Want to swim faster freestyle? Of course you do. Here is why you should start with focusing on your high elbow catch.
In terms of overall freestyle swimming performance, there is probably nothing more important than your catch.
You can have the world’s greatest freestyle kick, powerful hip rotation into your stroke, and a picture-perfect arm recovery, but without the foundation of a powerful catch everything else falls apart.
To swim freestyle with exceptional technique, a high elbow catch is everything.
Why is a High Elbow Catch So Important?
Put simply, the catch is where speed happens.
It’s the beginning of the pull, the biggest indicator of overall speed in the water. And it’s also where you dictate how much frontal drag you are going to exhibit.
In terms of maintaining propulsion in training and practice a collapsing elbow is a back-breaker. You see it all the time with fatigued swimmers. Their hand will start to slip outwards, their elbow will sag, and that effortless propulsion will slow to a struggling crawl.
A high elbow puts you in a position of power. Extend your arm straight out in front of you. Dip your elbow above and below the level of your hand—which position feels like you can develop more torque? When you have a high elbow you have a strong anchor in the water to pull yourself through it.
A high elbow limits drag. Swimmers are engaged in a perpetual battle with the forces of drag. A high elbow means we keep a slimmer profile in the water, creating less resistance to swim against. Less drag = more speed.
A high elbow starts the pull faster. When you pull with a high elbow you anchor yourself in the water sooner. And the sooner you plant your hand and arm, the sooner (i.e. faster) you can pull yourself across it.
How to Work on & Improve the High Elbow Catch
Okay, so we know that having a high elbow is important. After all, our coaches have been instilling it since day one.
But where to start? How to set about achieving a Popov-like high elbow?
Here are my favorite tips and freestyle drills for improving your high elbow catch:
1. Stop over-reaching.
Distance per stroke is great and is fundamental part of fast and efficient swimming.
But at a point reaching too far in front of you ends up actually costing you. If you are reaching and gliding at the beginning of the stroke it becomes very difficult not to drop the wrist and elbow.
Don’t sacrifice a powerful catch for a longer stroke. When we over-glide we naturally end up dropping our elbow.
2. Head up freestyle (start with fins).
This drill has a few benefits—it will force you to kick like a champ to give your head above water, and it will establish a high elbow catch otherwise you will you sink in the water.
I like this freestyle drill because it also gives you a front row view of your hand entry and positioning, making it also a good drill for improving the very top of your hand entry.
As mentioned previously, over-gliding is often a root cause of a saggy elbow pull, and gliding through the pull is nearly impossible to do with your head-up.
3. High elbow sculling.
Grab a swim snorkel and let’s get some sculling in. Sculling is great because you can do it slowly and with purpose.
When we are swimming there is a lot to focus on: we are trying to be mindful of kicking properly, not over-rotating, breathing—you know, all those things. Sculling allows you to place all of your focus on your hands and high elbow.
Start with your hands straight above your head, and keeping your elbows high dip your hands towards the bottom of the pool. You can do it with one arm, both arms; truly the options are endless.
Find the weak spot of your stroke and spend some time hanging out there, feeling the water, playing around with elbow positioning.
Mix it with swimming in order to implement it within your stroke and get a better feel for it.
4. Grab a stretch cord.
On dry land we can work on improving our high elbow catch with a rubber band and a couple minutes a day.
Strap up a stretch cord, bend over at the hip, and mimic the front quarter of your pull. This means reaching with a high elbow, bracing your core and keeping your head neutral.
In performing this exercise before getting into the water I find that using a stretch cord helps grease the wheels of the movement in the stiff shoulders and arms of swimmers. For those who don’t have a high elbow during their pull currently this can serve as an excellent introduction to the movement.
5. Visualize for success.
Sometimes all we need is some good old imagery to help us better execute the movement.
Legendary US Olympic coach Doc Counsilman found that all the top swimmers he worked with had an entry that emulated a hand going over the side of the barrel. SwimMAC and Olympic coach David Marsh updated this reference, using the swiss ball as a point of reference.
Whichever you choose, the concept is similar; imagine your hand and elbow rolling over the barrel as you execute the catch.
- 7 Drills for a Faster Freestyle. Want to improve tempo and stroke rate? Increase arm recovery speed? These 7 drills for freestylers will get your stroke on the right track.
- How to Develop an Unstoppable Freestyle Kick. While the catch provides the foundation of your freestyle, the kick helps power it. Here is a quick and proven guide to hacking your freestyle kick.
- The Swimmer’s Ultimate Guide to Swim Paddles. Here is everything you wanted to know about one of the most common pieces of equipment you find poolside.