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by Terry Heggy

December 14, 2020

Mastering this element of your stroke will help improve your swimming technique

Swim coaches spend a lot of time talking about “the catch”—that all-important part of the stroke where you align your hands and forearms to properly engage the water to begin your pull. In this article, we’ll examine what happens right before the catch.

Other than the breakout stroke performed after every start and turn, each stroke is preceded by a recovery motion. Breaststroke is unique in that the recovery happens underwater, with freestyle, backstroke, and butterfly recoveries occurring above the surface. In all strokes, the primary purpose of the recovery is to attain the proper position to begin the next pull. It sounds simple enough: You just put your hand back where it was before you began the previous stroke, right?

Well, yes, that’s the idea, all right. But a few tiny adjustments of your hands can shave seconds off your race time.


Your hand’s shortest route from the release point (where you’re no longer applying thrust) to the catch point would be a straight line if water created no resistance and human joints were infinitely flexible. Unfortunately, reality is a bit more complex. Our goal becomes finding a path with the best combination of minimal hand travel and minimal effort.

  • Freestyle—Keep your hand relaxed as you move it forward, ensuring that your fingertips enter the water before your elbow and upper arm.
  • Backstroke—Keep your arms straight and shoulders elevated through your recovery. Get external feedback from coach, friend, or video to verify alignment of your entry point.
  • Butterfly—Start your recovery by squeezing your shoulder blades together. No need for any more vertical travel than necessary; you’re good as long as your hands/arms remain above the surface as they move forward.
  • Breaststroke—Work with your coach to find the wave motion (or undulation) that works best for your body. Just because you saw some 20-year-old Olympian’s hands fly forward six inches above the water doesn’t mean that’s the style that fits your strength and flexibility.

Monitor your hand position during your recovery, both with and without breathing. If you discover your hands taking unexpected detours (no matter how subtle), they may be compensating for some other anomaly in your stroke. Look for and eliminate unnecessary head travel in breathing, knee-bend in your kick, or warping of your torso.


Don’t waste energy on deceleration. There is no need to slow your hand for a gentle and delicate entry. Use gravity rather than fighting it.

Move your hand into catch position with the minimum motion. Angular momentum from a wide recovery or sideways entry can result in crossover that requires correction. If you feel your hand waving around before your catch, or if it has crossed your body’s centerline, change your recovery motion to ensure that your entry drives your hand directly into catch position without misalignment.


While brief, the time your hand spends gliding should enhance your speed rather than reduce it. Balance your body by reaching to your full catch extension. Don’t have bent elbows, curled fingers, or angles between your hand and forearm during your glide. Relax your muscles until you’re ready to engage in your pull while monitoring the touch receptors in your hands to verify that the water is passing by without resistance. (This is especially important in backstroke if you tend to initiate your pull when your hand is still above water. Make sure your hand is fully IN the water for your catch.)

If you feel pressure against your palm or the back of your hand, or if the water is making your fingers wiggle while you glide, point your fingers directly forward in a line from your forearm to spear a streamlined path.


As you catch the water to begin each stroke, think of your hand and forearm as a paddle partnership. Align your palm/forearm in the direction you intend to begin your pull, avoiding bent wrists, curled fingers, and forward-facing palms. Sculling drills improve your ability to sense and find the optimal position. Develop the habit of holding your arms in precisely this optimal catch position when you perform no-board kicking drills for each stroke.

While those small moments between the recovery and the start of the next stroke may seem insignificant, the effort you spend in mastering the nuances of your hands during these moments will have a noticeable impact on the efficiency of the pull that follows.


  • Technique and Training


  • Breaststroke
  • Backstroke
  • Butterfly
  • Freestyle