An efficient stroke will significantly reduce wasted energy output through less drag in the water and a cleaner execution of hand and arm entry and recovery. When considering swimming technique for any stroke, analysis should follow the format described below, in this order:
The leg kick will control the body position in the water, while the arm cycle will provide the propulsive force. The timing between the two is vital to the efficiency of the given stroke in order to provide a greater speed through the water with minimum wasted energy.
Finally, breathing technique should be analysed to ensure that when you breathe your overall technique is not disrupted in any way that would cause a breakdown in efficiency.
The main propulsive force of the Freestyle stroke is the arm cycle. The legs add only 10% of total speed through the water, depending on whether you use a 2, 4, 6, or 8 beat kick. The main function of the legs is to help keep the body balanced and efficient to allow the arms to do their work and keep the body moving when the arm cycle is at its weakest point.
The arm cycle
Elbow leaves the water first, with a high elbow, hand relaxed directly under the elbow, trailing fingers on the water, then reach forwards to the entry position.
Entry & Catch
Thumb first, hand slightly cupped, reach further forwards and out (laterally) to "catch" the water to prepare for the out sweep. Dropping the shoulder (upon the reach) slightly will help in the "catch" and in the recovery of the other arm.
Press the water laterally to the body with only slight elbow flexion and begin to rotate the hand at the wrist medially.
Press the water towards the hips through further flexion of the elbow and wrist as you feel the body being pulled over the hand.
With the hand at the hip and palm facing towards the feet, press the water back by extending the arm to approximately 90% of full extension, keeping in line with the body to reduce drag. The arm is ready for the recovery, elbow first!
Why bend your elbows in freestyle?
The very best arm stroke recovery is one that allows the hand to arrive in time to begin the next stroke but also allows the arm to slow almost to a complete stop just before the hand enters the water. Bending the elbow allows you to do this. If the hand and arm come forward and slam into the water, you lose momentum in the form of drag, and your arm fails to move you forward.
To get used to the bent or high elbow recovery, practice the Finger Tip Drag drill. Swim freestyle but drag your fingertips across the top of the water on each arm recovery out of the water.
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