High Octane (Straight arm recovery) freestyle technique is somewhat controversial. I have found that some coaches either believe that using that technique may more likely cause shoulder problems, or that younger swimmers are not strong enough to use the straight-arm recovery technique. I have not found any evidence that either of these notions are true.
At The Race Club, we advocate using High Octane Freestyle recovery in the sprint (50 meter) event and at the end of all freestyle (and IM) races If a swimmer is particularly comfortable using High Octane freestyle, we also consider using this technique for the 100 meter event.
By straightening the arm from a bent elbow, a swimmer quadruples the amount of workload required for recovering the arm over the water. The only reason why a swimmer would want to make the recovery harder is to gain power and speed. That is particularly important in the sprint events. The additional power and speed from the straight arm recovery is gained through the process we call coupling. The increased kinetic energy from the end of the straight arm recovery increases the propulsion from the pulling arm and kick.
If you watch any of Nathan Adrian’s 100 meter freestyle races, you will see his technique change from medium to high octane freestyle in the final 8 meters to the wall, leading to an increase in stroke rate and speed. Nathan has won more close races finishing with the High Octane freestyle technique than any swimmer I can recall. His come-from-behind win in the 100 meter freestyle in London is his most famous finish.
While there have been some notable swimmers that use or used High Octane freestyle technique in the longer events (Janet Evans, Leah Smith, Lotte Friis), they are all well known for their strong work ethic. It is one thing to increase the workload of recovery for 30 seconds and quite another to do so for 15 minutes.
The vast majority of shoulder problems are either tendonitis or impingement problems that are mostly caused from overuse (lots of yardage). Since we advocate this technique in the sprint events, where much shorter training duration and amount is required, we have not seen it lead to either type of shoulder problem, particularly when done correctly.
The correct way to use the High Octane Freestyle technique is with a more vertical arm recovery instead of swinging straight arms to the side. There are three very good reasons for this. First, the vertical recovery technique requires that the swimmer rotates the body further to each side to facilitate the arm recovery. In this rotated position, there is much less likelihood of shoulder impingement on the recovery. Second, the increased body rotation also adds significant kinetic energy for coupling, adding even more power to the pull. Third, coming from a more vertical position, the arm is assisted by gravitational forces on the way down, leading to a more forceful arm entry and greater coupling. The faster the arm and hand are moving at entry, the more powerful the pulling arm becomes.
All backstrokers use a High Octane (straight arm) recovery. The last elite backstroker (that I am aware of) to use a bent arm recovery successfully was Adolph Kiefer in the 1936 Olympic Games (he won in 1:08). Bending the arm in backstroke recovery results in a significant loss of power. That begs the question, “Why don’t all freestylers use high octane recovery?”
I believe that the answer has to do with our anatomy. If we were able to extend our arms (backward) as far and as easily as we can flex them (forward) at the shoulder joint, we might see all swimmers using high octane freestyle recovery. Our anatomical shoulder restrictions make using high octane freestyle more challenging.
This week, in Lanes 2, 3 and 4, our Race Club subscribers will find an awesome webisode on High Octane freestyle, featuring Olympian Brad Tandy and some of our young campers. You will learn some of the great drills we use to teach this important swimming technique.
Yours in swimming,
You can read more from The Race Club about High Octane Freestyle here:
Freestyle Octane Series Introduction Video: