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Cadence is important, but the strength of your catch is paramount for gaining speed.
Similar to the dynamics of how airplanes fly, the dynamics of how a swimmer moves through water is wildly technical and highly calculated. An open-water swimmer’s cadence is a critical metric to dial in, but trying for a faster stroke rate doesn’t guarantee you more speed. The more pertinent aspect of freestyle that can buy you greater distance per stroke is the catch. Strengthen yours with the advice below.
Gain A Better Hold
In order to maximize the power you get from each pull you must first maximize the surface area of your “paddle.” Imagine creating a straight, flat surface area from your fingertips to your elbow. This is your paddle and it’s the surface area you should be most tuned into to gain the best hold on the water. It may seem natural to want to cup your hand to “hold” the water while pulling, but this only limits the amount of hand surface area used. Instead, maintain a flat hand position with a minimal space between each finger (fig. 1).
In addition, your wrist plays an important role in connecting the hand to the forearm, just as your core helps connect your upper and lower body. Keep enough tautness in the wrist to maintain a straight paddle, allowing for a controlled connection between the hand and forearm.
How To “Catch”
Proper hand entry into the water is highly important to master to enable a clean and effective catch at the front of the stroke. The goal is to slice the hand into the water fingertips first, palm facing down, at a 30-to 45-degree angle downward (fig. 2). This slight slope allows for a smooth and clean entry point that times with your body rotation, as well as sets up the kinetic chain of fingertips below your wrist, below your elbow. This arm positioning, fingers 6–8 inches below the water line and elbow 3–4 inches below, creates a smooth transition into the loading phase. This also allows for a high elbow throughout the stroke, as opposed to a hyper-extended reach at the front of the stroke that often causes a drop in elbow and arm position during the pull.
Begin to feel the hold you have on the water before starting the pull. This is where you want to gain as much traction and control as possible in order to smoothly apply force through the stroke. Again, envision your paddle as the entire area from your fingertips to your elbow, with the intention of the belly of your forearm as the middle of your paddle and where you want to lead the stroke from. Don’t lead with the palm by bending the wrist, thus losing the flat surface area of the “paddle.” The sensation of an S-curved pathway should be taken as feedback that you’ve lost traction on the water. The goal is to create a straight pathway with your paddle (fig. 3) along the frame of your body as you begin the propulsive phases of the pull. Don’t be afraid to slow your stroke rate down in order to achieve better control during the catch phase.
A simple drill that allows you to see what your paddle does throughout the entire stroke is One-Arm Freestyle Drill (fig. 4). With fins on, begin swimming freestyle for 4–6 strokes to get your body rotation and tempo dialed in. Then begin stroking only with the arm of the breathing side while keeping the opposite arm extended in front of the head, streamlined. Switch sides every 25 yards, followed by a length of full freestyle to help directly integrate the focus into your stroke. Begin each pull in a slow and controlled manner, in order to carefully understand each subtlety. The beauty of this drill is that you are able to peek forward and take notice of how well you’re working with the water throughout each phase of the pull. If you feel your paddle slip through the water, slow the stroke rate down on the next pull with the intention of maintaining a straighter pathway for your pull.
The more water you can hold, the better! Once you feel that you’ve mastered these fine-tuned motor skills, you can then begin speeding up your stroke rate to the tempo that best suits your open-water style.