Like Mixing Hot And Cold Water In The Bath

'Feel for the water' is a concept that elite swimmers talk about to describe the feeling of getting hold of the water for good propulsion. If their hands and arms slip through the stroke with little attachment they lose that sense of engagement or 'feel' which they are looking for and are slower, and less efficient as a result.

But what does feel for the water actually feel like and how can you develop your own to improve your swimming?

At the very front of your stroke, you should enter the water and extend forwards with the lead hand into this position which we looked at in detail here a few weeks ago:

Notice how the elbow is slightly higher than the wrist and the wrist is slightly higher than the fingertips - that's vital. As the stroke starts, the elbow bends and the hand sinks downwards into this position:

As the stroke continues a little further, the hand continues to sink angling the hand to face further backwards as the forearm becomes more vertical:

This phase of the stroke is called 'the catch' because you are literally trying to catch a hold of the water and press lightly on it as you do so. The direction in which you are pressing is important, we're aiming to press it backwards to the wall behind us to send ourselves forwards.

Like Mixing Hot And Cold Water In The Bath

It is during positions 1, 2 and 3 above that you should be trying to 'feel the water'. It's quite a gentle feeling on the palm of your hand (perhaps more subtle that you are expecting). To give you an idea of how it should feel, imagine you are running a bath with the hot and cold taps filling up the tub. You start to mix the water with your hands and as you do so you can feel the light pressure of the water on your palms as you guide the water around.

The next time you are running a bath, or standing in the shallow end of the pool, practise doing this. Keep the hand flat and press the water with your palms, angling the hand to keep the palm facing forwards in the direction of motion. This is called 'sculling' and it should be a steady constant motion, not hurried, just fast enough to feel the water nicely:

Feel for the water is simply that light pressure on the palm of your hand, which you should be looking to feel in the catch phase shown above. 

Contrast this with moving your hands sideways through the water, slicing by leading with the thumb or little finger. Notice when you do this how there is zero pressure on the palm and your hands just slip through the water without any engagement. That would be a bad action for creating propulsion as there's no feel for the water at all.

Bring The Feel Into Your Stroke

Developing a great catch and pull through technique can take a while and is the subject of our full Catch Masterclass DVD (with free worldwide shipping only for another week!). However, just by becoming a little more aware of how a good catch should feel you stand to make some useful improvements in your propulsion, even if you don't turn into Ian Thorpe overnight!

After practising sculling in the bath or standing in the shallow end of the pool, grab a pull buoy and try our Scull #1 drill. You can see a video clip of it here. This is repeating that same sculling motion but while moving forwards through the water in a catching position. You're sculling left and right (not pressing backwards as you do in your stroke) but that's no problem, it still develops that feel which will transfer to your full stroke:

Don't worry if you find this exercise hard at first - that's simply highlighting this is an area of your stroke that is weak and proves you can make big improvements by developing it - so stick with it. If you don't move forwards, make sure your fingertips and lower than the wrist, and wrist lower than the elbow. In this position you would go backwards (fun to try!) :

After 10 to 15m of Scull #1, start swimming freestyle (keeping the pull buoy in place) and you should immediately start to feel the water better at the front of the stroke.

Ceinwen shows us her great catch
technique, pressing the water back
behind her to propel herself forwards.
Try It Even (Especially) If You Are A Complete Beginner

Traditional swim coaching first focuses on improving elements of your stroke such as body position, your kicking technique and getting your body rolling correctly through the water. Only later as you become more competent and faster does it start to address your catch technique.

At Swim Smooth we feel that is a mistake and more attention should be given to developing a basic feel for the water right at the beginning of a swimmer's development. This is particularly true for swimmers of the Bambino Swim Type who have very poor feel for the water, which is really holding them back from progressing.

Developing a basic feel for the water isn't an advanced skill that should only be left for advanced swimmers, it's a fundamental building block of the stroke which helps accelerate the rest of your development.

Swim Smooth!


Dmitri Likhachev said...

Last March I had a couple of days when I stayed too long at work and as a result of this my sleep schedule shifted temporarily: it was 2-3 am - 10-11 am and became 6-7 am - 12-1 pm. Nothing extraordinary apart from one thing. When I went for a swim during this time I suddenly experienced extreme sensitivity and feel for the water: I felt every bubble, every whirl of the water by my skin while propelling forwards. Such mind games are probably not very healthy but are really worth to experience :)

Adam Young said...

Thanks Dmitri, that's interesting!

Have you ever tried swimming twice in one day? Sometimes that can have a similar effect in the second session!


Seamus Bennett (UK) said...

doing scull #1 with an adult Swimfit group, several swimmers tend to persistently do more of a 'mini breastroke' arm action rather than scull in the same plane, despite lots of demos and explanations - any thoughts on helping them get over this?

Shorty said...

Another AWESUM INSPIRING tip regarding the catch phase. Its such a basic need , but probably the hardest to learn , but gives you the "biggest bang for ya buck " so to speak .Just what I need to reinforce into my drills. Great work Team.

Rudolf said...

Okay, now we got the catch, literally speaking, but there after comes the pull, and for that section i recently had a complete surprise conversation with a Eastern European top triathlete traing at our pool occasionally.

What he told me (after he's been through various swim clinques) is this:
At the end of the catch pahes, when coming to the middle of the short pull phase the hands / forearms should pull slidly inwards so that the water (or turbulence thereof) would flow straight underneath the upper legs and thus giving them an important little uplift!

He quoted that Michael Phelps did this too.

I have not heard of it before, but figured it can't hurt to try it out right away.

Yes, it can be done, but, of course, practice practice before it is in you - but in the meantime i think i would rather hear / read your expert input on this one, is this known or has someone just told me some "fantasy stuff", should i keep on doing nothing but pull straigh through, or try the "water lift" pull and exercise it in to perfection??

Cyndy@swimsmooth said...

Hi Seamus, this can be quite common with people learning to scull at first, I'd reinforce the coaching points of keeping the fingerstips lower than the wrist, with the hand pitched at an angle, sculling the hands side to side, in a figure of 8 motion by rotating the wrist. Perhaps print the pictures above or direct the swimmers to this blog to improve their understanding of the drill.

Shorty- really glad to hear you're enjoying the resources.

Rudolf- That's really interesting, let us know how you go with that one. Paul may very well have some expert insight for you...

Cyndy@swimsmooth said...
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Cyndy@swimsmooth said...
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Gilly said...

Swim Smooth,

Thanks for this, and so many good tips.


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