I have been fortunate enough to conduct a concentrated block of submerged filming recently of nearly 40 swimmers. When this happens patterns are easier to spot and it was easy to see how few managed 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 as a youngster. Usually the arm pushes down to assist a lifting motion in order to help the head come up for air. A survival instinct no less, so it is logical and instinctive. For long distance FC 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.
If the arm sweeps wide to stabilise the head position as it lifts, we often see a wide kick created to help counter balance the off balance body position. Any excess in exposed surface area will increase your drag and slow you, make you work harder and need more air/energy.
A good swimming position would be to pivot at the elbow, turning it out keeping the hand quite central and turn the forearm to vertical early enhancing the surface area of the hand. You don’t just pull with the hand, use your vertical forearm. The fingertip to elbow position is now in a place it can be of help i.e. pushing water back towards the feet and not down to the bottom of the pool. Most can create this ‘ideal’ position when the head is in neutral i.e. not breathing.
Problems arise when the head turns to breathe. Ideally breathing should follow your rotation not initiate it via a straight arm push down. Pushing down bounces you along, wasting energy pushing you in a direction you do not want to go – UP. If the kick can assist your rotation and body position the shoulders should elevate without the arms involved – have a look at this drill –
Create the correct body position without the arms involved and then when you do reintroduce them they are no longer needed as stabilisers supporting an off balance body position – or being used incorrectly to generate your rotation. I refer to this as external rotation. Create your shoulder lifting rotation from the legs and hips and this is internal rotation –
I try to create the same angles and positions through my arms regardless of whether or not I am turning to breathe. Imagine wasting the ability to go forwards each time you breathed!! You are literally swimming single armed. Not easy 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 arm push down.
So the straight arm push down is guilty of keeping the front of the stroke up and the legs low, straining the shoulders&neck and at the least not pulling you forwards. Think about why this is important. Swimming can be described as how the hand holds water, anchoring in position, which should allow a streamlined body to pass over it without moving or slipping. Look at the relationship of the hand to the light on the side of the pool. Since we are in water we often forget how we actually travel in the water moving over quite stationary arms.
It is like the difference between running on a treadmill and running on a road, we should swim similar in principle to how we run on the road. Plant the foot and the body should go fwds. Leave air around the hand and we lose ‘hold’ so the hand slips under the body with no reward of going forwards. Push down and we don’t go forwards only upwards. Lead with the elbow, keep the forearm horizontal and again the arm can slip under the body with little forwards momentum.
Adding a central snorkel will be a great help as a first step towards breaking this habit as the head is kept still and better arm pathways can be worked on.
Learning to breathe to both sides will also be a major step forwards towards interrupting the stranglehold this bad habit has on your stroke. Switching breathing patterns too bilateral is a great step towards improving your symmetry. You do not have to breathe every 3rd stroke for this to work and on race day you might be working too hard to sustain this. In training, an easier option might be too try 2 breaths to the left then take 3 strokes to take you across to 2 breaths to the right would be enough to break the dominant habit of breathing to one side which encourages the straight arm push down. Attack this issue from all sides for best impact, snorkel, mixed breathing patterns, drills and improvements to rotation in an attempt to stop swimming single armed!