The 4 Phases Of The Freestyle Swim Stroke

Pro Matty Reed demonstrates the "pull" phase of the swim stroke. Photo: Nils Nilsen

Pro Matty Reed demonstrates the “catch” phase of the swim stroke. Photo: Nils Nilsen

For pro triathlete and swim coach Anna Cleaver, swim insight is a sixth sense—she grew up in the waves of her native New Zealand and today is first out of the water at most any race she enters. At this year’s Ironman New Zealand, she clocked a 47-minute 2.4-mile swim (1:12/100m pace), exiting the water with fellow swim standout and eventual winner Meredith Kessler. When she’s not training or racing around the world, Cleaver teaches other triathletes in her adopted hometown of Greenville, S.C., how to become better swimmers by going back to basics. Her thought process: deconstruct the stroke into four simple phases, address any blatant inefficiency, assign drill work and see quick results.

“It just takes breaking a swimmer’s stroke down and identifying the phase that needs fixing and giving him or her the specific work to fix it,” Cleaver says. “It’s not hard to see small things that you can work on. For me it’s pretty simple—there are four phases: the catch phase, the pull phase, the super-powerful exit phase that people often cut short, and the recovery. I look at each of those phases to see where someone can improve. I’ll have drills to implement for each of them. It usually works really quickly.”

Learn about the four phases of the swim stroke below, and check back to all week for more swim advice from Cleaver.

1. Catch: The initial phase in which the hand enters the water.

What you’re doing wrong: Over-reaching, crossing over

Chances are you’ve been instructed at some point to exaggerate the extend-and-glide motion at the start of your stroke. Cleaver says you’re wasting your energy. “The old-school way that was taught is to really stretch out and make the ‘S’ pattern with your arm,” says Cleaver. “That creates over-reaching and can cause a swaying in the lower body, and the legs are going to kick out wide as a result. Instead, just get right into the stroke.”

Pro triathlete Matty Reed admits he often makes another common mistake in this initial stroke phase—crossing over. If you imagine a straight line running down the center of your body, “you don’t want the arms to cross that center line—this guideline will help you be the most powerful in driving yourself forward,” Reed says.

The fix: “It’s OK to shorten your stroke at the front and get straight into the pull,” Cleaver says. “Get the initial catch, but skip the long glide out and ‘grab the water’ step. Don’t do too much at the front of your stroke—it’s a waste.” She recommends a one-arm drill focusing on a quick, efficient catch while using a kickboard, which doesn’t allow you to over-glide. Also, she’ll often have her swimmers use finger paddles, which should be worn loosely. “If your catch is deviating out or if you are overreaching, the paddle will likely come off.” The hand should be relaxed and angled slightly down with the wrist flexed.

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