Catch Your Freestyle

I recently fielded a great question from one of my athletes:

In your opinion should more power come from the first or last part of stroke?

The short answer:
More force is applied at the mid phase of the swim stroke than either the beginning or the end. Next most forceful part of the stroke is (and power) the finish of the stroke but is more of an affect of the force created at mid-phase than a specific intention. Although the force at the catch is not as great as the either of the last two phases, the ability to generate force here may be even more important than trying generating force at the mid-phase or the finish of the stroke. Reason being: if you are finding more resistance to apply your force too during the catch, you will also have more resistance to apply force to in the reaming two phases. If you have a lousy catch your chances of finding that resistance later in your stroke is rare.

Warning! The following few paragraphs may get a bit wordy, so feel free to skip to the bottom and try the drills and skills!

Now for the long answer and then some!

Force verse power:
I think in terms of force instead of power when swimming. As power = force / time (so power is simply how fast we can apply force). However in swimming the speed of our arm pull does not directly correlate to the speed of our swimming. It certainly would if everyone applied the same proportion of force in relation to their drag. But the truth is most everyone with the exception of national class and Olympic swimmers lack enough strength in their arms to apply force equal to their ability to find the resistance. So the rest us simply avoid finding the resistance and knife our hands through the water and opt for turn our arms over faster instead to swim faster. …sort of like spinning an easier gear on the bike or taking smaller strides up a hill when running. The end result is a novice swimmer will apply less force more often to swim the same speed as the advanced swimmer who is applying more force just as often. Finding resistance can also be described as distance per stroke (how far a swimmer travels during each arm stroke). Some novice or intermediate swimmers have very long strokes and covering long distances with each pull but they do so at the sacrifice of conserving momentum and are adding dead spots into their strokes by gliding to long between strokes. The difference is that the advanced swimmer is applying a huge amount of force in their stroke at very fast rate. This is your secret to swimming to success! So how do we increase our distance per stroke so we can swim like the pros? We simply need to find the resistance in the water and develop the strength to handle it. (Quick note: the Force = Resistance).

Where is the resistance?
Proficient swimmers apply force from the moment they can direct propulsive forces backwards until they can no longer direct propulsion backwards. So as soon as the palm of hand and forearm facing backwards until the last moment the palm faces backwards at the finish of the stroke. So if you think about this in terms of surface area; it is the mid-phase where the hand, fore-arm, and upper-arm are all facing back creating largest surface area, thus meeting the most resistance. During the catch phase when both the palm and the forearm are facing backwards creates the next largest surface area but we can’t do as much with it because we have so much less momentum in this phase and we lack some leverage, it takes more focus and strength to apply force here; so most of skip it. At the finish of the pull when only the palm is facing backwards requires the least amount of strength even though force application is high because we just finished with the forceful mid-phase.

Know we bring leverage into the equation!
However when you look at the swim in terms of leverage; we have poor leverage at the beginning of our swim stroke because of the weaker arm position and the less leveraging action in our legs. The fantastic leverage at the mid-phase when our kick can leverage our core against our arm pulls. The finish of the stroke can simply coast of the momentum created from our mid-phase and even accelerate appropriately to keep force high despite the smaller surface are. This all has to do with the mechanics of our arm position and how strong our musculature can be recruited to do the movement. Our arm position at the mid and finish of our stroke is in a very strong position biomechanically and from a leverage stand point because our same side kick is leveraging against our pull.

With this in mind, learning to find the resistance and developing the strength to produce more force at the beginning of our pull could be deemed as more important area of the stroke to work on than the leverage accessible mid and finish phase of the pull. When we find more resistance and generate more force in the beginning of our stroke, we will have more force to work with in the middle and end of the stroke. This brings us to a whole new swim component: developing the ability to apply more leverage and force …but we’ll save that for the next essay! Skills and drills to improve our catch-phase:

• One-arm Front end work: simply focus on the catch only – just drop the wrist down while leaving the elbow high and pay attention that you hand is facing straight back. You can hold onto a kick-board with the other arm or just leave it out in front. You really mastered this one-arm drill when you can do it while rolling equal to your non pulling arm as you do when you were pulling.
• Surfboard pull: pretend you are on a surfboard where you cannot let your elbow drop beneath you because the board is in the way.
• Both-arm Front end work: simply focus on the catch only – just drop the wrist down while leaving the elbow high; don’t try to finish the stroke just get back up and catch well again. Pay attention to that hand is facing straight back.
• Use one paddle to focus on catch: Focus on the catch with just the paddle arm: drip wrist first leave elbow high.
• Both arm catch focus with paddles: just like both arm-front end work but with paddles.
• Breast stroke scull: work on popping your elbows up at the beginning of breast stroke.

Lastly, swim more to improve your catch: Once you have mastered the mechanics of your catch, increasing you weekly swimming volume will help you develop the strength to use it!

Written by

Head Coach of TriEndurance. CSCS Strength and Conditioning Coach, Former Pro-Triathlete and current Endurance Enthusiast competing in short and long distance (on or off-road) cycling events.

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