Week 1: Streamline
One of the very first skills swimmers are taught, even as far back as their first swim lesson, is streamlining. This is also one of if not the most widely underused, flawed, or entirely neglected part of most swimmers’ races and practices. So here are 5 tricks, tips, and suggestions on things you can do to take quite possibly the most basic skill and use it as a weapon to win your next race.
1. It starts at practice: Like most things in life, what you repeat day after day will become habit. If you wake up in the morning and always brush your teeth, then tomorrow morning you will wake up and do it again. If you push off every wall and have the perfect, tightest, most locked out streamline every practice, then it will be there when you race. The problem is most of us do not do that every wall of every practice. Settling for anything less than doing it right every time is choosing to swim slower and that will carry over into racing.
2. Biceps to the back of your ears: As you squeeze that streamline tight, your biceps need to be on the back of your head and ears. If your arms are not behind your earlobes, then they are way to far forward. Get those arms back and you will be able to tighten them up even more.
3. Chin tucked and eyes looking down: Every time you lift your head in swimming your hips will sink and you lose your streamline. If you are looking for the surface on your first stroke, you again are choosing to slow down. With practice in using the pressure you feel, what you hear underwater, and plenty of repetition, you will eventually be able to preform a breakout without having to look for the surface.
4. Lock the thumb of your top hand over the bottom: By locking your thumb over, you will be able to squeeze tighter and make you body longer. The longer your body remains, the more speed you will maintain.
5. Point your toes: This small adjustment is often over looked. If you push off the wall and your toes are not pointed, you are throwing the breaks on and you will slow down quickly. As you reach with your arms to make them as long as possible, the same needs to be done with your legs. A narrow long object will always hold more speed than a wide short one. Keep those toes pointed.
Here is a great video to illustrate these tips and more that was created by MySwimPro:
Here are some videos of dryland exercises to help with your streamline:
Athletes under 12 should start without trying to do a wall sit and add 10 seconds until they can hold for 1 minute. Those over 12 should add 15 seconds to their wall sit until they can get to the recommended 2 minutes. The goal is to really reach and keep your back flat against the wall.
Athletes should focus on initiating the movement with their hips and lower abs, staying long and stretched out, keeping their back flat, controlling the roll, and keeping their body connected and not broken (maintain the line).
Race of the Week:
To further keep you busy and inspired on our extended break, we are going to upload a race every week for your viewing pleasure. The races chosen will have some historical significance, lesson to be learned, or caught the coaches attention. To start us off we have selected Mary T. Meagher's world record swim in the 200 fly. This was the last time she broke the 200 fly world record, a record she broke for the first time at age 14. A great write up and the swim can be found here!
Week 2: Underwater Kicking
Now that you are all focusing on developing perfect streamlines, the next piece of the puzzle is underwater kicking. Developing strong underwaters will make an average swimmer good, a good swimmer great, and give great swimmers the opportunities we all dream about. So how do we develop the 5th and fastest stroke in the sport of swimming? This week, let’s start with the technique.
Your kicks need to be driven by your body. Although your streamline needs to be tight, your arms and chest will all ungulate slightly to help drive your body forward. Your lower abs and hips (your lower core) will then move more. This use of your core will allow you to generate more power into each kick.
Drive both the down and up kick. There is no rest or recovery in swimming. Both the up and down kicks need to be productive. Actively make sure your toes are pointed on the up kick to work one that perfect streamline!
Bend your knees. The best underwater kickers in the world bend their knees about 60-80 degrees on each kick. Sitting upright in a chair would be a 90-degree bend, so they are getting just short of that. Many swimmers who struggle underwater are not properly bending their knee to load their kick up.
Whip your kicks. Imagine your body is a whip and you need to snap off each kick to make a small explosion at the end of your toes. Your core would be the handle where a strong snap will carry down your legs and snap all the way through your toes.
