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 the basics of the freestyle swim stroke. 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 freestyle swim stroke below.
1. Catch: The initial phase of the freestyle swim stroke 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 freestyle swim 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.
2. Pull: The action of moving the arm through the water as it follows the length of your body.
What you’re doing wrong: Dropping the elbow
The objective of the pull phase is to move you forward through the water. A high elbow helps maximize the pull and an efficient forward motion. “Between the ‘high elbow’ versus deeper pull theories, I lean toward the higher elbow (combined with a great body roll) to get the most benefit out of the stroke,” Cleaver says.
The fix: Think of having a Swiss exercise ball underneath you. “If athletes approach the range of motion as if their arm is moving over a Swiss ball, then they will effectively be getting a high-enough elbow and using the full arm to move their body forward in the water,” says Cleaver. You can make your pull even stronger by incorporating strength work into your dry-land workouts. Stretch cords are a useful tool—you can replicate the stroke phases and isolate areas of focus using stretch cords.
“You can also work on the acceleration of your arm underwater, always feeling like there is tension from the water against your hand and arm. You could have a great technique but it might be lacking power if you are not moving over that Swiss ball with enough force.”
3. Exit: The final pull of the hand/arm as it leaves the water, ideally just past the hip—and the most undermaximized phase of the entire freestyle swim stroke.
What you’re doing wrong: Bringing your arm out of the water too soon
Ninety percent of triathletes bring their arm out of the water to begin the recovery too early, estimates Cleaver. “You’re missing a key part of the stroke—the super powerful acceleration at the side of your body,” she says, likening it to the motion of a press-up you’d do on the wall to get out of the swimming pool. “As soon as I tell people they’re missing that, it’s like free time. Within two weeks they will have improved.”
Pro Matty Reed says it’s all in the flick of a wrist: “My coach always told me to try to flick the water out as your thumb is hitting your thigh on the way through,” he says. “A lot of people focus on the front part of the stroke and forget about the exit phase—it’s really important to do the whole pull from the front to the exit phase where you’re flicking the water out the back.”
The fix: Swimmers typically bring their arm out of the water by the hip, but Cleaver instructs her students to push even beyond the hip. “Your hand should touch your thigh, trying to reach for your knee. You can’t touch your knee, of course, but you should reach in that direction. Within three sessions people usually say, ‘Oh my gosh, that changed everything.’”
4. Recovery: The arm in the air, as it is coming back to the front of the body to restart the stroke cycle.
What you’re doing wrong: You should be thinking ‘quick and dirty,’ not slow and soft.
A lot of people are taught to have a high elbow during this phase of the freestyle swim stroke — to really lift the arm out over the water—but Cleaver insists that all that focus and energy on a methodical recovery arc is simply a waste. “If the arm is just hanging out in the air it’s not a force; it’s not pushing on the water,” she says. “Don’t worry so much about really lifting—it’s a waste of energy. Move like a windmill or pretend you’re a kid swimming for fun in the pool—just throw your arms over.”
Pro counterpart Matty Reed agrees: “As triathletes, we don’t have to have perfect strokes. A lot of swimmers have ‘ugly’ strokes and their arms look terrible above the water but underwater is where they’re most efficient and have a great stroke. You don’t have to have the high elbows on the recovery, but you do have to be comfortable and start thinking about where you’re going to put your hands to start the first part of your stroke.”
The fix: Cleaver will assign a lot of straight-arm drill to promote a fast, efficient arm swing, and encourages her students to simply relax—not overthink—this intuitive part of the freestyle swim stroke.