Straight Arm Recovery in Open Water Swimming

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how swimming in open water is different from swimming in a pool, and what that means in terms of technique. In addition to playing around with increasing my stroke rate (the theory being that constant propulsion is preferable to glide when taking into consideration currents, waves, and chop), I have been researching the straight arm recovery (SAR) technique, a technique used by greats such as Janet Evans and Shelley Taylor-Smith.  While the straight arm recovery technique is very controversial, I think it’s worth taking a look at.

Some would argue that Janet Evans was good in spite of her technique, not because of her technique.  This seemed reasonable to me until I read that Shelley Taylor-Smith went from a more traditional stroke to SAR mid-career (she calls herself a “swinger”) and credits it with saving her shoulders. As  I begun to dig deeper I learned that among the touted benefits of SAR is a faster turnover (of which I am already sold upon the benefits), less strain on shoulders, and a more powerful follow-through and “push” of the water.

I spoke with Kris Houchens, coach of Indy Swim Fit in Indianapolis, Indiana, about SAR and her thoughts were a mixed bag, echoing the controversial nature of the topic.  She pointed out that SAR required excellent body roll and a swimmer must fight the tendency to swim with a straight arm under the body as well.  She also cited height and body type as a factor in the varying degrees of success with SAR in her experience.

I then asked her, assuming that a swimmer can overcome these obstacles and swim SAR correctly, if there was merit in pursuing SAR for open water as a way to reach over waves and chop. Kris agreed that when correctly used, SAR could be used effectively. This made sense to me, so I have been swimming SAR for a little over a week now as a test.

The transition has been fairly smooth and Kris was certainly right about proper body roll being a concern.  It is the hardest part!  My Swimmer’s Snorkel has been extremely helpful by allowing me to really focus on my rotation during drills and moderate swimming without the aid of breathing side to side.  It really is remarkable when I realize how much I rely on breathing to do the work my core should be doing!

I’m looking forward to seeing how more practice with SAR will affect my swimming.  Even if it turns out to be a failed experiment, I believe that experimentation and evaluation is the only way that anyone ever gets better!

-Mallory Mead
Open Water Marathon Swimmer
Indianapolis, Indiana