I have a saying: “Power is important, but (in water) shape is more important than power.”
I use it to persuade a student to be patient with our process of developing the frame of the body and the streamline shape before we focus directly on the propulsive parts of the stroke.
Then, when we do focus on those propulsive parts – particularly the ‘catch and hold’ of the freestyle or front crawl stroke – our first task is to learn to shape the propulsive action in order to load the body properly (= safely and more effectively), then connect it through the entire body so that force generated can be transferred to where it is needed, rather than absorbed or dissipated wastefully. We do this because the swimmer needs to first learn to use the power he has well, before considering adding more power to the system. (Here I may use the analogy of coaching a person who handles his money poorly – to give him more money before correcting those poor habits will result in just a bigger financial mess!).
Once he has good power ‘spending habits’ in place – once he is set up the body to load and transfer force well, then we can talk about being more powerful. Here I have another saying: “You can be powerful, but you must apply power smoothly.” (There is a related phrase from martial arts and military training: “Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast.”)
To generate force you have to use parts of the body to press against the water to create resistance or pressure zones that you can lever against. The objective of the ‘catch and hold’ is to hold a point in the water with the arm and slide the streamline side of the body forward, past that point (and hence the name we give to it). To create an effective pressure zone, one that you can get a nice grip upon, there is an optimal rate of applying pressure and building it up (a rate that is relative to the intensity of motion). Press too lightly and sufficient pressure can’t build. Press too abruptly and it breaks the zone and the body part loses grip and slips through. You may also notice in your own body and in all sorts of vessels trying to move through water that there is a bit of a lag between the press against the water and the reciprocal wave of force that moves back through the body (e.g. imagine taking the first few strokes with a paddle in a kayak). I find having the image of a wave helpful in feeling the change in amount and position in the body during the stroke. The initial press of a body part occurs quickly and the resulting wave takes a little more time to travel through the body – if you’ve established the prior propulsive skills, then that force is directed to where it is needed rather than crashing around inside the body in wasteful (and stressful) ways. The press has to be solid and steady so that the body can receive that wave and get moving forward past the arm. To get a bigger and longer lasting wave, you need to establish that grip, build it up and hold it steady through a good portion of the propulsive action – don’t let go too soon, but also don’t hold on too long.
In the underwater ‘catch and hold’ you do want to set the catch and get that grip as far in front of the body as is comfortable and appropriate for the shoulder joint (there’s a lot to say on just that point right there). Within reason, the farther in front it starts, the longer the effective grip time will be. But you want to start with a gradual increase in pressure and build as the body starts to move over the (nicely shaped) arm. There are joint safety reasons for this approach, but I want to point out the physics reason – there is a wave building and traveling through the body in response to that catch on one side of the body. On the other side, the body is (or should be by now) sliding into its streamline shape, receiving that wave of force. The leading arm of the streamline body is cutting a path through the mass of water molecules ahead of the mass of your body – the more smoothly, the more uniformly those water molecules can be made to start moving, the more easily your molecules will slide forward and occupy that space ahead. If there is an abrupt yanking on the water, not only will your catch shape likely collapse, that wave generated is too short, too fast and not timed to travel into the streamline side of the body where it can be put to its most effective use. The water pressure in front of your head and shoulders will shoot up dramatically in reaction to the blunt force slamming into them and you have to work harder to move the body forward than if you smoothed out that wave and timed it better to transfer into the streamline side of the body. (Obviously, if your entry and extension into streamline is happening much later than your catch, you’re going to run into this no matter what).
One more analogy – if you’ve ever been in a car with a nice amount of power in the engine, you know that you can be surprised at how quickly it can jump ahead when you press the pedal abruptly. Press the pedal too much and the tires squeal and spin out because the wave of force transmitted to the road through the tires is too abrupt. In this case the wheels have lost their initial grip and some time is lost while they slow down and regain grip and pull the car forward. Well, you can spin your tires in the water too. The problem is that when you yank on the water too abruptly, you feel the hard effort of your muscles which gives you the illusion that your work is taking you somewhere, when in fact, you are losing your grip for the first and most valuable part of the entire underwater stroke. Don’t yank – just hold.
This is where you need to be discerning about technique and use some objective metric to help you check that one approach to this will work better than another. You can take time per length, stroke count and perception of effort (RPE) and run some experiments to compare and get a sense of what it produces and at what cost in energy and wear-and-tear on your body. This is how many of us have confirmed this way is not only more effective, it is a lot easier on the shoulders, especially for the older ones. It would be wise for younger swimmers to imprint this approach sooner in their career too.
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