Fix your stroke: Stop single arm swimming

A good arm position is critical for fast swimming. Part one of a series on correcting your arm and body position in the water.

| April 21, 2017 | TRAINING

Photo >Kevin Mackinnon

by Daniel Bullock

There is a technical issue in the world of swimming that is not easy to fix. In fact, it is incredibly tricky, even if approached from many different angles, as it is a natural reaction to being in the water. If you are an adult learning to improve your swim technique and have not had the good fortune to spend years in the pool as a youngster, then there is a good chance you are swimming single armed. Not literally with one arm at a time, but in terms of how ineffective one of your arms will be each time you interrupt your stroke to breathe.

I recently conducted a concentrated block of submerged filming of nearly 40 swimmers above and below the water. When this happens, patterns are easier to spot and it was easy to see how few managed (only two!) to set a good arm position to assist propulsion when breathing. It really is a tough one to break unless you have had years of swim training.

We have been seeing the arm push down to assist a lifting motion in order to help the head come up for air for years, but this concentrated block of swim filming reminded me just how widespread this issue is. A survival instinct no less, it is logical and intuitive and so it would seem necessary to help with breathing. For long distance front crawl this is not ideal as it strains the shoulder, impacts the neck, limits forward propulsion and, as we know from a see saw, if one side goes up, the opposite end generally goes down.

From poolside, I can literally see you bouncing along, lifting up for air and sinking the legs. The neoprene in your wetsuit will help restore the legs to a higher position once the head resumes its neutral position. But it will do nothing for the increased drag you create from your increased submerged surface area or the interruption to your momentum. Then there’s also the extra energy needed to bring you back to your race speed.

Counter Balance

In the water, you are completely suspended with no foundation or connection to anything solid. We can float and use our limbs to create propulsion, but as many of you are aware, it is not easy maintaining or holding a good body position. If something moves out of position, we need to counter balance, or stabilize it – otherwise we end up on our backs or, at the least, out of position.         

If the arm sweeps wide to stabilise the head position as it lifts, we often see a wide kick created to help counter the off balance body position. This is really damaging to relaxed, easy swimming. Swimming fast requires balance, a narrow profile and effort put into going forwards with the least amount of energy lost going in the wrong direction. Any excess in exposed surface area will increase your drag and slow you down. It will also make you work harder and need more air/energy.

A faster swim speed from better mechanics and a smoother streamline will have you sit higher in the water, so you will be closer to air in terms of access to breathing. Eventually you won’t need to come up for air via your straight arm pushdown that was helping while you sat lower in the water. Imagine wasting the ability to go forwards each time you breathe. You are literally swimming single armed. It is easy to see how this exaggerates when you tire and the kick, hip involvement and rotation start to suffer. At this point the window of opportunity to breathe narrows so we need to prop it up with the straight arm push down.

Stay tuned for next week's swim tip on arm position in the water.