For the last couple of weeks I have been trying out the high-elbow underwater pull on my freestyle, as described very well by Gary Hall Sr (and capably demonstrated by Nathan Adrian) in the video above.
The general idea is that as you do your underwater pull, the elbow is bent and kept near to the surface of the water (with your hand closer to your body), rather than sweeping down the arm straight in a semi-circle. This seems so counter-intuitive to me - I was taught as youngster that a deep arm pull was essential for two reasons: 1) getting more power per arm stroke as your lever is longer 2) making sure you were using the correct muscle groups to avoid injury, namely the lats/trapezoids (back and side) rather than the weaker deltoid (shoulder).
Apparently though, while you do get extra power with the straight arm, it’s much less efficient in terms of drag. So while a slightly straighter arm might give a slight benefit for a 50m sprint, the body will tire more quickly for longer distances - which obviously makes injury more likely!
So why did I get taught the deep pull?
1. Back in the early 90s my (excellent) coach Jason was very receptive to new ideas and techniques, and when showing us the deeper pull was likely watching the insane (in all likelihood steroid assisted) straight arm motion of Le Jingyi - she did straight arm above the water as well as below, and didn’t seem to tire at all. It worked for her, maybe it could work for us?
2. My freestyle technique was pretty damn awful when Jason started coaching me - my catch at the front wasn’t long enough, my elbows weren’t high on recovery, I didn’t push all the way back to my hips, and my rotation was horrifically uneven, to the extent that I badly strained my trapezoid anyway. ‘Drag’ was less of an issue than getting to the other end in one piece!
3. Keeping it simple. I was too young to really apply the theory and realise what was happening under the water. Imagining the Countdown clock sweeping round is a pretty good way to get kids to push the full extent of the stroke.
These days however, I’m not doing unthinkable amounts of knackering cardio in the pool, nor am I worried about the person behind catching me up if I do my drills too slowly. I am extremely aware of any uneven rotation as my thirtysomething frame complains loudly at me when I do it. I am a grown-up and I have all the time in the world, so can concentrate on getting my technique right. Happily I also seem to be able to do breathing-every-5 as standard (thanks to the going-slowly mentioned above) so I can pay attention to what the hell is going on down there under the water. And you know what? The high elbow pull is AMAZING. I’m going at the same speed for less effort! It feels like cheating. And not in a Le Jingyi way. Cheers Gary Hall Sr!