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Enter the Hand Slightly Outside the Shoulder
Over-reaching is one of the most common mistakes in backstroke. When the hand enters above the head, the first thing that hand can do is push water to the side of the pool. Pushing to the side does nothing to send you forward. All it does is make you wiggle down the pool.
To learn where the hands should enter the water, raise both arms and pretend they are arms on a clock. Hold them at 10 and 2, so that your arms form a “V.” This will feel very wide, but this is where you’ll get the best catch and the most power from your pull.
As you swim, try to achieve this same spacing -- with the hands entering the water just wider than the shoulder -- at 10 and 2 on the clock face.
Notice that Karlyn has a very clean and precise hand entry, with the pinky entering first, and slicing into the water. As the hand enters, the hip dips down to help her initiate the catch.
Keep Head Neutral, Eyes Up, Hips High
Karlyn’s backstroke is fluid, efficient, and effortless. It’s also very fast. One of her secrets is good body position, including how she holds her head, eyes, and hips.
From the surface, you can see that her head is steady, and that her chin is in neutral -- not too far back and not tucked in too much. Her eyes are focused not on her feet but on the sky directly above her feet.
From below the surface, you can see that Karlyn’s body position is nearly horizontal. Her hips are near the surface, and her toes are breaking the surface with a light, almost “fluffy” kick. this is great body position for backstroke.
Use a High-Elbow Catch
From under water you can see that Karlyn’s hand enters pinky first, and that she SLICES her hand into the water. Also notice that the hands enter just wide of the shoulders and not directly above the head.
Karlyn initiates the pull by driving the hand down a bit, then bending the elbow to initiate the catch.
Just as it’s less effective to swim freestyle with a straight-arm pull, or by dropping the elbow, the same is true for backstroke. Notice how Karlyn’s initial movement is to POINT the hand to the corner of the lane, then she BENDS the elbow and begins to PUSH water toward her feet.
Know Where and How to Apply Power
In backstroke, the “umph” -- or power -- occurs just after you bend the elbow. If we pause it right here...you can see that the power is created by the palm, wrist, and forearm acting as one unit. Notice the straight line that’s formed from the palm through the wrist. It’s this straight surface that is the pressure point for power.
The power phase comes right after the elbow bends. As the hand reaches the hip, Karlyn lets go of the pressure and tries not to push all the way through to the thigh. She doesn’t want the hand to get “stuck” at the thigh.
Notice that Karlyn orients her thumb near the surface as she presses her hand and wrist toward the hip. This does two things: It sets up her hand for a thumb-first exit, which keeps the exit quick and clean.
And it allows the hand to continue to push water toward the feet. Many swimmers flip the hand over at this point, as if they were flipping a pancake. This pushes water toward the bottom of the pool rather than toward the feet.
Keep the Kick Small and Quick
Karlyn’s kick is small and quick. She sometimes describes it as light or fluffy -- and she tries to make the water boil with her toes.
From under water you can see that Karlyn’s toes tap each other, which keeps the kick small and compact. She thinks about keeping her legs long and her ankles loose.
And, finally, notice that Karlyn rotates more from her hips than from her shoulders. By rotating around her core, she keeps her energy moving forward, with very little side-to-side movement.
Practice Relaxed Breathing
Most swimmers never think about breathing when they swim backstroke. What they don’t realize is that they’re missing a huge opportunity to add rhythm and relaxation to their stroke.
The most important thing is to not hold your breath. Try to swim with the mouth slightly open and the jaw relaxed, and try to establish a steady rhythm for inhaling and exhaling.
Match the inhale and exhale to your armstroke, experimenting with breathing every stroke or every other stroke until you find a pattern that’s comfortable for you.
This will take daily practice and awareness, but it will pay dividends by giving you extra oxygen and energy to go fast.