Find your Goldilocks kicks. If your kicks are too big, they will be super strong, but cause a ton of drag. If your kicks are too small, then you will not get the drag, but you will have no strength and speed. The goal is to find the balance between strong and fast. Play around with different sized kicks to see what works best for you. Normally slightly smaller, but very aggressive fast kicking is best.
Connect your kicks. Once you found the right sized kicks and are making tiny explosions off your toes, the next step is to chain kicks together. If your feet stop moving, you stop moving. As soon as you whip your feet down, whip them back up! It seems so simple, but it takes focus to do it correctly. Putting the time into think about this at practice will pay off big time in a meet.
Kick past your body line in front of yourself. You would no kick a soccer ball and stop at your body line. You are taught to kick through the ball to generate more force. Kicking in the pool is the exact same, just without the ball. This picture illustrates this concept:
We will get into some stretching and dryland things to improve underwaters next week.This week keep working on the streamline exercises.However, make sure you watch the race of the week.Although Michael Phelps may have perfected underwaters and brought them to mainstream swimming, he really was not the athlete that changed the sport!
Race of the Week:
Before Phelps and Lochte were winning golds by dominating the field underwater, USA’s Dave Berkoff literally changed the sport. Swimming did not always have a 15-meter rule. Breaststroke first got the rule in 1956, to later have it rescinded. Berkoff and Japan’s Daichi Suzuki brought the rule to backstroke in 1988 after the Olympics. (Butterfly and Freestyle would not get the rule until 1998). Check out Berkoff as he sets the world record in prelims of the 1988 Olympics. Please watch the whole video, as it illustrates all of the points listed above about underwater kicking. (Although the swimming technique has changes a lot since the 1980’s, Berkoff’s underwater technique is still almost perfect by today’s standards.)
Click here to see the swim!
Week 3: Improving Underwater Kicking
Now that we have discussed some of the technical aspects of good underwater kicking, let’s talk about things you can do on land to improve what will happen in the water.
Work on your flexibility – Stretching is such an underutilized tool by most swimmers, especially those at lower levels. Things like yoga are tremendous in helping, but even just finding a stretching routine and doing it daily is a phenomenal place the start. To help your underwaters, flexibility through your shoulders to get in a good streamline, ankles to maximize the whipping motion of your legs, and hips/lower back to help achieve optimal range of motion on your kicks are all extremely important.
Improve your ankle strength – Although flexibility needs to be a priority, strength in your ankles to help push the water back is also vital.
The information below can be found on www.yourswimlog.com in an article by Olivier Poirier-Leroy, titled “How to Develop an Awesome Underwater Dolphin Kick”:
“Here is my five point plan for getting loosey-goosey feet:
1. Lacrosse ball to bottom of foot. Either standing or sitting, depending on how tight the muscle and fascia are, take a lacrosse ball and place your body weight on it. Apply enough pressure so that it is uncomfortably comfortable, but not overtly painful. Doing this will also have the bizarre, yet awesomely nice, effect of improving your hamstring flexibility as well. Spend 2-4 minutes on each foot, rolling from the bottom of the toes to the heel, to the edges of side of the foot. (If you’ve never done this before start with a tennis ball.)
2. Foam roll calf. If you have access to a foam roller – you should, I swear by mine – use it to roll out your calves. Roll up and down the full length of the calf muscle, making sure to get both sides of the calf muscle. Hit it for about 45 seconds a side, spending an extra few moments on any sticky or tender spots.
3. Ankle rotations. As a swimmer you are no doubt comfortable with arm and leg swings. Over the years we have built up a repertoire of arm swings that help loosen up our shoulders, back and chest. Now you can add ankle rotations to the list. Using your big toe as a pointer, do 15-20 circles with your foot in each direction. You can add ankle rotations to your foam rolling if you are pressed for time as well.
4. Wall lean stretch. This is a classic stretch, and one that you have have mistaken for being an exclusively calf-stretching posture. Facing a wall, plant your foot so that your toes are pointing upwards, heel on the ground, and lean forward.
