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Sometimes people tell me I look like I’m kayaking when I swim backstroke. What they’re talking about is how straight my arms are during the recovery…how I turn my hand or my “paddle” just before it enters the water… and the way my hands drive deep into the water and immediately start to pull.

Here are some strokes in slow motion, so you can see where people get the kayak analogy. I think the steady rhythm of my arms has something to do with it, too.

Common Error
Here’s a clip of a swimmer who doesnt' have a steady rhythm, and who hasn’t quite mastered the kayak thing. Notice how each hand pauses after it enters the water.

Let’s look at each part of the recovery, and see how to make it as efficient as kayaking.

First is the hand – the blade of your paddle. It exits thumb first…and enters little finger first. Thumb out. Pinky in.

Here’s a different angle that shows thumb out…pinky in. When the thumb comes out first, there’s no resistance on the top of your hand. You get a fast, clean exit.

When the pinky goes in first, there’s again no resistance on the top of your hand. You get a fast, clean entry that sends your hand deep into the water and into perfect position to catch and pull. There’s no slapping on the water and no hesitation between the entry and the start of the pull. There’s no wasted motion.

Now let’s look at what happens in between the exit and the entry. As I recover my arm, I think about keeping everything straight and in line.

From this angle, you can see that I keep the elbow straight… almost locked. And that I reach straight up, not out to the side. At the top of the recovery, I turn my hand so that it can enter pinky first.

In this clip you can see that I stretch upward, with my shoulder joint rolled nearly out of the water. This helps me roll into the next stroke. Notice that I try to keep my head totally still as I roll my body and recover each arm.

Finally, let’s take a closer look at where your hand should enter. To continue the kayak analogy, you want to place your paddle in the water at an angle that let’s you optimize your stroke power. For most swimmers, this means the hand should enter directly above the shoulder or just outside the shoulder – at 11 o’clock and 1 o’clock.

As you can see here, I enter with my hand directly above the shoulder. This is the angle that works best for me. I have pretty good shoulder flexibility and can hold onto the water at this angle. If you have less flexibility or strength, you’ll get a better kayak action if you enter at eleven and one.

What you don't want to do is over-reach when you swim backstroke. This is something every coach will tell you. But what does this mean? And why is it so important not to over-reach?

In this clip, I’m over-reaching on purpose. See how it makes me fish-tail from one side of the black line to the other? Over-reaching adds inches to every length you swim…and could cost you a race.

It can also cost you power. When your hand crosses over your head like this, it’s hard to rotate your body. It’s hard to drive your hand deep into the water, and it takes a long time to find the catch point for your stroke. Not very kayak-like.

Sometimes you need a friend or a coach to tell you if you’re over-reaching. Have them stand on the starting block and signal you to make corrections. In backstroke, it always seems like you have to exaggerate a movement to make it happen correctly, so you may need to think 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock to achieve 11 o’clock and 1 o’clock with your hand entry.

Here’s a drill that I like to use when I’m working on a kayak recovery.