High elbows - Part 1
Updated: Jul 18, 2021
The purpose of this series is to educate our followers, while also helping to protect our squad members who are bombarded with 'experts' admonishing them on how they swim.
So, let's start with busting the myth that high bent elbow recovery is a fundamental of swimming fast.
Meet Janet Evans: USA 7 world records; 5 x Word Champion 4 Olympic Gold Medals - 800 free (1988, 1992), 400 free ('88), 400IM ('88)
Janet's swim stroke has been an inspiration, enabling many of my female athletes to swim much faster. I first studied Janet in 1987 at the Pan Pacific Games that were held in my home state where I was Director of Coaching. This slip of a girl weighed under 47kg soaking wet in a jacket. She swam with two completely straight arms, swinging in 'windmill' motion with an extraordinarily high head position. She breathed to both sides but never bilaterally. 3 or 4 breathes on one side, then 2 on the other. Her rhythm was one I describe as a galloping horse. She also had a very soft two beat kick which was used more for balance than any propulsion that I could see. Once you got past the admittedly radical look of this stroke, one could see how efficient she ate up the metres, lap after lap. One workout I observed she swam 1 hour non stop at 95% of her world record 800m pace! Watching her swim from above the water told one story but viewing her stroke from an underwater window quite another. Under the water her arms were nearly 'conventional' technique perfection - high elbow, no drop of them though the whole stroke, not straight at all. Great stroke length, super acceleration in every phase, complete perfection. Intrigued, I interrogated her coach on everything from her stroke, her workouts (which we still use today in our Trisutto program), to the one part that pertains more to you. How did you develop that head position, it seems so uncomfortable? Coach Bud explained in a slow drawl -
'When she was a kid she trained in a little 25y pool with a ton of other kids. The pace clocks at this pool were not on the side but were high up on the second floor above the blocks corresponding to lane three. She was so intense that she was always watching her time, even in the warm ups. She raced everything, even the warm up. We tried to discourage that as on long freestyle sets, her stroke would break down towards the end, and of course we told her not to look at the clock so much. To be honest, we failed miserably at both. She would start like a whirlwind and get slower toward the end of the training session. While we didn't fix the head position, I changed her programming. We experimented by giving all her aerobic work with medley and fly. So instead of 12 x 400 freestyle, she does medley or fly switching and we keep her freestyle fresh. So believe me or not, her main freestyle sets are never longer than 3000m with shorter intervals; but oh boy they are fast! She agreed that her racing at training was locked into the shorter freestyle, and has it worked! If we do long sets of 1000 repeats for the other guys in the squad, she would do it as medley broken up like this: 100 200 300 400 Fly Back Breast Free As she was a poor breaststroker she would hammer the freestyle to catch up with the other guys. I've seen her break 4 minutes 20 seconds for 400 so many times at the end of those 1000s! We would do three or four repeats of 1000 like that.' There was not much science there, instead a coach that was innovative to find ways to overcome her personality. Similarly to many other swim coaches who developed athletes up to Olympic Champion / World Record times, Coach Bud repeated the same sets over a season. Janet loved the repetition, attacked the workouts, and consistently improving times motivated her further while also instilling confidence before racing.
Janet Evans in action winning Olympic gold!
The stroke in action - a favorite and much watched You tube link for many Trisutto female athletes.