How To Use Your Arms To Swim More Efficiently

There’s one similarity that both you and the fastest swimmers in the world share.

A common factor that you, an Age Group Triathlete and the greatest Olympians have to deal with… Want to know what it is?

The speed and efficiency of your freestyle stroke is directly related to the length of your body.

Let Me Explain

The longer or taller you can make your body the better you will move through the water. Think of your body like a boat; long, narrow yachts move quicker than short wide barges. Right?

Let’s think about that for a minute… Who would win in a race, the yacht or the barge?

If the barge captain fires all his engines. Burns every bit of fuel he’s got, and gets a head start he might have a shot at beating the yacht. At least over a short distance. But if he’s using that much energy to generate speed, it’s not going to last long. Sooner or later the yacht’s efficiency will win.

Now ask yourself; when you hit the water in your next race, would you rather be a barge or a yacht?

Exactly…

The length of your body through the water plays a significant role in your speed and efficiency.

So how do we use this idea to help you swim faster for longer and still have the reserves to smash the bike and run?

Make Yourself Taller 

I admit, there’s not a whole lot you can do to change your actual height. But you can make a couple of small adjustments and cheat a little to make yourself tall and long in the water. Here’s how:

Swimming with good posture is your first priority.

Just like your middle school teacher used to harp on, posture is important. Standing with good posture vs slouching is better for your health and your appearance! As it does on land, lengthening your torso and straightening your back will make you taller in the water.

And once you have good posture?

You can cheat by including your arms! Make yourself taller in the water by lengthening the time your arms spend extended out in front of you.

How Do I Do That? 

I’m 187cm (6ft2) tall.

But if I raise my hands up above my head I add an extra 70cm+ to my total height.

If you add the length of your arms above your head you’re a longer, taller body moving through the water.

If your arms are not extended out in front of you, you are only as long or tall as your hight. So the longer you keep an arm extended above you as you swim the taller you are.

This Is Why Some Coaches Use Catch Up Drill

If you’ve been to a swim lesson or spent any time on YouTube no doubt you’re familiar with this drill. It is used to help teach you extend out in front.

To swim Catch Up Drill, you must wait for the recovering hand to touch the extended hand. Only once they touch can you pull through for your next stroke.

Touching your hand on every stroke gives you a physical cue telling your hand when to start the next stroke. This makes it easy to learn how to keep the arm extended out in front as well as the timing of when to pull through. Just wait until your hands touch!

While the drill teaches you to stay extended (which is what we want) it’s not a great way to swim freestyle. Why?

Because the wait disrupts the continuity of your stroke. It halts forward momentum.

While your lead arm waits for the recovering arm to enter and touch you STOP moving forward. This means you have to re-generate your speed from scratch with every pull.

You end up moving-stopping-moving-stopping-moving… Not economical at all.

It’s like city driving gas consumption in your car vs highway consumption. The stop-start driving in the city results in higher fuel consumption than continuous driving on the highway. Similarly the stop-start movement of catch up drill results in higher energy consumption.

This higher fuel consumption may come back to haunt you later in your race.

You may have better length length in your stroke by swimming with a catch up style. But if you have to re-generate your speed from scratch with every stroke you’ll be burning too much energy. It’s going to hurt more than it helps.

This is why I do not use Catch Up Drill unless we’re in extreme circumstances!

So How Do You Achieve That Long Stroke?

Enter Front Quadrant Freestyle.

Front Quadrant Freestyle takes the benefits of the Catch Up Drill without killing your momentum.

To swim Front Quadrant Freestyle; wait until the recovering arm has passed the line of your head before you start your pull.

You could say that Front Quadrant Freestyle is 3/4 Catch Up Stroke. Instead of waiting for your hands to touch before you pull back, you start when the recovering arm has just passed your head.

If filmed from above we want to see one hand/arm extended out in front of your head at any time in the stroke cycle. You must make sure the lead arm stays extended out front during the recovery of the other arm.

Catch-Up-Freestyle-Killing-Your-Speed

Notice how the lead arm disappears past the head before the recovering arm enters the water. This shortens the length of your body through the water and will slow you down.

Catch-Up-Freestyle-Killing-Your-Speed
Front Quadrant Freestyle

3/4 Is A Rough Guide

You can adjust the length of time you keep the lead arm extended based on:

  • The distance you’re swimming
  • Your speed
  • The water/weather conditions.

Long distance / Slow speed / Flat calm water = More Extension

Short distance / High Speed / Rough Water = Less Extension

In the pool, you have the opportunity to be patient with that lead arm. You can keep it extended and ride your line as long as it doesn’t kill your momentum.

What About Open Water?

In rough open water, the length of time you leave that arm extended out is potentially shorter.

Turnover is generally higher in rough water so you’re not going to have the same length to your stroke. You will spend less time in the extended position and pull through into your catch a little earlier.

Some Degree of Front Quadrant Freestyle

With the types of distances you will be swimming, you should always have an element of Front Quadrant Freestyle in your stroke. Regardless of the situation (distance/speed/conditions) you always want some part of one hand or arm extended out in front of your head at all times in the stroke.

It may not be the full arm, but some part of it should be stretched out to make you longer.

If it’s not you’re shortening your length slowing yourself down and risking shoulder injuries.

To help you conceptualize what I’m talking about, here is an exaggerated example of Front Quadrant Freestyle.

For demonstration purposes, it’s swum very slowly to help you pick up on exactly how I get more length.

This is not the speed at which I would train or race. But it does give you a good idea of how you can lengthen your body for better efficiency!

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