It was Tony over at the Southern California Aquatics Swim Club blog who first brought my attention to Stefan Nystrand’s unorthodox straight-arm recovery. At the time I just watched the video Tony provided a couple more times to convince myself he really did have a straight-arm recovery and then left with the thought such an idiosyncratic stroke couldn’t be good for the shoulders. I however sat up and took better notice when Tony’s next blog on the subject pointed out Eamon Sullivan also used a straight-arm recovery in setting a new world record in the 50 free at last week’s NSW state championships – that’s two swimmers setting world sprint records recently using the straight-arm technique. A column written by Olympic gold medalist and physician Gary Hall Sr. goes a step further and speculates this technique may be a major contributing factor in their success by virtue of its ability to utilize centrifugal force to speed up the recovery stroke.
After some consideration, and using Dr. Hall's hypothesis as a starting point, I’d like propose an alternative explanation. While the recovery stroke certainly has an effect on pace I don’t think it has the same importance of, say, the recovery kick in running where it determines a runner’s maximum speed. I'd argue on a purely intuitive basis it is the speed of the pull rather than recovery which is the limiting factor in water. I concede a straight-arm recovery may be faster than the traditional bent-elbow but surely this couldn’t be more than three or four milliseconds per stroke. After all the straight-arm has to travel a circumferential route while the bent-arm cuts right across the surface. If I'm correct then using a straight-arm recovery could save at most a tenth of a second or so in a fifty race; a saving to be sure, but insufficient to warrant deliberate adoption. On the other hand I think the technique may provide significant advantage from the extended reach it guarantees a swimmer. In short sprints where turnover is paramount the tendency is to shorten the stroke. Alexander Popov, whose world 50 free record Eamon Sullivan broke, mitigated this as much as possible by putting in prodigious amounts of kilometers to ingrain the desired technique into his natural stroke. Sprinters nowadays don’t put in anywhere near the same meters. Logically their strokes are more susceptible to a shortened reach as a consequence and the straight-arm technique prevents this. A few extra centimeters on the all important pull, the ability to ignore technique while concentrating wholly on turnover, and a potential faster recovery all add up to a significant advantage. Perhaps up to half a second in a fifty. And that’s worth changing one’s stroke for.
The technique comes with a very large caution though. The bent-arm recovery is orthodox for very good reasons. It is the most efficient way to raise the arm out of the water and employs the shoulders as they are intended to be used. The straight-arm on the other hand mimics baseball's pitchers or cricket's fast bowlers who rely on the extended arm’s extra inertia for more speed but in return accepts terrific strain on the shoulder from the unnatural movement. Rotator cuff injuries are legion among these athletes – and they’re throwing through air. What would be the result of having the shoulder half submerged in water and repeating the motion not a few hundred times a week but tens of thousands? There may be a few athletes who have the flexibility to arrive at a straight-arm style naturally as Dr. Gary Hall Sr. points out, but for most of us this will be a direct route to blown shoulders. Even so the straight-arm technique certainly appears to confer an advantage in speed. It will be interesting to see how many will gamble their careers for a few tenths of a second this coming August in Beijing.