How to Swim Faster . . . and Pain Free
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on October 11th, 2014

Is there a technique that allows you to swim much faster–while also minimizing the potential for shoulder pain?  There is! And it’s one that nearly all coaches and swimmers overlook.

Most people treat the recovery portion of the crawl stroke as incidental. Since it’s not involved in propulsion, they figure, it serves only to get the arm back to where it can resume pushing water back—the part they consider all-important.

But Total Immersion—virtually alone in the swim world—considers the recovery phase consequential. We know  that small errors in recovery can create large problems elsewhere–increasing drag and reducing propulsion.

The Rag Doll (aka Marionette) Recovery—the name we initially gave the focal point for suspending a fully relaxed forearm from the elbow during recovery—is one of three essential elements of an efficient recovery. (Swinging the elbow away on exit—not lifting it—and cleanly entering hand before forearm are the others.)

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Like  Balance, Streamlining and most TI technique fundamentals, the Rag Doll Recovery emerged from a problem-solving process.

In Oct 2004, I ruptured the biceps tendon in my right shoulder while lifting weights. It was an almost crippling injury. Normally undemanding actions –like donning a seat belt, or pouring water from a kettle–were too painful to perform with my right arm.

Despite this, I continued swimming. My health insurer required five months of therapy before approving surgery, and I knew that I was likely to regain strength and function more quickly post-surgery if I remained active.

Three Techniques for Pain-Free Swimming

Within a week or two following the injury, I began seeking stroke modifications that would allow me to swim with minimal pain. I discovered that I could minimize discomfort by doing the following:

  • ‘Turning off’ arm muscles as I lifted it from the water–relying on a highly-mobile shoulder blade to bring the arm forward.
  • Dropping my hand in earlier and steeper on entry.
  • Letting my arm sink until my shoulder was in a highly stable position, and I felt natural—even effortless–leverage, before applying pressure.

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To my great surprise I was soon swimming pain-free. Then, within weeks, I was stunned to find myself  swimming slightly faster than before the injury.

Even with my right biceps detached from my shoulder—and despite still being unable to pour tea without searing pain!

I was so struck by the advantage I seemed to have gained through pain-avoidance that these three modifications eventually became standard TI crawl techniques. You know them today as the Rag Doll (or Marionette) Recovery, Mail Slot Entry, and Patient Catch.

Why It Works

Though the Rag Doll Recovery emerged as a workaround to a painful injury, I was intensely curious why this combination of technique adjustments allowed me to swim faster with what would have been a disabling injury for the vast majority of swimmers.

Thinking about anatomy, physics, and stroke mechanics, I recognized several critical advantages in the Rag Doll Recovery:

  1. It provided a rest break for arm muscles that had work to do during propulsion–maintaining a firm hold on the water. Turning off muscles when they’re not needed saves energy and eliminates a common source of muscle fatigue.
  2. Suspending a relaxed forearm from the elbow during recovery—instead of swinging it stiffly through the air eliminates ballistic forces that would destabilize the core or divert momentum sideways. (This evolved into a core TI efficiency principle: Any body part which leaves the water should move in the direction of travel.)
  3. It moves the hand from exit to entry by the shortest possible path. This enables higher strokes rates with no loss of length. I.E. You swim faster efficiently.

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How I’ve Used It

In the years since I made the Rag Doll Recovery a core element of technique, I’ve discovered it provides distinct advantages in several challenging situations:

  1. Because my arms never tire, I’ve been able to swim great distances—8+ hours in the Manhattan Island Marathon and nearly 12 hours in the Tampa Bay Marathon—on quite moderate training and with minimal fatigue.
  2. A compact recovery lets me swim in undisturbed comfort and control in the congested conditions of pack swimming in open water
  3. Because my forearm is so relaxed, my core remains stable in rough water. My forearm yields when waves or chop hit it, instead of communicating the impact to my core body.

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But even more important, these techniques are so biomechanically sound that it’s been nearly 10 years since I experienced any swimming-related shoulder pain.

4 Responses to “How to Swim Faster . . . and Pain Free”

  1. Barry Walle says:

    So quintessential to the stroke I can’t think why I’ve discovered no-one else who talks about it.

  2. Thanks for sharing this swimming technique in such great detail. Will certainly try this out in the pool tomorrow.

  3. Barry says:

    Hi of late i have been trying to improve my stroke technique as a winter project as such. I have been using the total immersion videos as a go to source of information. I have changed my leg kick to the two beat kick and have been working on my entry of the arm stroke. This article has been very helpful in learning about the importance of the recovery part of the stroke.

    So many thanks Barry

  4. Marwan says:

    I’ve been dealing with frequent shoulder pains during trainings recently. They seem to appear whenever I swim a distance of 800 meters or more. I thought this happens because I’m a natural sprinter and not a long distance swimmer but I started to worry when the pain appeared during my sprint set the other day. I knew then that it had something to do with my technique so I will take your advice about the recovery part and hopefully this pain would disappear.

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