Thursday, December 6, 2007

A little something we have forgotten

Efficient locomotion of any body in a viscous fluid is something really simple: in order to go faster you need to reduce drag and/or increase propulsion. However, when it comes to swimming, it would appear that things changed, since all the “swim technique” instruction is geared towards reducing drag, but nothing is said about increasing propulsion.

Almost 40 years ago, the great swim coach Dr. James “Doc” Counsilman was the first to notice the importance of the high-elbow position at the catch for propulsion. This importance should not be underestimated: it is the single technical feature that distinguishes every level of swimmer. Forget about the way swimmers recover their arms, kick, rotate, breathe. Simply put, the way they do the catch is what makes the difference between being fast or being slow. Many times you see a swimmer that apparently does everything right: good kick, great recovery, good streamlined and horizontal position in the water. However, he/she is not fast. Why? Because they don’t have a good catch. Therefore the importance of achieving an effective catch cannot be stressed enough.

The catch that Doc Counsilman was the first to mention can be described by the following analogy: When a person lays on a surfboard and paddles out to find a wave, the arms straddle out from the sides of the board, allowing the vertical forearms and the hands to hold or catch water and propel the board forward. Swimmers should not attempt to apply propulsive force until the arms are in this high-elbow position because (…) they cannot direct water back until the arms and hands are facing forward [1]. Failure to do so results in the most common technical mistake that prevents slower swimmers to become faster swimmers: pulling with a dropped elbow.

So this is great, now that we were reminded of what was forgotten for so many years, we just need to get in the pool and apply it. This is certainly true, but the catch (pun intended) is that mastering the high-elbow pull is one of the most difficult skills to master in swimming. The reason for this is that the movement patterns that we learn in pulling ourselves using our arms are “low” elbow positions. Think for example of doing chin-ups or climbing a rope. So we need to focus os learning a new way of pulling.

Two training methods that I like to use in order to teach good pulling mechanics are paddle-only swimming and band-only swimming. Here’s what Coach Joel Filliol has to say about these two methods [2]:

- Technical Pulling - Although many use pulling as a way to increase intensity and muscular load, paddles can serve a technical purpose as well. The added pressure awareness on the hands that comes from using paddles often helps keep the elbow high and armpit open, thus reducing dropped elbows, a common technical error in freestyle. Improving the catch also enables better use of the trunk muscles, including the lats – and a key to swimming faster is engaging these muscles, rather than just the arms. If a swimmer can feel some fatigue in the lats after a good pull set, then he or she is on the right track.

- Band-only - Swimming with an ankle band is probably not one of the most popular swim drills, but it is one of the most effective. An ankle band can be made of an old bicycle tube tied into a loop, and it will eliminate the kick from your freestyle. Doing so forces a swimmer to find a way to catch more water, otherwise they don't move forward; hence, it is often called a sink-or-swim drill. When first starting out with the ankle band, it can be difficult to maintain a good body position. The legs sink and it takes quite a bit of energy to move up and down the pool. Over time, however, swimmers learn to hold more water with each stroke, and their body position will improve. At first swimmers increase their stroke rate to make up for inefficiencies in their catch, but focus on doing the drill more effectively by pulling more water. “

The Columbia Encyclopedia simply and concisively defines swimming as “self-propulsion through water”. Think about that the next time you’re in the pool.

[1] Ernest W. Maglischo, “Swimming Fastest”. -

[2] Joel Filliol, “3 key workouts for an off-season swim focus” -


sentania said...

Excellent post.

khai said...

Hah! I KNEW I didn't need to kick!

JorgeM said...

nice post and thanks for the links

JB said...

I'll join the ass kissing and say that this one's a keeper. Well done!

rappstar said...

If you want to see the definitive high-elbow catch, look here:

Hackett & Thorpe - hard to get better than that.

Ryan D said...

Mr. Sousa- Aside from your triathlon knowledge, you are a very good writer. Great post.

Ron said...

Coach Sousa,
Thanks very much for the band and paddle tips. I've incorporated them in my workouts over the last month and the results have been remarkable. Once a week or so I try to do a 200yd time trial to see how I'm doing. Over the last 9 months, I've seen slow but steady improvement..Over Thanksgiving, I swam a 2:55. (my fastest ever). Last night I swam a 2:46. It was the last one in a set of 6 decending 200's on 3:30.. It's not a great time, but for me, it's amazing. And, it's after 30 days of the drills. Thank you

Unknown said...

I think the primary reason that older people have trouble learning to swim fast is because they don't have the necessary shoulder flexibility to achieve the inward rotation of the humerus needed to maintain the high elbow at the catch. Here's something to try: stand and bend at the waist, extending your arms overhead, with palms facing down. Keeping your palms in this position, try to rotate your upper arm so that your biceps point towards the floor and your elbow points towards the ceiling. The degree to which you can rotate the upper arm indicates your capability for achieving a good catch because this is the position required to push down on the water with your palms while holding the elbow high.