I have been following the Olympic pre trials fairly religiously not only because I love seeing the split second finishes but also because I love analyzing the near perfect strokes and different types of swimming strokes. Recently one of my athletes asked me why the sprinters don’t use a high elbow catch? “Their arms are pretty straight,” she said. “Why can’t I do the same thing instead of working on a high elbow catch?”
If she was a sprinter and not a triathlete, then I would have said of course she could swim like that. The problem would be though that after about 100 meters of swimming with a “deep catch” her arms and shoulders would finally fatigue and she would have to slow down. This video shows that perfect sprinters’ straight arm/deep catch:
Why though? Shouldn’t sprinters also be efficient and use the high elbow pull?
The truth is that by doing a straight arm pull, you are generating more power and lift as seen in this study, reviewed here by the NY Times:
However, as they mention, while the deep catch does generate more lift, this style of stroke requires a lot of shoulder strength–something long distance swimmers and triathletes need to consider, which is why we go for a high elbow catch or vertical forearm entry.
If you take a look at this video from the 1500m (right around the 1:14 mark is a perfect underwater shot):
You see a perfect high elbow catch, which does not generate as much lift but is far more efficient because it recruits the lats and pectoral muscles as compared to the shoulder driven deep pull. Similarly look at USA triathlon team here:
(around 1:50 mark), you see the same high elbow catch and vertical forearm for the same reason.
So what’s the best stroke for you? 9/10 I would say to work on the high elbow catch with that 10% reserved for experienced sprint focused swimmers. Your shoulders will thank me.