Swimming well requires consideration of three forces of physics: propulsion, inertia and drag. While you probably don’t think of swimming as a physics professor would, you should understand these concepts instinctively and unconsciously. Push off the wall, and you take advantage of the acceleration you get. Hold a tight streamlined body, and you glide down the lane conserving energy. Add a dolphin kick and you zoom until the water slows you down.
Swimming faster requires an approach where everything in your stroke aligns to take advantage of these physical principles. We look for a good body position, proper timing and movement in breathing, kicking that drives the stroke without extra effort, and an efficient arm recovery. Each movement is meant to maximize propulsion, optimize inertia and minimize drag. This post focuses on refining the propulsive action of the stroke—the catch and pull.
In freestyle, propulsion is generated with your arms pulling through the water. (Unless you’re a competitive sprinter, your kick doesn’t really add much to propulsion but is very important to maintaining good body position.) In teaching this part of the stroke, I like to explain that the catch and pull analogous to the clutch pedal on an automobile with a manual transmission. If you're learned how to drive a stick shift, you can relate.
Initial Catch: This is analogous to pushing down on the clutch pedal. It starts the action and momentarily disengages the drive shaft from the engine. In freestyle, this is where you find the sweet spot balancing inertia and drag. If you hold down the pedal too long, the auto will slow down, but for that split second as you shift the car continues forward in inertia.
Entering your hand into the catch and aligning your body from fingers to toes minimizes your “shadow,” which is your body’s profile in the water as you move forward. The smaller the shadow, the smaller the drag coefficient and the more you can capitalize on inertia.
The critical moment in the start of the catch is to enter the water with the hand leading the wrist and elbow. Extend the arm to stabilize the body position with shoulders narrowed. Keeping inertia in mind, you should hold the catch position while the opposite arm recovers in what is called Front Quadrant swimming.
Routinely using catch-up drills, 3/4 catch-up and an elongated stroke helps to find the sweet spot between gliding (inertia conserving power) and turnover (expending energy.)
Forearm Engagement: Starts the pull. It’s analogous to starting to engage the clutch by pulling back on the pedal. And just as in an auto, you should start to feel your body accelerate.
There are two key actions at this point: 1. Begin to point your fingers down to bottom, 2. Bend your elbow outwards as you begin to pull straight backwards. This motion “catches” the water and sets up the next step. Finding this position, and being comfortable in it, is one of the most important actions in the whole freestyle stroke. If you’ve learned how to drive with a manual transmission, you can understand the importance of this phase. In swimming lingo, this is called early vertical forearm--meaning, point your fingers downwards right away.
Power Position: Continues the propulsion, and fully engages “the clutch” at maximum power. With the elbow still in a bent position, continue the pull with the hand a few inches outside the shoulder, pulling straight back along a line parallel to the direction of movement. In a pool, use the center line as a guide. Any deviation from this line only adds drag and reduces power. Keep you hand facing backwards until…
Stroke Finish: You’ve fully extended your arm stroke, and its time to set up the arm recovery. Again, try to keep you hand facing backwards, then lift the arm from the elbow. This is the second most important action, after forearm engagement. By thinking of lifting your arm at the elbow, you set up the motion to bring the hand forward. Too many swimmers think the arm recovery is driven with the hands, when they should simply pick up their hand loosely from the elbow and place it aggressively into the catch position. How high to lift the elbow is a matter of preference, as long the fingertips enter below the wrist and the wrist below the elbow. Open water swimmers tend to—and should—swing their hands wide, while pool swimmers generally use a high elbow recovery.
Drills to Improve Propulsion
Initial Catch — 6 kicks - 3 strokes - 6 kicks, Catch-up drill
Forearm Engagement — Sculling, Doggie Scoop
Power Position — Single-arm Pull, Pull with paddles or tennis balls
Finish — Push back drill (push extra water at the end of the arm stroke)