5. Ankle rollers. The money maker. I never really liked this stretch because for years I had blockage in my left ankle that made it somewhat painful. However, there is no disputing how effective it is. Sit on your ankles, and slowly rock backwards until your knees come off of the ground. Hold for 1-2 minutes. You will notice sizable improvements after doing this for as little as a week or two.
Strong Ankles = Strong Fly Kick
How many times have you actually thought about your ankle strength?
Unless you are rolling your ankles every time you go for a job or play basketball or walk down the sidewalk probably next to never.
After all, we don’t often think of the ankles as something that we need to strengthen. You don’t often hear athletes saying that they are going to the gym so that they can wail on their biceps, lats, and dorsal flexors.
But as it turns out, a recent study done on competitive swimmers showed that not only did ankle flexibility play a role in the velocity that competitive swimmers were able to achieve with their dolphin kick, but that ankle strength also played a significant role in how fast the swimmers were able to kick.
If you’ve ever had a coach who recommend that you add skipping to your dryland regimen there is a good reason for it–skipping jump rope is a simple way to not only improve the short twitch capabilities of your lower body, but it’s also awesome for building ankle strength in a low-impact manner.
Instead of strapping some dumbbells to your little ankles, just pull out a trusty rubber band and belt out this 4-way ankle strengthening routine that will not only help you kick faster and stronger, but also make it less likely you bail like Bambi on ice the next time you go trail running:
Plantar Flexion. Take a stretch cord, wrap it around the top of your foot, and sitting in the classic hamstring stretch position point your toes. Do 15-20 reps on each side.
Dorsi Flexion. Attach the stretch cord on a door frame or something stable, and now you will pull the top of your foot towards you. Do 15-20 reps on each side.
Inversion. Wrap the band around your foot, and with resistance, twist your foot inwards. Do 15-20 reps on each side.
Eversion. Similar to the inversion, but now you are going to rotate your foot outwards. Do 15-20 reps on each side.”
Race of the Week:
Last week we looked at the development of the underwater kick as a weapon in backstroke. This week we will flip to our front and watch Ryan Hoffer dominate the 100-freestyle using his underwaters. The first video is from when Ryan was a junior in high school when he broke Caeleb Dressel’s NAG in the 100 free. The second video is a race from Juniors two years prior. Although Ryan wins the race, you can compare the work he put in to his underwaters in that two year span to take his swimming to the next level.
Week 4: Flip Turns
Even if you nail your streamline (see week 1) and hammer your underwater kicks perfectly (see weeks 2 and 3) if you cannot perform a proper flip turn, your competition will blow right past you. Here are some tips to speed up you turn and some dryland you can do to add to your explosiveness off your walls.
Do not breath into the wall – This is one that you have probably been told hundreds of times. Breathing in swimming is a double edge sword. Yes, you need to breath to survive and ultimately in events over a 50 to help maintain speed. However, breathing in the wrong spots really slows you down. The last stroke into the wall and the first stroke out of the wall (or start) and the two places that will cost you huge amounts of time. Many elite level swimmers breathe every two strokes, but even they will not breath in or out of the turns.
Get your knees in – Staying open (with your feet and knees far from your chest) makes your body a larger object to rotate through the water. This is the difference between trying to rotate the blade of a canoe oar versus a spoon through the water. The smaller object will spin faster with less force.
Use your head – Many swimmers (especially in experienced ones) look at the wall through the entirety of their turn. Not only is this too much, high end swimmers never look at the wall (ever). There is a reason there as a t-painted on the bottom. Learning how to use it will help you have a perfect turn in any pool. Then, when you initiate the turn you need to tuck your chin to your chest to help start your rotation.
Toes up – There is not advantage to trying to rotate to your stomach earlier on a flip turn. In fact, it slows you down and makes the turn awkward. When you flip, your feet need to come straight over the top and your toes need to hit the wall points up. This is the shortest distance to getting your feet on the wall and will help you stay tight with your knees in towards your chest.
