freestyle recovery

6 Phases of the Freestyle Pulling Cycle-Early Recovery Phase


The Six Phases of the Freestyle Pulling Cycle

The Early Recovery Phase

The following article is an excerpt from our forthcoming book, Fundamentals of Fast Swimming.

The arm recovery phases begin when the hand exits the water and end upon the hand entry out in front of the swimmer. Depending on the freestyle technique and the stroke rate, the entire arm recovery time ranges from about .3 to about .4 seconds. We divide the arm recovery into two phases: early, as the hand elevates, and late, as the hand descends. The reason we divide the arm recovery into two phases is that the technique and biomechanics used in each phase are quite different. 

In only two of the six phases of the pulling cycle can a swimmer really recover some from the exertion of the pulling motion, the release phase and the early recovery phase. In all of the other phases of the pulling cycle, the swimmer needs to be exerting a lot of force or energy to maximize propulsion. Great freestylers will take advantage of these two rest or recovery phases of the pulling cycle with some important techniques that are often not recognized nor replicated by less successful swimmers. 


Zane Grothe demonstrates the magic of the relaxed wrist and hand during the early freestyle recovery phase. As a distance swimmer, Zane uses a bent elbow (low-octane) recovery technique.

In the release phase, we start the magic of the relaxed wrist, which continues through the early recovery. We cannot overemphasize the importance of relaxing the hand and wrist during the release and early recovery phases of the pulling cycle. Virtually every great freestyler does that. In fact, it is the relaxed hand and wrist during these two phases that are largely responsible for the effortless appearance of fast swimmers. Yet, under the water, they are anything but effortless.

The skeletal muscles of the human body have the ability to recover at an incredibly fast rate, hundredths of a second, if given the chance. That simply means if relaxed, the muscles can get ready quickly for another strong contraction. The release and early recovery phases combined, which range in duration from .25 seconds to .35 seconds, are more than enough time for the important pulling muscles to recover.  

However, if the wrist and hand remain stiff and contracted during these two phases, the arm muscles will not recover as well nor as fast as when the hand and wrist are relaxed. This is a concept that is so natural to an adept swimmer, yet so difficult for a beginner swimmer or an early triathlete to learn. To become a great freestyler, a swimmer needs to know when and how to stiffen the hand and wrist to reduce frontal drag, how to hold the water with the hand pushing backward to maximize propulsion, and when and how to let go with the hand and wrist to hasten the arm muscle recovery. 

To help teach swimmers how to relax their hands and wrists on the release and early recovery, we like using the six-kick, one-stroke drill with fins on. During this drill, we have the swimmer draw the elbow up vertically to an imaginary string extending directly upward from the swimmer’s shoulder. Once the arm elevates to the string, with the shoulder rotated backward, the hand is at the peak height of its arched recovery motion. We then have the swimmer stop the motion of the arm at that imaginary string and simply dangle the wrist a few times. The dangling wrist, with the hand falling downward from gravity and fingers separated, is a sign that the swimmer has learned to let go with the hand and wrist. It is a sign of arm relaxation.

Once swimmers learn to chill out with the hand and wrist on the early recovery phase, they will appear more effortless, because they are using less effort. More important, they will recover and swim faster. 

Both the path of the arm motion and the length of the arm during the recovery are important. The easiest way to recover the arm over the water is by bending the elbow and swinging the arm around to the side, with the hand barely clearing the water. This is the technique that many beginner swimmers use to conserve energy, but it is not the fastest way to swim. 

If the arm takes a more vertical path, it is working against gravity on the way up, but it benefits from the gravitational force on the way down. If a swimmer straightens the arm on the recovery, doubling the length of the recovering arm compared to the bent elbow, it will require four times more energy or work to recover the arm at the same arm recovery speed. Why would we want to work against gravity or quadruple the amount of work on the arm recovery? There is only one reason and that is to increase speed. 

To increase propulsion of the pulling arm, the most important time to increase the kinetic energy of the recovering arm is not in the early phase, but toward the end of the late phase, as the hand nears striking the water. It is not until the late recovery phase that the other hand is in the propulsion phase. Using a more vertical trajectory, increasing the downward arm speed (angular velocity) and lengthening (straightening) the arm will all result in an increase in the kinetic energy of the recovering arm at this critical moment. A more vertical recovering arm will also lead to greater shoulder rotation, which has the potential to increase the propulsion from the pulling arm.

At The Race Club, we like to use the analogy of comparing the length of the arm during the recovery with the additive used in gasoline for cars, octane. Octane at the gas station comes in three different levels, low (regular), medium (mid-grade) and high (premium). Arm recoveries also come in about 3 forms, completely bent (lowest energy), partly straightened or bent (middle energy) and straight (highest energy). High octane fuel, which is the most expensive gasoline, is designed to make high-combustion engines go faster. High-octane recovery (straight arm) is designed to make high combustion swimmers (fast-twitch sprinters) swim faster. It also costs more in terms of energy requirement. Low-octane recovery (bent arm) requires less energy but delivers less power (propulsion). Although not absolute, in general, high-octane freestyle is a better recovery technique for sprinting and low-octane freestyle recovery is a better technique for distance events. Medium-octane recovery technique seems to be more suitable for middle distance events, like the 100 or 200 meters.

In the next article, we will complete our circuitous journey through the pulling cycle with the final phase, the late recovery phase.

Yours in Swimming,

Gary Sr.