How Your Catch Should Feel To You

'The Catch' is the movement you make to get a hold of the water and begin pressing it backwards at the very front of the stroke. For most swimmers the catch is a bit of a mystery, you probably know that it is important to your speed and efficiency but getting a feel the catch and improving it seems very elusive.

A good catch is about making the right movements and timing them correctly. In this post we're going to look at the timing of the catch - and as a consequence how it should feel. The feeling of a good catch may be quite different from what you expect and this is one reason why it's difficult to grasp (pardon the pun!).

Matching The Water Speed

Let's take a look at elite swimmer Mel Benson, swimming here at around 65 seconds per 100m pace. Like all elite swimmers, Mel's got a fantastic catch which is one of the secrets of her speed and endurance. This is the catch phase of her stroke on her left arm, see how her elbow starts to bend straight away and how she begins to press the water back behind her:

You might have read or been told by a coach that you should 'keep your elbows high' underwater and we can see that Mel's doing that nicely, keeping her elbow higher than her wrist and her wrist higher than her fingertips at all times.

This is an interesting image sequence as Mel's taken a few bubbles with her into the water. See how the bubbles don't move much at all relative to her hand and forearm, this is because Mel's merely matching the water speed as it travels past her. This means she's feeling a relatively light force on her hand and forearm.

The important point here is that you can feel powerful during the catch but it's not about brute force or high effort, it's just about engaging with the water. The lack of force required is one reason why your 11 year old daughter can zoom past you so easily. Her arm action is far superior to yours under the water and she doesn't need much strength to complete the movements.

The Pull Phase

Moving on a little and Mel's arm starts to accelerate as it passes under her body. We can now see her arm start to leave those bubbles behind as it does so:

Pressing backward through the water, the pressure on the hand and forearm now builds. This is where most of the propulsion is created in the stroke but that couldn't happen without the catch phase immediately before, where Mel matched the water's speed so that it stabilised around her hand and forearm.

How The Catch Should Feel

Many swimmers are searching for a really strong feeling during the catch, thinking that when they get it right they will suddenly feel their muscles working hard in a kind of "eureka moment". Unfortunately searching for such a feeling may lead you to press down on the water or even try and push it forwards. Both of these stroke faults increase the load placed on the shoulder and so increase your perceived effort:

Pushing down or forwards will create a pressure on your palm but don't let this fool you into thinking you're developing a nice catch. The movement should feel smooth, rhythmic and relatively easy. We say rhythmic because a good catch take less time as you're not changing the water's direction, you're simply helping it on its way. A good catch lifts your stroke rate (cadence) and so increases your sense of stroke rhythm.

The next time you're swimming try a lighter feeling to the catch and focus on engaging with the water and pressing it backwards to the wall behind you. Drills such as Sculling and Doggy Paddle from our DVDs will help you refine this movement, you should immediately see your times improve on the pace clock and notice the extra rhythm in your stroke.

Developing Your Catch Further

The catch is such an important part of the freestyle stroke that we devoted a whole new Swim Smooth DVD to it: Catch Masterclass. It's receiving rave reviews from swimmers, coaches and critics alike as it shows you exactly how elite swimmers develop so much propulsion, highlights where you've gone wrong before and how to make the necessary improvements in your own stroke. Find out more here or click on the cover below:

Swim Smooth!


Mark Schnupp said...

Great article. I was wondering for nexts weeks post if you could expand upon this post and discuss the rotation of the hips and how they relate to the catch and pull to inculde timing, what to look for, what it should feel like some drills to cooridinate it. I know that I struggle with this and I'm sure others do as well. I know that all of the power comes from the rotation of the hips and would love to see a post on how that all is supposed to work.

Anonymous said...

I totally second Mark's suggestion to discuss hip rotation next and how it all coordinates with the catch.

Anonymous said...

Please also discuss how hip rotation should actually feel on each stroke(i.e., a back and forth "snap" vs. an easy roll.

Many thanks

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post...the bubbles tell the story clearly. Front crawl remids me so much of downhill skiing - it's not abut muscling your way through - but patience, timing and position.

Anonymous said...

This was absolutely brilliant - can't wait for the time when I am able to swim free. Still recovering from my bike accident, swimming breast and kicking... Magnus

Anonymous said...

Ditto on the hip rotation request above...thanks!

Anonymous said...

Hi can you please tell me who are the swimmers on the DVD


Adam Young said...

Hi guys, OK we'll take a look at that for a post. When the timing or co-ordination of hip rotation feels bad it's normally something wrong somewhere else in the stroke such as your catch (e.g. pressing down on the water), a deadspot in the timing or perhaps crossing the centre line in the stroke.