Diet, Dryland, and Sleep – As much as coaches can fix technique, if the things you do out of the water are not complimenting what goes on in the water, you are leaving time on the table that could help you win your next race. Eating well, getting the proper amount of rest, and becoming more flexible and explosive by doing dryland properly.
The attached article has 4 dryland activities you could add (maybe just 1 per day to get started) to your dryland to help gain strength and speed to explode off you walls. Additionally, there is a video of Caeleb Dressel performing his turn, streamline, and underwater kicks. The video is a great illustration of all the points discussed over the past four week.
Race of the Week:
Before Michael Phelps became a pop culture phenom by winning 8 golds in Beijing, he was dominating the 2007 World Championships. This meet is considered by most swim nerds as Phelps truly greatest meet. If you do not know about it, take some time, look it up, and watch his swims. Here is Phelps blowing away the field on the way to a World Record in the 200 freestyle.
Week 5: Body Line (Freestyle)
Learning about and being able to access your body position in swimming is key to progress to high levels in the sport. Being able to “hit your line” or “focus on your line”, has nothing to do with the lines on the bottom of the pool. If you heat a coach talking about your line, they are talking about how you actively streamline your body during your swimming.
Active streamlining is performing actions to keep your body in a streamline position as much as possible while you are on the surface swimming. As illustrated by this picture of Katie Ledecky, when swimming properly your hand, should, hip, and heel should form a straight line on the entry of every stroke.
Notice in the left picture how everything on Ledecky’s left side is in one straight line, like half a streamline. This, along with her eyes looking down and keeping her head down, keeps her actively streamlining her body even while swimming. If you look at her left side in the second picture, her hand is almost done with her pull, but the hand, shoulder, hip and heal are still in one line. You can even see her right hand going in hitting the line on that side.
A few notes:
Her hand will never come in under her midsection or in front of her face. Then hand needs driven straight out in front of the shoulder, not across the face.
Her finger tips get pointed down on the entry and remain down the whole pull.
The only time her hand will leave her shoulder line is during her recovery. Then it will get driven right back to the line.
Eyes and head down = Hips up = less drag and faster swimming
This is an advanced swimming topic, but one that will make a world of difference. Find videos of any great freestyler and you will see them hold their line throughout their swim. This action of active streamlining helps you hold so much more speed, while reducing drag forces.
Race of the Week:
The 1976 Olympic Swimming Competition would go down as one marred by doping from the East German Swim Team. The East German women would win the majority of the Olympics golds in the pool that year, many in world record time. Although years later they would be found guilty of cheating, they were never stripped of their Olympic medals (something unheard of today). Prior to the last event, the US women had not one an Olympic Gold (also something unheard of today). The US would change that during the final event of the meet.
Week 6: Freestyle Breathing Part 1
One of the trickiest things (and most important things to get right) in swimming is the breath. It seems so easy, but in every stroke but backstroke, it is one of the most flawed parts of a swimmer’s stroke. Novice level swimmers are focused on just making sure they actually breath air. As a swimmer progresses, the need to make sure we breath air becomes second nature. Then we can focus on how to breath effectively and efficiently.
Humans take more than 23,000 breaths in a day. How many times do you have to tell yourself during those 23,000 times to breath? Breathing is a natural process we do not think about even once most days. We can use this to our advantage in the swimming pool. The first flaw in breathing while swimming is not getting all of the air out of our lungs before taking our breath. This leads us to thinking about having to breath, because air is still stuck in our lungs and we are trying to breath more in at the same time. It takes our brain longer to process the request, because this is not natural.
Let’s try a demonstration:
Breath in deeply through your mouth and fill your lungs.
Hold is in for a second or two (nothing long).
Then quickly and aggressively expel the air out of your lungs through your mouth.
