The entry and the reach
Remember that in the recovery, our elbow is high, our body is rolled towards the high elbow, our hand and fingers are pointed down at the bottom of the pool and they always maintain their plane at right angles to the line of the body. From this high-elbow position we should roll to the other side while reaching forward in a straight line directly ahead of the shoulder almost as far as we can. Our fingers enter the water with our hand angled slightly downward and at about 15cms (about one and a half hand lengths) short of a full extension – that full extension (or reach) is achieved with a glide just under the water’s surface and just below the line of the shoulder. We should lead with our middle finger pointing directly in front (or pointing at our ‘sighting point’ in the open water) in order to hold the good body alignment we have achieved as part of the recovery and to steer in a straight line. With the arm fully extended directly in front of the shoulder, it is important that our fingers are just below the wrist, our wrist just below the elbow and our elbow just below the level of the shoulder.
There is a school of thought dating back to the early 1970s, but still taught by some swimming teachers and coaches, that the hand should enter the water thumb down at an angle of anything between 45 degrees and 90 degrees. This is largely discredited these days. Biomechanical testing has shown that this technique creates a number of inefficiencies such as over-reaching in the extension across the body’s centreline, delivering a poor set up for the catch and leading to poor body alignment, in particular ‘snaking’ through the water. And it contributes to shoulder injuries.
Next we need to do the all-important ‘catch’ which basically is positioning the forearm from the horizontal position achieved in the reach into a near vertical position from which we can pull and push. It is important not to put much muscle into achieving the catch – to do so will only provide an unnecessary upwards force for the arm and upper body and an unhealthy and damaging force on the shoulder; indeed it is the cause of most swimmers’ shoulder problems. Also, as a good catch does not provide upwards force on the upper part of the body, it does not provide downwards force on the lower part of the body (remember that our body is like a see-saw in the water), obviating the need to have a fast kick to keep our body horizontal.
There are a few good visualisations to help you achieve a good catch. One is to imagine that you are reaching over a barrel or a Swiss exercise ball. Another one is to imagine you are standing up and reaching up to a high shelf to get ready to pull yourself up. A third is to imagine a rope running from one end of the pool to the other and you reach out to grab hold of it to pull yourself along. And a fourth (but this is not exactly a visualisation) is to swim in shallow water and not to let your fingers touch the bottom; to do this you must have a good catch.
In my next swimming tip I will consider what comes next and after you have your hand and forearm in the near vertical position – what I call the ‘pull & push’ and what others call the ‘pull through’ or just the ‘pull’. It is this that gives us what we have been leading up to: propulsion through the water.