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A Superior Model for Swimming Success

By Marshall Adams

The superior performances of the Australian men in the freestyle events continued at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. The Aussies won four of seven Freestyle events including both Freestyle Relays, the events that define team depth. Michael Klim set the 100m Freestyle world record for Australia while leading off the world record setting 4x100m relay. At this point in the meet, the Australian men held every Freestyle world record except the 50m. The record book changed as the meet progressed as Pieter van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands set new 100m and 200m Freestyle world records. American Freestylers also turned in outstanding performances. American men set American records in the 4x100 relay, 200, 400, and 1500 metres. Still, with all this fast swimming the Aussies were able to capture most of the Gold in the Freestyle events. The Aussies were helped by the fact that their records were so superior in the 400, 1500, and 4x200 metre events coming into the games that even the with improvement of the rest of the world, they were able to out swim the competition.

The Aussie results reflect the focus they put upon swimming in their country and specifically the model of technique for Freestyle they promote at all levels. The author addressed this topic in an article published in Swimming Technique magazine, July-September 2000. He speculated that the 100m Freestyle world record could be added to the Aussie list of world records if the right swimmer could be found to match their superior technique. Because of his 1999 Pan Pac performance, middle distance Freestyler Ian Thorpe was a likely candidate. However, Michael Klim set the record when he led off the Aussie 4x100 relay in Sydney.

Prognostications aside, the Aussie technique is so advanced that all they need to do is to match a superior athlete to this technique at these shorter distances. Then all records are possible. This is an over simplification and discounts other factors involved in setting world records, but it is the author’s belief that it is the technique factor that has allowed the Australian males to dominate the Freestyle record board in recent years.

Comments might end here, but the technique of Michael Klim has a peculiarity that might put into question the overall view of Australian technique as presented in the Swimming Technique article. Klim has a straight elbow recovery not present in the other noted Australian stars. Inge de Bruijn also has used this style as has former Olympian and current world record holder Janet Evans. It is the author’s opinion that this is a relatively minor adjustment with a minimal effect on the total efficiency of the stroke.

The key factors of good technique are efficient mechanics of the main propulsive phase of the stroke coupled with an inertial and free swinging release, recovery, and catch. If straight elbow recovery were a major factor in propulsion, then all competitors would have to adopt it just to keep up. Inge de Bruijn now holds the world record in both of the shortest Freestyle swimming events and the urge to imitate her will be compelling. Obviously, the straight elbow recovery is not the only successful recovery technique. Grant Hackett and Ian Thorpe both used a bent elbow recovery while winning gold medals in the 1500 and 400 metres in Sydney.

World-class swimmers using the straight elbow recovery still have to know when to release and round off the propulsive phase of the stroke redirecting the motion of the vigorous propulsive phase. The minor adjustment that Klim and de Bruijn make is most likely a release of elbow flexion at the end of the propulsive phase and not a forceful extension or push at the end of the stroke. Forceful extension of the elbow at the end of the propulsive phase and a release of muscular held flexion are quite dissimilar but easy for the casual observer to confuse. Both actions result in the elbow becoming straight during the recovery. The release action is the desired motion, but the forced extension is the one the author envisions being taught. Both techniques result in a straight elbow and run the risk of putting the shoulder in a bad position during the initial recovery phase. If the upper arm bone (humerus) is rotated inward (medially) while it recovers (abducts), the supraspinatus rotator cuff muscle will experience a wringing out action and shoulder problems will soon result. Also, as the internal rotation of the humerus is maintained through a greater degree of the recovery (abduction), an impingement will occur between the humerus bone and the shoulder itself, limiting the range and extent of the recovery phase. These last two sentences involve the shoulder and upper arm but are very much affected by the actions of the elbow and hand during the initial stage of the recovery.

The key to propulsion is an effective propulsive phase that involves a long adduction movement resulting in the elbow almost touching the swimmer s side. This adduction movement is accomplished by the vigorous contraction of the great trunk muscles (body core). Forced extension of the elbow at the end of the propulsive phase would involve the vigorous contraction of the triceps. This forced extension would not emphasize the great core trunk muscles and comes at a time in the stroke where the added propulsion, if any, is negated by the excessive effort needed to produce the result. Thus, extension of the elbow should not be misinterpreted as a movement needed to add more propulsion at the end of the stroke. Release of elbow held flexion should be taught as a way to promote a free- swinging inertial recovery, or not at all. The risk to the shoulder is such that a rounded off, bent elbow technique is a better, safer approach.

The great Ian Thorpe exhibits the kind of recovery that is safest for the continued health and integrity of the shoulder joint. Thorpe keeps his elbows bent at the completion of his propulsive phase as he rounds off the stroke and partially supinates the hand. This means that he turns his palm toward his body. This action releases his grip on the water as he redirects the momentum of his vigorous propulsive phase. The supination of the hand ends up having its greatest effect upon the shoulder. Films clearly show Thorpe’s palms oriented so that he can see them through most of his recovery on his breathing side. This hand supination allows the upper arm bone (humerus) to externally rotate as recovery progresses. Thus, both the wringing out of the supraspinatus and the impingement of the upper arm bone with the shoulder are avoided. Simply put, Thorpe does not stress his shoulder because when he breathes he can see the palm of his recovering hand.

The comparison with the release and recovery of the Butterfly stroke is instructive. Both Michael Klim and Inge de Bruijn are exceptional Flyers and the Fly demands a straight elbow release and a more lateral recovery than the crawl stroke to prevent excessive lifting of the shoulders. It is easy to speculate that Klim and de Bruijn have adopted the straight elbow crawl recovery given their successes in the Butterfly. However, the risk to the shoulder is real in both the Butterfly and crawl strokes if the upper arm bone (humerus) is not externally rotated during the recovery phase.

The shoulder is also in a precarious position during the entry and catch phase of the stroke. It is in this forward stretched out position that an impingement can occur in the front of the shoulder, especially if the initial movement from this stretched out position is pushing down. Pushing down upon hand entry is a bracing movement that unenlightened swimmers use. The resistance they feel against the water is misinterpreted as a positive movement because the resistance their hands feel is so great with the arm stretched out straight. Again, it is the strokes of the great Ian Thorpe, Kieren Perkins or Grant Hackett that can shed light on correct technique that minimises shoulder impingement on the front end of the stroke. In each of these great champions’ strokes, the elbow and upper arm do not sink much below the surface of the water during the entry phase of their strokes. The initial catch phase movement of their strokes comes from an inertial internal rotation of the upper arm bone coupled with a flexion of their elbow to about 90 degrees. There is very little, if any, downward movement of their upper arms because they do not brace themselves by pushing down or out after their hands re-enter the water after the recovery phase. Their initial movements upon the entry of the hand are positioning movements that are done with little muscular force and rely heavily upon the inertia of the preceding recovery phase. This positioning movement sets up the arm for the most propulsive phase of the stroke and the effective use of the great trunk muscles.

The thousands of rotations the shoulder makes through the course of a swimmer’s career put the shoulder at risk for injury regardless of the type of technique used. With the incidence of shoulder pain and injury in the sport of swimming reported to be quite high, it is in everyone’s best interest to understand and manage the integrity of the shoulder from the first day of practice. A sound knowledge of mechanics and effective technique is essential in minimizing the incidence of shoulder injury. For the most part, the top male Australian Freestylers utilise stroke techniques that are both efficient and healthy for enduring shoulder integrity.

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