Go back to school! Erase the smelly, crowded hallways of your high school from your mind and imagine yourself under the Islamorada sun in a clear pool ready to absorb knowledge that will enable you to swim faster. Swim School from Gary Hall Sr. of The Race Club is about lifelong enjoyment of the sport. It’s always more fun to swim to your potential.
Teaching swimming technique is very interesting. Every client we have at The Race Club is different. Some learn easily. Some don’t. For those who struggle more with adapting to changes in technique or stroke mechanics, we find that our success often depends on taking a different approach or by using a different description or drill. A concept that is easily grasped by one swimmer may be completely incomprehensible to another. Our methodology in swim camps and private sessions gets down to the bottom of what each swimmer needs. Teaching the correct pulling motion in freestyle is a good example of this challenge.
For every event, other than the 50-meter sprint, the pulling motion of elite freestylers is strikingly similar. We often refer to that correct motion as the high elbow pull. Some call it early vertical forearm. I have written extensively about why it works, but that does not make it any easier to learn. There is really nothing very natural or intuitive about this motion. Some would consider it downright awkward. It requires flexibility. It diminishes propulsion to some extent. Yet it may be the single most important change a swimmer can make in improving freestyle technique.
Of all of the freestyle pulling motions we see with our clients, I categorize them into four different techniques: the out sweep, the in sweep, the deep pull and the high elbow pull. Excluding the 50 sprinters, I would say that upward of 95 perfect of our clients manage to find one of the three wrong pulling techniques. Very few learn the correct high elbow pull without some help.
Through years of teaching, we have developed three of our favorite drills for teaching this high elbow pulling motion. Yet, even after spending a great deal of time and effort using these drills on this one important technique, many still don’t get it right. So we are always searching for new ways to teach an old subject.
Recently, I was working with one of our clients who struggled to pull correctly, so I decided to give her some advice that I had never given before.
“Once your arm enters the water,” I started, “initiate the pull with the hand and the forearm, but keep your elbow pointing forward, toward the end of the pool for as long as you can … in the direction you are swimming.”
Presto, she got it. It made perfect sense. Suddenly, her upper arms, the cause of most of the frontal drag during the pull, were less in harm’s way. They weren’t sticking out so far. She felt like she was slipping through the water. Not surprisingly, she was swimming faster.
So now, when swimmers are challenged by the high elbow pull in freestyle or the correct pull in backstroke, I simply tell them to keep their elbows pointed toward the end of the pool for as long as they can. For many, it really helps them with both freestyle and backstroke pulling technique.
Sometimes, old dogs like me can learn new tricks.
Gary Hall Sr.
Gary Hall Sr., M.D. is a three-time Olympic swimmer (‘68, ‘72, ‘76) who earned a medal in each of the three Olympic Games. At one time he held 10 world records in all strokes except breaststroke and was the World Swimmer of the year in 1969 and 1970.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.