What happened? If you are like me, you immediately rebounded into a quick breath back in to fill your lungs again. Additionally, the added benefit it that breath should have basically refilled your lungs with close to the same level of air you had before the exhale. Try it 4 or 5 times. It is quick, deep, and you do not have to think about the inhale.
Now let’s try what most swimmers do.
Start the same way and inhale deeply
Hold your breath and slowly let the air out
Inhale to fill your lungs again.
This time, my exhale was much slower. That would not be an issue, because we could do this with our face in the water. The problem comes in on the inhale. Mine was long and slow. As a swimmer, you would have to have your face out of the water longer, making it harder to hold your balance and line (read week 4’s post), and ultimately it is slower.
So how to we make the switch in the water? You focus on the exhale being short and explosive. If you expel the air quickly, then you will naturally breath back in more aggressively and for a shorter period of time. So next time you are in the water, push the air out quickly from your lungs while your face is in the pool and then watch how fast air will fill them back up when you take your breath. Stop focusing on the breath and start focusing on the exhale!
Homework: Over the next week, try that breathing exercise above 3 or 4 times a day. Do it both ways (swimmer breathing and normal breathing). When swimmer breathing becomes second nature in the water, you will see some major benefits. Note: If at any time you begin to feel distressed or light headed, breath normally! This takes practice and learning. The most important thing is no one gets hurt or passes out!
Race of the Week:
At last year’s World Championships, high schooler Regan Smith missed making the World team in the 100 backstroke. One of her teammates was the world record holder and the other barely missed the record herself. However, Smith would make the team in the 200 backstroke.
Smith was excited to make her first World’s team, even if she did not make the 100 back. This normally means she also would not be swimming the medley relay. The U.S. normally swims their second fastest backstroker and prelims and their fastest at finals.
Both U.S. 100 backstrokers swam well but not amazingly in the individual 100 back at the meet. Smith however, broke Missy Franklin’s previously untouchable World Record in her 200 back at Worlds. The U.S. coaches were left with a dilemma, sit the current World Record holder or sit the phenom who just broke one of the toughest records in the books. Breaking tradition, Smith got the nod at finals to swim the relay. So how would you react to missing the team in one of your best races? Smith went out and broke a World Record in her only race and then earned a second swim because of it. She did not disappoint with the extra chance.
Week 7: Freestyle Breathing Continued
Last week we looked at how to breathe. This week we will talk about when to breathe. The timing of the breath is taught incorrectly in most swim lessons (for a good reason). Young swimmers are taught to breathe when their arm on the side they are breathing toward is out of the water and to put their head down when their hand enters the pool. This serves novice level swimmers well. It is easy to comprehend and it is natural. However, proper timing is not really timed up to the hand leaving and entering the pool.
A swimmer should start breathing as their off arm (the side they are not breathing toward) is passing their shoulder at the top of their stroke. The swimmer then should be breathing as their off arm reaches full extension. Then before they see the hand of their breathing arm, the head show be back looking at the bottom.
Olympian Chloe Sutton does an awesome job breaking down freestyle breathing technique and timing in this video. Sutton was the first US swimmer to make an Olympic Team in both open water (10k) and in the pool (400 and 800).
Race of the Week:
In hopes to bring warmer weather, here is Chloe Sutton making a swim for first at the 2010 US Open Water Championships. Note: This is NOT poll swimming. Strokes and breathing are different in the open water!
Week 8: Finishing Your Freestyle Stroke
This week we will focus on the bottom of your Freestyle stroke. There are two common mistakes when finishing the pull phase.
1. Finishing the stroke too short
2. Finishing the stroke too long
First, we will address the problem with finishing a stroke too early. If your hand is not pulling past your waste, there is a huge amount of the pull on each stroke. The strength of a swimmer’s stroke is above there head until their chest. That being said, by cutting off the stroke early, a swimmer will end up with a short, choppy, disconnected stroke that will not yield great results and will be inefficient.
