Six Phases of the Freestyle Pulling Cycle: Late Recovery Phase

by SwimSwam Partner Content Off

August 06th, 2020 Training

Courtesy of Gary Hall Sr., 10-time World Record Holder, 3-time Olympian, 1976 Olympic Games US Flagbearer and The Race Club co-founder.

The late phase of the arm recovery starts when the hand is at its highest point and is completed once the hand enters the water. It is the final phase and one of the most important in the complete pulling cycle. It is important because the technique used at the end of the arm recovery has a profound influence on the propulsion generated from the pulling hand. The technique used for the arm recovery also influences the amount of frontal drag that occurs during the lift phase that follows, once the arm enters the water. 

Historically, there has been a misunderstanding about the best technique to use for the hand entry at the end of the arm recovery. Most of that misunderstanding stems from the misconception that air bubbles surrounding the hand underwater are increased as a result of a forceful hand entry. Air bubbles behind the hand will certainly reduce the propulsion during the pull and should be avoided, if possible. The fewer the air bubbles surrounding the hand, the more potential to hold water, and get a stronger pull. 

For years, to reduce the numbers of air bubbles behind the hand, many coaches have advocated a slower, delicate hand entry into the water. We call this technique the modern toilet seat syndrome, as the hand tends to slow down before entry as if the arm had a spring hinge like the toilet seat that comes down very slowly. Others have advised sliding the hand into the water just above the head and then moving it forward underwater to rid the hand of any air bubbles before the important lift and propulsion phases. We don’t believe that either suggested technique is advisable.

The number of air bubbles surrounding a swimmer’s hand underwater seems to have little to do with the speed of the hand entry. Some of the fastest swimmers in the world, swimming at very high speeds with aggressive hand entries, manage to avoid having air bubbles at all behind the pulling hand. Poor swimmers, trying to be as delicate with their hand entries as possible, often end up with a virtual bubble bath behind the pulling hand.

How fast swimmers manage to avoid causing many air bubbles to form behind their pulling hands is one of the great mysteries of our sport. Many theories have developed, but the most plausible one is that fast swimmers have better proprioception (feel) for the water with their fingers. Nort Thornton, retired Head Coach from Cal Berkeley, believes that it is more specifically the proprioception from the Ulnar nerve, supplying sensation to the ring and little fingers, that determines a swimmer’s ability to feel the water. Because of this extraordinary sensitivity in the fingers, or for whatever reason, elite swimmers instinctively get rid of air bubbles around their hands on nearly every stroke they take. Lessening the air bubbles following the path of the hand helps them to increase propulsion during those phases of the pull, to hold water.

Entering the hand earlier by sliding it into the water above the head is not a good idea, either. There is an enormous difference in density between air and water (some 800 times greater in water), so to reduce frontal drag, the hand and arm should be kept in the air for as long as possible. The best place to enter the hand into the water is with the arm fully extended and directly straight in front of the shoulder. Do not enter the hand just in front of the head, which causes more drag, nor fully extended forward in front of the head, which will lead to an out-sweeping pulling motion. An out-sweeping pulling motion causes more frontal drag, less propulsion, and a zig-zagging body motion down the pool.

Now that we have dispelled those two myths, there are two very good reasons why swimmers should drive their recovering hands aggressively down through the water at the entry. First, the amount of kinetic energy found in the arm and hand as they approach the water directly impacts the pressure or force of the pulling hand. We call this a coupling motion. As the recovering hand nears the water, the pulling hand with any freestyle technique (other than a catch-up freestyle) will be in the propulsion phase. The more energy there is in the recovering arm at that moment, the more propulsion can be generated by the pulling hand. Second, the speed at which the recovering arm strikes the water (angular velocity) is linked to the speed of the shoulder rotation. The faster the arm drives down to the water, the faster the shoulders will rotate. Because of the amount of mass in the upper body compared to the arm, a fast shoulder rotation will positively impact the pulling force more than the fast recovering arm. Since the two motions are linked together, however, a swimmer doesn’t need to worry about body rotation. By concentrating on driving the arms and hands hard down to the water, the fast shoulder rotation will happen automatically. Slow the hand down at entry and so goes the shoulder rotation, slow. When used together with good technique, these two powerful coupling motions of arm recovery and shoulder rotation can turn an average swimmer into a much faster swimmer. 

Finally, once the hands and arms enter the water, they should cause the least amount of frontal drag. That means that the hands should enter the water with the thumb down or the palm down and the thumb and fingers pointed forward, not tilted downward at the wrist. The fingers and thumb should be squeezed together with the wrist stiff, so the hands and arm stay in the same line as the body’s direction of motion. The stiffening of the wrist and squeezing together of the fingers need to happen before the hand enters the water, not after. In other words, the hands and wrist need to be relaxed on the way up, during the early phase of arm recovery and stiffened with fingers squeezed together on the way down. If the fingers and wrist are relaxed at hand entry, the flow of water will cause the fingers and thumb to spread wider, or the wrist to flare to the outside or even worse, to bend backward. Contrary to what is often taught, the fingers should not be relaxed nor pointed downward toward the bottom of the pool at entry. The change in hand position from fingers-pointing-forward to fingers-pointing-down should occur during the transition from the lift phase to the propulsion phase, and as quickly as possible. 

Zane Grothe starts to squeeze the fingers together and tighten the wrist during the late phase of his freestyle recovery. His hand will enter the water with his arm fully extended directly in front of his shoulder with his fingers pointing forward. His head will be underwater to help reduce drag by the time the hand reaches the water.

In one complete pulling cycle, from hand entry to the following hand entry, the hand and arm have gone through six different phases. Each phase has a different purpose in the overall quest to find the ideal balance between pulling propulsion and frontal drag and get the swimmer the farthest down the pool possible with each stroke taken.

When learning the correct freestyle pulling and recovery techniques, please don’t try to think of performing all six phases of the cycle at one time while you are swimming. If you do, you are likely to get them all wrong. Instead, focus on drills and swimming that will correct one or two phases at a time, perhaps using one arm at a time. Start with the lift and front-quadrant propulsion phases, then the back-quadrant propulsion phase, then the release and early recovery phases, then finally, the late recovery phase. In that manner, you will more likely end up with a great freestyle pulling and recovery technique.

In baseball, when a pitcher throws the ball at 90+ mph, with or without a certain amount of spin on it, there is an inordinate number of complex motor movements of the entire body that are required for that ball to arrive at the plate with pinpoint accuracy. The skill to accomplish that great pitch does not happen overnight. Neither does the skill to swim with perfect arm pulling and body motion for sustained speed and efficiency.

Get some coaching help and then practice, practice, practice. Fast swimming starts with great technique.

Yours in swimming,

Gary Sr.

Gary Hall, Sr., Technical Director and Head Coach of The Race Club (courtesy of TRC)

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