In the meantime check out the Unco drill, it's great for timing all these aspects of your stroke together:

Adam Young said...

The swimmers on Catch Masterclass are Olympian Jono Van Hazel, 7 times world marathon swimming champion Shelley Taylor Smith and Australian representative Melissa Benson.

Our DVD Boxset features Olympic Gold Medallist Bill Kirby.

Hope that's what you were after!

Anonymous said...

You got me.

I have totally been searching for the eureka moment, as you describe. I will give this a try and see how it goes.

So how should your power distribution be in the pull? (if it were a graph, would it be a straight line, a y=x, a bell curve, exponential???) I'm not sure where the "meat" of the pull comes in, where one really get's the power to shoot forward. And does it differ (much) whether it is a sprint 50 or a longer distance swim?

Thanks! -steve

Adam Young said...

Hi Steve,

That's a sensible question to ask but be very careful with the answer! The propulsive force builds under the head, peaks under the torso and then drops away under the hip. Yes it will change with speed of swimming and also individual stroke style.

BUT during the whole propulsive stroke, the mechanical leverage and muscle engagement vary considerably, as does the contribution of body rotation to the propulsion. That means that your perception of propulsive force applied varies hugely from what is actually applied during the stroke - sometimes it feels like more, sometimes less.

When you swim, it's not wise to try and control how much force you apply once you are beyond the catch phase and into the pull. If you work on a nice rhythmical pull through then you'll get it about right. If there's any problems with the force you apply then it's much more likely to be an issue in your stroke itself (e.g. crossing over or dropping elbow or swimming too flat). Develop good stroke technique, good stroke rhythm and good swim specific fitness and the pull through will take care of itself.

Hope that helps,


Anonymous said...

Thanks Adam - I think that makes sense. Off to practice right now, so we'll see! -steve

Tim Holme said...

I have a question regarding the end of the stroke. I've been told different things by 2 coaches: one says that I should be a front-quadrant swimmer, and that the end of the stroke doesn't contribute much to propulsion, so I can skip it and withdraw my hand from the water when it reaches my hips. Another coach says that I should be getting lots of propulsion from the end of my stroke, so I should be concentrating on lengthening my stroke to get the most out of the last part of the stroke, including a wrist snap at the end.

For context, I'm a triathlete with a very weak kick, so most of my propulsion comes from my stroke.

What is your philosophy on the end of the stroke?
Thanks very much

Adam Young said...

Hi Tim, you don't want to draw your hand out deliberately early nor over-exaggerate the rear of the stroke. Find out more on our view here:

It's not so much of a snap at the end as a subtle turn-inwards of the palm. This happens as the hand passes the hip and gets to the top of the thigh.

Hope that helps!

James said...

I have noticed in these pictures as well as others that the swimmer does not seem to bend her hand at the beginning of the stroke in the same manner as Mr. smooth. She seems to just use her hand and forearm as one big paddle and waits till the paddle is positioned correctly before applying enough energy to start propulsion.I have noticed the feeling of much more resistance on my "paddle" if I do this. Can you comment on the correctness of this? It seems somewhat different than the Mr. smooth model.

Thanks for another super informative post.

Adam Young said...

Hi James,

This action is certainly less exaggerated in Mel's stroke than in some others but she does tip her wrist to help initiate the catch.

mel detail:

other elite swimmers:

That's all it's about really, helping to initiate the catch well - it's not essential for good propulsion but it helps develop the feel of a good catch. We very slightly exaggerated the movement in Mr Smooth to make sure that people spot this but mostly it's the clarity of the animation that makes this so clear. It's much better to slightly over do this angle than under-do it or drop the wrist and push forwards against the water ('putting on the brakes').

Hope that helps!

Adam Young said...

Sorry james, these links might be better:

Anonymous said...

I know this topic is a bit old but I have a powerful secret for anyone reading this. Many times we can approach swimming like golf and it can get really complicated. Looking at angles and positions of pros and trying to match them. They didn't study angles but go by feel. Here's one tip like keeping your head down in golf that will get job the done. Think of your hand and forearm as giant oar not just the hand!!! Pull with both. In fact when I catch the water I really feel it in the belly of my forearm and not so much in the palm. If I want to go faster I have catch more water with my forearm and hand and my elbow is driven up--high elbow as a consequence of a good catch. A good catch will give you speed fix low elbows proper rotation and head position--fixes almost everything. Remember pull/feel with the forearm not just the hand. Think giant oar not paddle.

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