Swimming drills — “Catchup” considered harmful

Or at best, useless…

I’m doing some coaching again and giving thought to helpful drills for the swimmers to improve their technique, but it’s given me pause for thought over what drills actually achieve and how much that’s consistent with what they’re intended to achieve. I suspect that in many cases the correlation is minimal, as I’ve seen many age-group swimming coaches set drills in training sets without any explanation as to the purpose of the drill or what the swimmer should be concentrating on, and when I swim myself I see any number of triathlon/Iron Man competitors practising the same drills week in, week out, with no discernable improvement in their actual swimming stroke or performance.

So, to a perennial favourite of swimming coaches everywhere: the front crawl “catchup” drill. For the one front crawl swimmer in the world who hasn’t heard of it, this is when the swimmer stops one arm in a streamline position at the beginning of the stroke whilst the other arm completes one stroke cycle and stops alongside it, at which point the first arm completes a stroke cycle and so on, alternating arms. The intention is, I believe, to teach the swimmer to extend the arm fully before commencing the stroke thereby generating power over the greatest distance possible.

So why do I believe it’s a useless drill, or even harmful to a swimmer’s performance?

Well, to start with, my understanding is that the brain doesn’t learn the action of a single part of the body in isolation, but rather as a whole. So if the drill is to be useful it should replicate how the the rest of the body will perform at race speed. Catchup just doesn’t do this. In front crawl the body will never be face down flat on the water in the manner that catchup is usually performed. The arm will also not replicate the actual front extension position of front crawl (because of the body’s rotation about its longitudinal axis), so whatever might be learnt, it isn’t relevant to front crawl.

There’s also no guarantee when performing catchup that the rotational position of the shoulder and alignment of the elbow are correct, and given the inconsistent body position it’s probably quite likely to be the case that they’re wrong.

Finally there are a couple of issues that I can’t substantiate for myself at the moment. I’ve read that swimming catchup actually acts to restrict the blood flow around the shoulder joint and reduce the space available for the soft tissues which can lead to injury. And I’ve seen it claimed that the optimal arm entry in front crawl is at 40° to the surface of the water. If this is in fact true, clearly catchup cannot emulate that position.

In my opinion, if the desire is to make sure the correct arm position is achieved for the start of the stroke in front crawl, probably the right way to do that is to teach the proper arm recovery which will naturally lead into the correct position for the start of the stroke. But how many swimmers, even club swimmers and triathletes or Iron Man competitors, have I seen with a flailing arm recovery that is so far from optimal?

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