The other issue is trying to get too much out of each pull and going too far. This is simple to see the flaw, if we take a second to think about human anatomy. If we press towards our feet as far as we possibly can, eventually the palm of your hand would rotate and be point to the ceiling. This is really simple: palm back = pull water and move forward, palm up = pushing water to the ceiling and actively trying to drown yourself. Flinging water and sending it flying is not the goal of swimming. Although this motion feels strong, it does nothing to help a person move forward in the water.
What we are looking for is a pull to end in the perfect spot, the “Goldilocks Zone”. A swimmer needs to pull as far back as they can, before the palm starts facing up. This normally is slightly below the bottom of a traditional man’s brief suit or a traditional women’s suit. This will allow the swimmer to move forward as far as they can each stroke and not cause force to be pushed in the wrong direction.
The last part to a great finish to each pull is making sure the elbow is the first part of the arm that leaves the water each stroke. The hand should then follow the hole the elbow left the water at to reduce drag. It should be like someone on the ceiling tied a string you your elbow and yanked it out of the water like a marionette. The hand should just simply follow the elbow cleanly out of the pool.
The following video illustrates all of these points. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2S-lkG9ftYM
Race of the Week:
Thomas Heilman of the Piedmont YMCA went on a tear this past winter season. The 12-year-old broke multiple National Age Group Records. Here is a video of him taking down one of the oldest records in the sport, a 36-year-old record from age group phenom Chas Morton. The underwaters and long efficient stroke are something even Senior level swimmers could strive to match.
Week 9: Freestyle Race Finishes
This week’s entry is going to look at how we finish our races in freestyle. The majority of the events in swimming finish with a freestyle stroke. This obviously includes all of the freestyle events, but any IM event as well. The first thing we need to agree on is where does the freestyle finish actually start. Some may think it is the final stroke, as we are touching the wall. Others might suggest it is one or two strokes out. At CLE, we want to start our finish with six strokes remaining.
To do this we need to be aware of where we are in the pool. For most swimmers between the ages of 11 and 16, this would be roughly 10-12 yards away from the finish wall. At that point, a swimmer should take their final breath and get their head in a perfect position to sprint in with no breathing. (Read the WetSide on body line to learn this.) The swimmer should fire anything the have left in their legs and the only focus should be getting their hand on the wall. Not breathing that short distance is not going to feel great at the end of a swim, but with training it will be faster than continuing to breath.
Once we take that final breath, now we can worry about timing up the perfect finish. We need to charge the wall with our eyes looking for the ‘T’ on the bottom of the pool. When you are an appropriate distance away take one final perfect full stroke and reach for the wall slightly on your side. A swimmer’s hand, shoulder, hip, and heel need to be in a perfect line. The swimmer’s head should be pinned on the arm extending for the wall and the swimmer needs to keep kicking through the finish. A perfect finish will take place four to six inches below the surface.
Here is a great video highlighting these points:
Race of the Week:
The East German women’s swim team was one of the most dominate teams the world had ever seen. However, that was in large part to systematic doping. In 1988, a 100 lb, 17 year old American not only beat the East Germans, but broke a World Record on the way to Olympic gold. Janet Evans shows size is not everything on her way to negative splitting the win in the Women’s 400 Free.
Week 10: Backstroke Body Position
Flipping over from freestyle, we are going to take a look at backstroke. We will start by discussing the proper body position. A perfect backstroke head position it like lying on the floor with your back flat on the floor. The head and shoulders should be in neutral position. Your eyes should be straight up and you body should be as long as possible.
Common mistakes with backstroke can make this stroke much more challenging than it needs to be. If you tuck your chin, your hips will sink and you will be dragging your body through the water. If your chin is too far back, you will arch your back making your belly go up and feet go down. The key it to keep the neutral head position, a nice flat back, and stay long in the water.
