the newer propulsive freestyle stroke, pretend you are wearing blue jeans, and put your fingers in that weird tiny pocket that is above the regular pocket. Taormina suggests that when your hand reaches this area, you end the pulling motion and finish phase. Next your hand exits the water and you begin the recovery stage.
Of course, learning to have a propulsive freestyle stroke involves many items and details, i.e., moving body parts, rotation, kicking, an open mind, and more! If you are looking for more info, you might want to read Swim Speed Secrets for Swimmers and Triathletes by Sheila Taormina. Gaining a better picture and understanding of what is happening during the pulling motion can make a big difference in your freestyle.
Getting advice from a 4-time Olympian as she unravels the mystery is a great start. And make no mistake – Sheila Taormina is letting the best kept secrets out of the bag!