Three Stroke Flaws That Ruin Your Propulsion
One of the reasons an elite swimmer is able to swim so quickly is that they have a very good catch on the water during the underwater phase of the stroke. Developing a truly great catch can be technically very difficult to achieve but if you can make even small improvements to this part of your stroke you'll notice the benefits straight away and start to move more quickly and efficiently through the water.
For most swimmers getting a good purchase or hold on the water is a very elusive experience and working on this area of the freestyle stroke can be very frustrating. Perhaps you've been told to 'keep your elbows high' or tried to 'reach over a barrel' and struggled to get these concepts into your freestyle? In this article we're going to take a step backwards and look at what happens immediately before the catch – as your hand enters the water and extends forwards.
Setting Up For A Better Catch
The catch setup phase is very important in freestyle - if you don't take the time to develop this part of your stroke then the catch itself will be heavily compromised and working on it will be frustrating and largely fruitless. However, take a step back and work on getting your body, arm and hand into the right position prior to the catch and your feel for the water will take a big step forwards, helping you generate much more effective propulsion.
We're going to look at three very common problems you may have in this 'catch setup' phase of the stroke and in each case give you a simple drill centred on fixing it. Try each drill and stroke focus, even if you don't think you have that issue in your stroke – you may be surprised what benefits it brings!
Catch Setup Problem 1: Crossover
On the last Swim Smooth Clinic Series in the UK, 76 of the 108 attendees had some level of crossover in their stroke. A crossover is where the hand crosses the centre line in front of the head. A crossover does a lot of harm to your stroke but in terms of your catch it causes you to collapse on the elbow and lean on it. This dropped elbow position in the water will then stay put for the rest of the catch and pull through – ruining your propulsion.
To overcome this in your stroke, focus on entering the water straighter without crossing the centre line. You may be tempted to think about going wider with your hand entry but we don't recommend this, it tends to make you flatter in the water and harms your body roll. Instead of thinking about going wider, think in terms of going straighter, entering the water and extending arrow straight forwards in front of the same shoulder:
A great way to work on this is the 'on your side' drill. This is one of the simplest drills possible but is fantastic for getting you straighter and more aligned in the water. With a pair of fins (flippers) on, simply kick on your side with your bottom arm out in front of you and your top arm by your side. Try to get perfectly on your side with your hips at 90° to the bottom of the pool. Look down at the bottom of the pool and turn your head to the side when you need a breath before returning to look at the bottom.
If you feel like you're drifting from one side of the lane to the other or struggling to support yourself to breathe, then chances are you are crossing over and dropping that lead arm in the water. To remove the crossover, think about pushing your chest out and drawing your shoulder blades back. In doing so visualise going straighter, not wider. Perform this drill as 25m on one side before swapping to 25m on the other side, all the time thinking about improving your swimming posture and becoming straighter in the water.
Once you've performed the kick-on-side drill, try some full stroke swimming and simply think about the middle finger on each hand as you enter the water and extend forwards. Thinking solely about your middle finger pointing straight down the pool, this helps you focus on keep that lead arm straight as it enters the water and extends forwards.
Catch Setup Problem 2: Thumb First Entry
Many of us were taught to enter the water thumb first with the palm facing outwards when we learnt to swim. This method used to be taught because coaches believed it created a smoother hand entry into the water - this might be true to some extent but a thumb first entry puts stress on the shoulder, causing most swimming shoulder injuries. It also harms your catch because by entering thumb first there's a tendency for the lead hand to slice down in the water without getting any purchase on it.
Instead of entering thumb first with hand pitched vertically, we need to enter more naturally with a flatter hand and slight downward angle. This creates a nice clean hand entry whilst setting your hand position up for a great catch as soon as you enter into the water:
Catch Setup Problem 3: Dropping your wrist and over-reaching
In an effort to make their strokes long, many swimmers over-reach at the front of the stroke, this causes their wrist to drop and show the palm of the hand forwards:
This dropped wrist position can feel good when you swim because as the water flow hits the palm it creates a pressure on the hand and many swimmers perceive this as a good catch. Of course, dropping your wrist creates drag and it also tends to cause your elbow to drop down low in the water, which harms your catch. Instead of doing this you should extend forwards in the water but all the time keeping your elbow higher than the wrist and your wrist higher than your fingertips:
(see more of our animated swimmer Mr Smooth on the swim smooth website here)
A great drill for developing a better extension forwards in the water is Doggy Paddle. Perform Doggy Paddle with a pull buoy between your legs, don't kick and keep your head high - eyes either just above the surface or just below. Extend forwards underwater and focus on keeping your fingertips very slightly downwards as you do so. When you reach the front of the stroke, tip your fingertips further downwards to initiate the catch and bend the elbow to press the water backwards:
Imagine a rope about 50cm directly under your body and that you are pulling yourself along that rope as you do the drill. This visualisation can help you perfect the movement of the drill.
Tip: Try using more body rotation than with children's Doggy Paddle - say to yourself 'reach and roll' as you extend forwards and catch the water. In some parts of the world this form of Doggy Paddle is known as 'Long Dog'.
You can also work on developing a better hand and wrist position whilst performing the kicking-on-your-side drill described earlier. Whilst your lead arm is outstretched keep your elbow higher than the wrist and your hand flexed so it points just very slightly downwards:
If you are used to feeling the water striking your palm then you will feel less pressure from the water in this improved hand position. Expect this to feel strange at first.
Setting up for a good catch within your freestyle stroke is very important. Many swimmers make the mistake of jumping straight to developing their catch action itself and pay no attention to what happens before. Developing your catch will be a frustrating and largely fruitless experience without first working on becoming straight in the water with your hand and arm in the correct setup position.
If you take the time to develop this key area of your stroke then the catch itself often falls naturally into place and starts to give you the propulsion you need in your stroke. It's very much cause and effect!
One last tip: When you make changes such as this to your stroke it can feel strange at first or in some cases it can even feel wrong to begin with. Give yourself a little time to adapt to the changes above and get used to the feel of your modified stroke. We recommend around six sessions focusing on your catch setup before deciding whether these changes are beneficial to you. Give it a go – we're sure they'll help you and have you moving more quickly and easily through the water!
more about your authors: Swim Smooth
Swim Smooth is a swimming coaching company based in the UK and Australia. We're famous for our straightforward approach to improving your swimming. On our website you'll find a wealth of easy to read articles to improve your swimming. We offer swimming DVDs, swimming training plans and training tools to improve your stroke technique. Also don't miss our animated swimmer "Mr Smooth" showing you an ideal freestyle stroke in action. Yes he really does move! :
Article © Swim Smooth 2011