At the Bluffton Pool recently, one of the regular lap swimmers asked me, “Is it bad that the swimmer over there makes such a big splash with his arms when he swims?” 

I answered, “It is and it isn’t.” It reminded me that a while back a lady swimmer commented, “I was always taught to recover my arms softly when I swim. Is that good?” My answer was the same, “It is and it isn’t.”

If that sounds like I shun controversy, I can assure you that I am known to be strongly opinionated, especially about swim strokes. So why did I respond as I did?

Swimming takes place IN the water, not above it. Whatever happens above the surface is as good or bad as its effect on what happens under water. Swimming becomes more efficient when resistance is decreased and/or when propulsion is increased, and that takes place below the surface.

Applied to the first example, a big splash might not affect a stroke that works efficiently under water, but it would seem to take needlessly excessive energy and might pull the swimmer’s body out of an aligned position.

Applied to the second example, a soft recovery might keep the swimmer’s body in line, but her stroke might slow down in order to do so.

Efficiency should be a swimmer’s goal, and each swimmer is different. A swimmer’s stroke as a whole has to be considered before deciding whether any particular aspect of it helps or hinders that goal.

A wide-arm recovery will, by Newton’s Third Law, cause the legs to swing side-to-side instead of straight back in line with the torso, thereby increasing resistance. If a swimmer does not maintain pressure against the water with the hand-arm lever or does not accelerate through the whole arm stroke (according to Newton’s Second Law), propulsive force decreases.

No one aspect of a stroke or its recovery is necessarily good or bad. Each aspect is efficient or it isn’t, relative to the stroke as a whole. It is a challenge to make one’s stroke ever more efficient, which is what I respond to. It is also what has sustained me as an instructor. A swimmer’s success at greater efficiency is my reward as an instructor. I hope to continue responding to this challenge for the rest of my life.

Dr. Bob Colyer of Bluffton is an actively retired college professor, coach and author of “Swim Better: A Guide to Greater Efficiency for Swimmers & Instructors,” directed primarily to non-competitors.