~By Coach Dave Samuelsohn
Take it from me: Swimming is all in your head.
One of the most difficult things to do during a tough workout is to think, think about your stroke, your efficiency, your fine points. You’re tired, you know you’re swimming just to get through it and all you can really think about is “How much more?” and “ Maybe I can get my goggle strap to break!”
Building good stroke habits takes time … and discipline. Anything you can do to better focus yourself on thinking is going to help you. That’s why many coaches advocate the use of stroke drills. I advocate the use of stroke drills early in workout, before I’m so tired I can’t think straight. In fact, I think a good time to do stroke drills is in warm-up, every warm-up. Why not start the work-out thinking and patterning good stroke habits and improving efficiency while you’re fresh? Hey, there’s an idea!
One of my favorite drills, and about the best Freestyle drill I’ve come across, I call “Half Catch-Up.” It’s kind of like “Catch –Up” but instead of completing one stroke before beginning the next – and actually touching one hand with the other – you only “Catch –Up” halfway. Doesn’t seem like much of a difference but where you go from there can give you opportunities to focus on many aspects of improving your stroke.
The first thing you notice is that unlike “regular” catch-up, your body roll is not arrested. It’s smooth and comfortable and can easily be accentuated with a little thought. Grab a pull buoy for starters and let’s see what we can learn by using this drill to focus ourselves on different components – one at a time – of your Freestyle.
We’ll start with a pull buoy because it floats your legs, helps you maintain your balance and therefore your momentum, and … hell, it’s just plain easier. It’s OK, you can admit it: a pull buoy makes Freestyle easier if you’re not swimming very hard. But for the purposes of this stroke drill, it’s helpful to eliminate certain worries to help keep focused on others. (But don’t plan on keeping it.)
Swim a couple of laps with the pull buoy keeping your “catch” hand out in front longer while your opposite arm completes an entire pull phase and begins it’s recovery. Don’t start your next pull until you’re halfway through the recovery – until you “Half Catch –Up.” Get it?
Now let’s go to a four-pattern with our breathing and try and balance our body roll. Get away from the constant leaning to one side – the Freestyle “limp” we develop when we breathe every stroke.
Swim a little farther and let’s play a game: Think of your body as a canoe. The longer you can make that canoe, the more efficiently it will glide over the water. We’re going to paddle our canoe – first one side, then the other – and as we go, we’re going to try to make each sweep longer and more efficient. We’re going to get our paddle way out in front as we glide over the water on the strength of the previous stroke. Then begin a slow carve which will accelerate faster and faster through the stroke until it pops out of the water behind us and begins its recovery. With each stroke, the bow of our canoe (our catch hand stretched out in front) is going to glide longer and farther as we learn to hold more and more water and accelerate each stroke. Stroke and glide, stroke and glide.
Very quickly you’ll get the feel for your Half Catch – Up. You’ll settle into a long gliding stroke with a balanced hip roll. You’ll soon find an easy rocking rhythm, which will make your Freestyle comfortable and efficient. But don’t stop there. Now is the time to get some feedback on just how efficient you are: Count your strokes for each lap, and try to decrease their number without breaking your rhythm. A good number for 25 yards would be 12 or 13; you may be able to do better. Focusing on a deliberate “carving” catch and full accelerating push-through will help you glide faster and faster and get that stroke count down.
There’s a lot to think about here and I suggest you focus on one thing at a time until it starts to feel really good. Then start counting strokes!
What follows is a few more ideas which I suggest you work on only after you’ve gotten comfortable with the basic Half Catch – Up drill. Remember: the drill remains essentially the same. What changes is what you’re thinking and focusing on.
One of the things we old timers have trouble with is learning to alternate breathe. Half Catch – Up can help by giving you time to think about each breath: take a breath on your “good” side and think about what happened. Then use the next three strokes (and the long Half Catch – Up glides) to apply to what you felt and did to your “off “ side. One thing you’ll find is that you won’t be turning your head until late in your pull. The extra long glide helps you get the feel for that. Try alternate breathing after you’ve settled into your regular four – pattern rhythm. (And don’t quit! You’ll get it if you stick with it.)
Start to roll more – from the hips – in a smooth rocking motion. As you go, you can accentuate that body roll by spinning your hips as each stroke digs in. We actually do our swimming on our sides – first on one then the other – and we can use our body roll – or spin – to develop power. Try to feel how the torque from that body spin works to develop power in your stroke.
OK, you’ve been working on this drill for a couple months. Now take the pull buoy off (Bummer!) and start working on a three-beat kick (that is kick, kick, kick-and-pull). It’s a little tougher to keep it going but you’re going to need to know this! Try to use your kick to start that hip rotation before you start your pull. Very soon you’ll see how your kick is what initiates the hip and body roll that develops the torque and power for your whole stroke. (This is important but more difficult. Don’t start working on this until you’ve spent some time with your pull buoy and really get the Half Catch Up drill down.)
One significant result of Half Catch-Up Freestyle is that, for perhaps the first time, you’ll be working to strengthen your pull through the full range of motion, particularly the push-through at the back, where most Freestylers tend to get lazy. Work on this and other drills during warm-up, each time you get in the pool. Think and focus while you’re fresh and build the patterns you want to become good stroke habits. Remember: thinking may be the toughest thing to do in workout so work hard on it.
Swimming really is mostly in your head and you can take it from me: My head’s been swimming for years!
Dave Samuelsohn is a lifetime Masters swimmer and coach.