Front crawl: how to improve your arm recovery technique

Returning your arms to the front of your swim stroke has a huge effect on your swim efficiency. Robin Brew has the tips and drills to revitalise your arm recovery in front crawl

How to improve your arm recovery in front crawl

Your arm recovery adds a great deal to the momentum and rhythm of your stroke, and drills that train you to position your elbows and hands correctly will improve your arm recovery and maximise your forward propulsion, in some cases drastically reducing swim times.

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Arm recovery is often overlooked by athletes trying to refine their stroke, probably because it takes place out of the water, but it’s a primary component of the front-crawl stroke. In addition to the obvious – namely, returning your arm to the water – your arm recovery performs numerous essential functions:

1. It stabilises and balances your stroke.

2. It adds forward momentum.

3. It assists the streamlining of your hand entry.

Head-up stroke

Keeping your head up positively limits body rotation, while increasing feel at the front of the stroke… 

This is a simple and effective drill to ensure that your arm recovery isn’t too high due to excessive body rotation. It also ensures that the pressure you apply in the catch position of the leading arm is maintained. It’s also good for gaining a feel for the water at the front of the stroke, and also transferring momentum from the back to the front of the stroke via your arms. It helps greatly if you allow your hands to catch up slightly at the front the stroke because there’s a tendency to sink if your leading hand moves away too fast.

4. The speed of the recovery helps to control the timing of your breathing.

5. The speed of the recovery helps to co-ordinate the timing and synchronisation of both arms.

One of the key aims of the arm recovery is to use as little energy as possible. That makes sense as it’s not physically moving you any further forward in the water. So you should try to relax all unnecessary shoulder, arm and hand muscles, almost lifting your arm out of the water as if the elbow was attached to a puppet string.

Like each and everyone of the technical features of the swim, afford a small amount of time to concentrate on this aspect of your stroke and you’ll soon notice some pretty hefty results.

Recovery essentials

Remember these key points when you undertake recovery drills

 Only begin your arm recovery once you’ve fully completed the push phase.

There should be no delay between the push phase and your arm recovery; it should be executed in one rhythmical, continuous movement.

Initiate your arm recovery by lifting your elbow in an upward and outward motion.

Rotate your core slightly upwards towards the recovering side to assist the recovery movement.

From a bird’s-eye view, your shoulders and hips should be aligned as your body rotates.

Maintain your leg kick to provide better balance.

The recovery phase is when you should inhale air.

Extend your leading arm to add stability, balance and streamlining when you make the initial recovery movement.

Your elbow leads the movement of your recovering arm around your body.

Keep your hand below your elbow throughout the recovery.

Use the forward and outward movement of your elbow to drive your hand forward.

Keep your body rotated until your stroking hand passes through the catch position and is about to begin the push phase.

Return your head to the centre line after breathing and keep it still.

In the final part of the recovery phase, roll your body to switch your weight from the stroking side to the side that’s about to finish recovering and begin stroking. This helps you transfer momentum onto your leading arm in
preparation for the next stroke.

Extend your hand below the water’s surface in a streamlined position to repeat the supporting role of stability and balance for the opposite arm.

Click here for 3 drills that will help you improve your arm recovery

How to improve your arm recovery in front crawl

Head-up stroke

Keeping your head up positively limits body rotation, while increasing feel at the front of the stroke… 

 This is a simple and effective drill to ensure that your arm recovery isn’t too high due to excessive body rotation. It also ensures that the pressure you apply in the catch position of the leading arm is maintained. It’s also good for gaining a feel for the water at the front of the stroke, and also transferring momentum from the back to the front of the stroke via your arms. It helps greatly if you allow your hands to catch up slightly at the front of the stroke because there’s a tendency to sink  if your leading hand moves away too fast.

1. You can see how you need to roll your body into the extension of the stroke, and also how the downward pressure of your hand provides enough lift to keep your chin out of the water. Notice also the hand beginning its recovery movement from the back to the front of the stroke around the side of your body.

2. This shows the body starting to transfer the rotation to the opposite side. Your arm and body work together to bring maximum momentum forward to the front of the stroke.

3. Your hand isn’t able to enter the water in a normal streamlined position because your head is so high. Also, because you head-up has sent your legs lower, when your hand reaches the front of the stroke it has to overemphasise the press into the catch position in order to maintain stability.

Finger trail

It’s amazing how a gentle trailing of the fingertips can refine your arm recovery as well as increase stroke length

The beauty of this drill is its simplicity, combined with the way it improves your arm recovery. It works by conditioning your stroke length and recovery action, as well as putting your body in a near perfect swimming position. The recovery action during this drill is almost the same as in the normal stroke, the only difference being you trail your fingertips along the surface of the water. It would be worth using fins for this drill because the added momentum from your legs will help control the movements which must be performed slowly.

1. Trail the fingertips of your recovering hand in the water around the side of your body. It’s important not to bring your hand too close to your head as you could over rotate, placing your shoulder in an awkward position and inhibit the recovery action. This shows the drill performed with the opposite arm. Your head is low during this drill, but using fins to aid your kick and the positioning of your leading arm will help you maintain a level body position. From here, you can simply rotate to gain a breath as normal.

2. Keep your body positioned horizontally – using fins and a steady, consistent leg action will help. Look directly down at the bottom of the pool. Slightly exaggerate your stroke length but roll your body as normal.

3. Keep your fingertips in contact with the water all the way to the front of the stroke. Using a catch-up stroke (your recovering hand almost catches up with your extended hand before the next stroke begins) will help maintain balance.

Trail drill progressions

Once you’ve perfected finger-trailing, it’s time to move on to the hands and forearms…

These drill progressions should be performed over short distances (25-50m for beginners) and be followed, like all drills, by an easy, full-stroke swim practising best technique. The number of reps you perform depends on your ability. If you’re just starting out then practise each drill 2-3 times. If you’re a more experienced athlete, then try 3-4 reps over slightly longer distances. Remember: what you concentrate on with one arm, you have to match with the other and always practise the correct full stroke before moving on or you’ll finish your session feeling slightly unbalanced.

Hand trail drill

This drill is effectively the same as the fingertip drill but places more resistance onto the recovering arm. The extra resistance created by trailing your hand makes you concentrate fully on the correct action through the whole stroke because you aren’t able to rush through it.

Forearm trail drill

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This drill really loads your recovering arm with resistance and you should take care not to force the recovery. The emphasis is the same as the finger and hand trail drills but the resistance your forearm creates is much stronger, making you work harder on recruiting the correct muscles to perform the movement.

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