Swimming Freestyle – Propeller or Paddle?

some water

Call me crazy if you want, but four or five times a week I wake up at 4:50am, brush my teeth, hike cross-country about a mile and a half to the pool, and then, I swim for about ninety minutes with the Santa Clarita Masters Club. Exercise or hobby? Who knows, who cares – it does not matter because that is not the point. What I want to talk about is … paddle?, or propeller?

The context is the front crawl, which is the most common stroke used when people are said to be swimming freestyle. In her excellent NYTimes blog post Gretchen Reynolds addresses the question as to which provides better propulsion. Is it a propeller-like, motion (also called “sculling” in the post) in which the arm moves through the water in a s-shape in order to provide propulsive force? Or is it a paddle motion for which the arm digs into the water flat, is then moved straight back towards the hip? Spoiler Alert: the conclusion of the various studies and research and presented in the post is that the paddle motion is better.

Whew… what a relief, because, that is the technique I have gravitated towards, and that is the way I use my arms in the water currently. When I was first learning, the propeller approach was more in vougue. I never mastered it then, and basically forgot about until years later when I became more serious about swimming as my primary form of exercise. For me, my enjoyment of my time in the water has been steadily improving in proportaion to the improvement in my technique and efficiency.

An interesting aspect is terminology of the post and the various studies it references – terms from fluid dynamics such as lift and drag are used. As an aerospace engineer myself such usages tend to grab my attention, even when they are used in non-conventional ways.

There are several reasons why paying attention to technique will benefit any swimmer. First there is a rule of thumb that swimming follows the 80/20 rule. Performance derives 80% from efficiency and 20% from raw physical power. As such there is much more room for improvement by focusing on technique over strength and power. In addition proper technique reduces the chances of injury. There is nothing worse in swimming than to be sidelined with a nagging shoulder injury that could have been avoided or mitigated with better attention to technique.

For me, I am glad I found this article, and I’m happy it was consistent with what I’ve learned and what I practice.


Tags: , , ,

Comments are closed.