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Playing Catch

By Lee Zohlman | Nov. 30, 2009, 12 a.m. (ET)

Lap after lap, day after day, season after season you swim at the pool with hope that in your next race it will just click. You wish for a smooth, powerful Phelpsesque stroke that will leave you feeling fresh and ready to bike and run your way to glory or in the very least the finish line. Perhaps you've been fortunate to work with a coach or two and those swim books are still on your desk waiting to be cracked open at your lunch break and the words and pictures absorbed into your tri head. You understand in theory what you want your body to do in the water and you can visualize the perfect stroke in your head but for some reason an element is missing, a piece of the aqua puzzle. You begin checking off the components of the swim stroke you comprehend, your body position is much better and you have fixed where the hand should enter the water, the reach after entry is there as well. Now what?

While you address the fundamentals of the swim-stroke-like balance and rotation you can begin to integrate where the power of the swim stroke comes from. This part of the stroke can be called the catch and pull phase and this is one of the most crucial areas to work on. Having a good catch and pull phase will help you move more distance with fewer strokes and this is good stuff. You will be able to have better economy of movement in the water and after training this component you will be setting PRs.

Let's get down to the nitty gritty. U.S. Masters Swim Coach of the Year Emmet Hines says, "If you are using the fullest extent of your wing span in each stroke (i.e., stretching your stroke out in front and finishing your stroke completely in the rear) you should be able to move approximately the length of your wing span with each freestyle stroke. (In real life we find that some of the best swimmers move even farther than their wing span with each stroke." This can be accomplished by catching and pulling the water correctly. After your hand enters the water and you extend your arm to reach you will want to grab a handful of water by flexing your hand downward but keeping the arm relatively straight. This step takes place in less than a second so it is a very quick movement.

The beginning of this step is seen here:

To work on this in the pool you can use the various drills:

  • One arm drill - this will allow you to focus on one arm at a time.
  • Sculling in the front - simply extend your arms out straight in front of you, head is looking down and you are flutter kicking. At the same time you are pushing and pulling water with your hands. Your arms remain straight and you are just working on grabbing a handful of water.
Now that you have this big handful of water, what are you going to do with it? Now you begin to pull the water straight down. You do not want to pull out to the side. The KEY aspect to pulling the water is keeping your elbow up and NOT going into a straight arm pull. By keeping your elbow up you will be able to engage larger and more powerful muscles in your back. You do not want to cross over your mid line either or reach your hand towards your neck in this phase. An example of a bent arm pull is in Step 3 in the photo below.

Some drills you can use to develop this are:

  • On dry land with elastic exercise tubing to practice the steps of the stroke and to develop the neuromuscular patterning you will need in the water.
  • One-arm drill or catch up drill to isolate one arm at a time in a slow and focused stroke. You will be able to see where your arm/hand is going and fix it without having to worry about the other arm. With catch up drill you have one arm in front of you all the time so one hand doesn't start stroking until the other hand catches up to it.
  • Paddles and pull buoy work will help you develop more swim specific strength and power and assist you in a better feel of the water.
  • Once you are starting to be proficient at swimming and with a good foundation you can tie your legs together with a rubber tube or elastic band. This will force you to focus on body position and pulling hard through the water. Warning: this is a toughie.

Make sure you finish each stroke by pushing your hand all the way down so your thumb brushes your thigh before you begin to pull your elbow up on the recovery phase.

You can make very large gains in your swim by incorporating this information to your current routine. But in the end you will still have to be there lap after lap, day after day and season after season.

Lee Zohlman is a USA Triathlon Level III Coach. To reach your goals please contact him at or visit