Catchphrase your way to a proper catch in freestyle
Those beautiful arms of yours provide the bulk of propulsion in your freestyle. There are other factors that support the arms, such as maintaining a horizontal body line, engaging your core, and establishing a good kick. But for the purpose of this article, I’m going to give you the tools you need to strengthen your pull to improve your efficiency.
Some glaring problems in freestyle are strokes that are too short, hands that don’t hold and push the water back, or swimmers finishing in the wrong place (too far down the leg or above the hip).
Thinking about terms such as “swim tall” or “get long” with your stroke can help to some extent, but that often has a downside of introducing a glide in the stroke. In all your strokes you want to fully extend, but not glide as that puts the brakes on your momentum. Fully extend but don’t glide in order to keep your body in motion.
Having a catchphrase can aid in this quest. Try the phrase “extend and catch” and see if you can’t lengthen your stroke without slowing your momentum. Here’s what extend and catch means and how to use it, followed by some drills that can help you master this important concept.
What exactly is extend and catch?
In a nutshell, the phrase refers to the first half of your freestyle pull from hand entry to forearm being vertical in the water. The “extend” half of the phrase is about your reach out front before your hand enters the water—about 12 to 18 inches from your head and straight out from your shoulder. Ideally, enter with the middle finger first and follow through by driving the entire shoulder and hip forward to further that extension.
The catch segment refers to how your hand and arm initially pull against the water as you move forward—it’s the propulsive phase of the stroke. Use steady pressure on the palm while your fingers point down for as long as possible throughout your pull. The sooner you can drive your fingertips down after they enter, the sooner you start your propulsive action. But you must keep your elbow high while the fingertips drive down. This will give you the coveted early vertical forearm that aids in building propulsive momentum. From the beginning of the catch to where the hand reaches the shoulder pane is the pull phase. After that point you begin pushing water back to finish the stroke.
Swim quietly and smoothly
To embrace the extend and catch mantra, it helps to think about swimming as quietly and smoothly as you can. Let that hand slip into the water out front and then take it a few more inches forward before angling the fingers down. A good checkpoint is the number of bubbles you might be carrying in the catch phase. Allow yourself to cheat your eyes up without lifting your head so that you can watch that path and look for bubbles. You probably won’t be completely bubble-free (that’s not the goal), but you should not see a large trail of bubbles coming from your hand. If you do see excess bubbles, chances are you aren’t doing that final extension of the hand and are instead immediately pulling on the water as your hand hits the surface upon entry. Clean up your bubbles, swim quiet, and you should see your freestyle smooth out.
Here are drill sequences to give you practice isolating, understanding, and mastering extend and catch in your freestyle.
Swim slow, regular freestyle working on extending and catching. Because normal freestyle turnover is faster than the ability to really absorb and apply the catchphrase, it’s best to keep your focus on just one arm. Swim a 25 of regular free, but the entire time think about just that right arm. As you reach out front say “extend” to yourself. As you start the catch say “catch” to yourself. You’re working that brain-body connection. Now do the same thing, regular freestyle, concentrating on saying extend and catch with the action of the left arm. If you’re a new swimmer and struggle with breath timing, don a snorkel and fins so that you can focus on just this part of the stroke and not worry about the rest of it.
One-arm freestyle with arm out
Start with the right arm doing the stroking and the left arm stretched out in front just below the surface of the water. Take your time and really focus on extend and catch with that right arm. As you finish the pull on the right side, pushing away your right hip, you should feel the left arm reach out a little farther in front of you. Try a length with one arm doing the stroking and switch arms for the next length. Work toward smoothness on this drill.
One-arm freestyle with arm down
A tougher version of the above drill, this one requires good core engagement and proper timing of your breath. If you struggle with the latter, put on a snorkel. Start with the right arm stroking and the left arm remaining at your side for the entire length. Again, focus on extend and catch with the right arm. Middle finger makes first entry into the water, stretch the arm forward a tad more by taking the hip forward, and then immediately go into the catch by driving your fingertips down, palm flat, elbow high. Try the next length stroking with the left arm while the right arm stays at your side. It is not unusual to feel weaker on one side. Spend more time on the side that’s not as responsive.
Freestyle skate drill
There’s a USMS video on this four-phase skate drill, which helps accentuate your extension with tremendous benefit to your catch as well. You can use a snorkel for all four phases, but you should be okay without a snorkel on phases 3 and 4. Fins are also a nice option. In all phases you’re face down in the water, arms starting out extended as if you’re Superman. Also, at all times your arms remain below the surface of the water.
- Phase 1: Your arms stay fully extended while you scull the water out front with your palms in circular fashion, one palm circling around the other palm. Keep the palms flat with little give to your wrist. The key here is to stay extended with your arms and have minimal movement in your elbows, which stay high. This phase simulates where you might enter your hands on freestyle.
- Phase 2: Still sculling, but now involve more of the arm and come a little farther down with the scull. Start in the same position as Phase 1 and lengthen your sculling action to end at a point near your nose and then take it right back up front. This is an elongated circular pattern. Dip your fingers down at the top and keep your elbow high. This simulates driving the fingers down at the very beginning of the stroke. Remember that to go forward you must pull water backward. Focus on the hold you have on the water with that palm and forearm.
- Phase 3: Continue in the same starting position and now move the scull to finish near your upper torso. You should feel more action in your hips as you extend your arms forward. In fact, you might feel like you’re beginning to skate in the water. This is where this sequence should begin to feel rhythmical. The sculling slows a bit as it’s on a larger path. Focus on driving your fingertips down early and keeping your elbow high to find your early vertical forearm. This simulates your catch where you’re holding water and pulling against it to find propulsion.
- Phase 4: In this final sequence, simulate a complete pull under the water, finishing by touching your hip bone with one hand while the other arm is extended out front. Your hand should feel like it is coming out of the front pocket of a pair of jeans. Recover the arm that touched the hip by sliding it forward under the water, not above. Skate that arm forward straight out from your shoulder. Feel the hip reach forward on that side as you reach full extension. The sculling action here is even slower and that’s okay. This is definitely a drill that you want to take your time with and understand what you’re doing and why. Keep the arms in motion—there’s no pause between strokes, and this isn’t done in one-arm fashion. Instead, think of this as regular freestyle, just recovering underwater. Feel the rhythmical action as you skate your hands and hips forward. Work on extending out front before beginning each scull and then into your early vertical forearm. This final phase allows you to feel the full action of the extension, catch, pull, and push of the stroke.
Put it all together by returning to regular freestyle. By now you should have a good handle on extending and catching. Continue to be quiet and smooth while trying to swim faster. Do some build 25s where you start out nice and easy, swimming smoothly. Gradually build up speed in the length while maintaining the extension, catch, and finish of the stroke. How’s the noise—can you stay almost as quiet? How are the bubbles—can you keep them somewhat controlled?
Change in swimming is often a slow evolution, especially the longer you’ve been swimming. Muscle memory sticks like glue and it takes mindful swimming and a hyper focus on all of the elements to break through the glue. Work these drills into a regular routine and you’ll change your freestyle, finding more efficiency and speed.
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