Recover and reach

This week is all about arms. Actually, it’s about the recovery and reach part of your stroke, because your arms are way too important to cover in one go. And if you’re trying to improve your stroke, this is probably the best place to start.

So, you’ve got your body position flat, aligned and at the surface of the water. Your legs are flutter kicking long and from the hips. You’re rotating with each stroke, but why aren’t you going anywhere?

In freestyle, your arms provide about 90% of the propulsion. Each stroke, that’s each turn of one arm and then the other, is made of several parts: the downsweep, catch, insweep, upsweep, release, recovery, reach and entry. The bit under the water is the propulsive bit, but it’s important to get the arm recovering and well positioned to make the most of this, so that’s where we’ll start.

When I first started training, I was doing four things wrong in this phase of my stroke alone. I’ve seen these same mistakes in a lot of adults I’ve taught. The first was holding too much tension in my recovering arm. I was then letting it cross to the front of my head, rather than in line with my shoulder, and taking my hand into the water at a rotated angle. The fourth mistake, was dropping my arm instead of reaching, so the propulsive phase of my stroke started somewhere way below me about level with my shoulder: in other words, I was losing an entire arm’s length of propulsion.

Recovery seems like an odd place to begin seeing as it’s the end of the stroke, but this is about placing your arm correctly for the next. Your arm should leave the water elbow first, and move forwards next to your body. Think shark’s fin, which helps children so why not adults too! Your lower arm and hand should dangle in a lovely, relaxed way, with your fingers trailing just above the water’s surface.


Relaxed recovery

Once your hand has passed your head, it’s ready to enter the water fingertips first; dipping the paint brush in the paint pot, if it helps! Your hand should be straight so all four fingers enter at once, rather than rotated.


The entry

Your arm will then follow your hand through the surface of the water, pushing out forwards, but staying in line with your shoulder. Watch that you don’t send it inwards towards your centre line, or out away from your body. You should really extend this reach, and that will help you naturally rotate. If, at this point, you need to breathe (your other arm will be just releasing ready for recovery), you can, but be really sure that reaching hand stays at the surface and doesn’t drop.


Arm is reaching as the swimmer breathes

I really like Mark Durnford’s swim coaching blog for technique and drills, although I don’t like the catch-up drill that he mentions, and that a lot of coaches use, because I don’t think it helps with timing. I would replace it with the salute drill that I detail below.

Drills to help with these techniques

If you recognise any of my mistakes in your own stroke, or don’t think you’re doing it correctly, then here are some drills you can practice to help. These are great drills even for seasoned pros to go back and try; no harm can come from practising good technique. If you want to, try these drills with fins to help you concentrate on your arms.

Single arms

Good for keeping the arm near the surface.

With a kick board under one hand, swim a length with one arm and then the other. Try swapping the board to the other hand every three strokes, so you swim three with your right, and three with you left. Now try this drill without the kick board. See if you can keep your hand still near the surface of the water.


Good for holding that reach at the surface and timing. This is one of my favourite drills.

After the recovery phase of each cycle, hold your arm next to your head as though you are saluting. Your other arm should have entered the water and extended to its furthest point. This is where you hold that arm for those two seconds. This arm should then start its downsweep as the recovering arm enters the water.

Zip ups

Good for getting the elbow to lead the recovery and keep the recovering arm in the right position.

As you bring your elbow out of the water, start to zip up and imaginary zip that runs from your hip to your armpit. I pinch my fingers around that zip and everything!

Hip, shoulder, head.

Good for getting a good line in that recovering arm, and getting the elbow to lead.

As you release your arm and bring it into recovery, tap your hip, then shoulder, then head with your finger tips. Pay attention to how this makes your arm feel, and try to replicate it when you swim normally.


Big headed stick lady doing the salute drill in glamorous and highly impractical strapless number. Yes, I drew it myself.


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