At the end of the pull, the finish, the hand is in the water near the hip. The elbow is closer to the water's surface than the hand, and for that reason, the elbow leads the recovery. At the end of the pull, the elbow should lift up and out of the water. When that happens, the hand and forearm should exit as well, slightly behind or later than the elbow. The hand and forearm should follow a natural path out of the water, not a forced path or specific movement. When you raise the elbow, let the forearm and hand do what they want - they did the work of pulling, let them have some free time on the recovery. Let them relax.
Now the elbow is in the air, the forearm and hand are out of the water, and the arm needs to move forward. Keep the forearm and hand relaxed and swing the elbow, from where it exited the water, forward. The forearm and hand should swing in a low arc, closer to the water than the elbow. Imagine a pendulum. The anchor point of that pendulum is the elbow, the swinging part is the forearm, and weight on the bottom is the hand. The hand swings forward, it is not thrust forward or pushed forward. The elbow stays higher (further from the water's surface) than the hand.
A good recovery has a very relaxed, limp hand motion. Just like the forearm is swinging forward under the elbow, the hand swings froward under the wrist. Not a lot, not a big swing, but keep it relaxed and let flop a little bit. When you get to the entry point, then the hand will firm up.
The elbow, forearm, and hand are out of the water. The elbow is swinging forward, and the forearm and hand are doing there thing, swinging freely under that elbow. When you get it right, the recovery is fairly effortless. Just an easy swinging action. The hand accelerates from the exit point toward the entry naturally, moving out ahead of the elbow, toward the entry point, but staying lower than the elbow at all times.
As the hand gets ahead of the elbow, moving out to the entry position, the hand can pull the forearm and elbow along with it into the entry spot. Remember the pendulum? What would happen if at the end of the arc, the pivot (the elbow) broke loose? The pendulum would be pulled by the weight (the hand); it is pulled by the actual weight of the hand, not a muscle action. The force of the swinging hand and forearm now take over and plop - the hand enters the water, the arm follows.
One major stroke flaw that is commonly seen is swimmer pushing the hand forward. If you see a swimmer's hand, forearm, and elbow all in line, parallel to the water during the recovery, then the swimmer is pushing the hand forward instead of letting in swing forward. What is wrong with that?
- It takes more energy to push instead of swing. The forearm and hand cannot relax, and that takes energy.
- The parallel hand / forearm / wrist line make it much harder to get a good high elbow position to set up the basic freestyle pull.
- The hand level with the elbow and shoulder position can impinge the shoulder joint, increasing the chances of developing a swimmers' shoulder injury.