Race of the Week:
This week we are going to do something different. Go watch swimming and tell the coaches what your favorite race was and why! Email coach Adam at email@example.com and if your race is his favorite, he will choose it for next week’s race. There are loads of swimming races out there. The race could be from any level (age group, senior, high school, college, professional), but please provide a link to the video and a description of why you like the race.
Week 12: Backstroke Kicking
Once you understand the correct body position to be in for backstroke, the next step is to learn how to kick properly. High level backstroke is developing into one major skill, underwater kicking. If you watch the National Championships, NCAA Championships, or even the State Championships typically the best underwater kicker has a great chance to win the race. Underwater kicking has been discussed previously in the Wet Side Archives. Take the time to read those entries. Underwater kicks on your back can be done flat on your back or slightly on the side. Everyone is different, so play around with kicking in different positions and see what works for you. Each of those underwater kicks need to be efficient, quick, and connected. Top level swimmers will kick clear to the 15 meter mark every wall, but this does not happen overnight.
Improving your underwater kicks:
If you want to improve your backstroke start with the number of kicks you are comfortable with (3 or maybe 4) and do them every wall! Then after two or three weeks add in one kick. Make sure it is as strong and aggressive as the previous kicks. Keep adding a kick every two to 3 weeks until you reach 10-12 kicks. When you have 10-12 kicks every wall that are efficient and productive, you are well on your way to becoming a better backstroker.
Kicking on the surface:
When you are actually swimming on the surface, the kick needs to be constant and productive. This holds true regardless of the distance you are swimming. Even in the 200 backstroke, your legs need to be productive and fast the whole time.
While kicking, make sure your knees are not breaking the surface. Many beginning backstrokers kick solely with their knee, which leads to an inefficient kick and a poor body position. The kick needs to start in the hip and extend all the way though the thigh, knee, and finally foot. There is a knee bend in a backstroke kick, but if the knee is breaking the surface, try kicking more from the thighs and less in the knee, similar to kicking a soccer ball or football. Using the whole leg will be much more efficient. A nice loose ankle and leg will help move even more water.
Here is a video from The Race Club discussing this, with a dryland idea at the end. This “flick kick” is the kick we are looking for on your backstroke:
Race of the Week:
To show the importance of underwater kicking here is the 2019 Men’s NCAA 100 Backstroke Final as the race of the week:
Week 14: Backstroke Catch
Backstroke is unique in the sport of swimming for many reasons. You are on your back, the majority of the race is underwater for short course, and there is no extension phase in the recovery. When swimming every other stroke, there is a portion of the stroke where you are lining up the hands, shoulders, hips, and heals to hit a straight line and use that to streamline your body. In backstroke, your hand enters the water in this extension already. That makes is unique and it also allows you to get to the catch position immediately. Similar to freestyle the involves getting into a position that you can use the whole forearm and hand to move the water towards your feet, not just the hand.
As you can see in the two pictures, this arm bend is significant. It happens when the hand is still further in the pool than the swimmers head, and the finger tips remain pointed up at an angle close to the surface. This allows the swimmer to get into a powerful position and move water more efficiently.
To improve this part of your pull, simply isolate that part of the stroke. With one arm up in full extension, bend the elbow, and snap into catch. Instead of pulling simply extend the arm again and repeat this motion. The goal should be to get to the catch quickly and to catch high above your head.
Things to avoid:
Do not let the hand drop low in the water. This often happens by over rotating the hips. This is a position of weakness and can put unneeded stress on the shoulder.
Do not let the elbow drop behind the back. Ideally the elbow in catch is on the same plane as both of the swimmer’s shoulders. If a broom stick was behind the swimmers back, the elbow and both shoulders should be resting on the stick. If the elbow drops too much, this can also cause a lot of stress on the shoulder joint. The first swimmer has the shoulders and elbows in a pretty strong line, while the second has the elbow in behind the back (as well as a very low hand).
If you are able to clean up the catch, you will be pulling more water in no time and it will show in your backstroke time quickly. Just like in freestyle, if you set yourself up to pull properly it will yield huge results!