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 she 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 called 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: