Developing a Better Feel For the Water


feel for the water

Developing A Better Feel For The Water

A Swim Coaching Article By Swim Smooth

reproduced with permission (see here)

If you are quite new to swimming freestyle and are struggling a little to get to grips with the stroke then this article is for you. When trying freestyle you might be finding it hard to breathe and regularly take on water or find the stroke very hard work – perhaps needing to stop and rest at the end of every length? If you’ve had any of these problems, or if you don’t feel like a natural swimmer, we know it can be quite dispiriting!

Don’t despair though, in this article we’re going to look at helping you develop a basic feel for the water which will help your breathing and make the stroke feel much easier.

One of the big differences between a really strong swimmer and someone new to freestyle is their ability to get a purchase point on the water at the front of the stroke. This is the bit of the stroke after the hand enters the water and extends forwards, the point where you start to press the hand and arm backwards to create forward propulsion. This area of the stroke is called your ‘catch’.

If you aren’t tuned into this area of the stroke then your hand will tend to slip through the water instead of getting support from it. When breathing this leads to the hand dropping vertically in the water instead of remaining in front of you to support you:

arm collapsed whilst breathing

With the hand low in the water like that it offers you no support at all and your head will tend to sink causing you to struggle to breathe or take on water. A much better breathing position is like this with that lead hand out in front offering you support:

arm support whilst breathing

The difference between these two positions is that the lead hand stays out a little longer in front, supporting you as you swim. Timing your stroke so that your lead hand engages with the water like this should happen on every stroke, not just when you breathe as it gives you a longer stroke that is more efficient and relaxed.

If you’re quite technically minded and have studied footage of great swimmers on the internet, notice that their hands pass in front of their head – one above the water and one during the stroke underneath. That’s good swimming technique and in the jargon is called ‘front quadrant’ swimming. Here’s our animated swimmer Mr Smooth in this position, with his hands passing in front of his head:

mr smooth shows front quadrant stroke

How do you develop this? Here’s a drill that will really help: Using the fins (flippers), kick on your side with the lower arm out in front of you. Look downwards and turn your head to the side when you need to breathe before returning it to the water. Unless you have an exceptionally good kick we highly recommend using a pair of fins when practising this:

kick on side

You may have done a drill like this before, perhaps thinking about rotating your body onto the side. This is important for the drill, make sure you are at 90 degrees on your side:

kick on side overhead

With this drill we’re first going to turn our attention to that lead hand, make sure the palm is facing down towards the bottom and the hand is ever so slightly angled downwards as well. Focus on maintaining it when you turn your head to breathe and notice how much extra support it gives you:

support from lead arm

If you’re not sure if you’re getting this right then get a friend to watch you do it – make sure you’re not collapsing the elbow and showing the palm forwards which is very easy to do!

collapse on elbow

Now we’re going to introduce a progression which is to perform one arm stroke and swap sides. Kick on your side for as long as you like to compose yourself and when you’re ready keep the lead hand extended and bring the back hand over the top. Once it reaches the front start the underwater stroke with the other hand and swap sides:


Don’t be at all surprised if that front hand wants to start the stroke before the rear hand gets to the front – it’s very likely in fact! Don’t let this concern you, it can take a little bit of getting the hang of, in fact for some swimmers it can take a couple of sessions. That’s normal.

As you get the hang of this drill, swap sides more often counting to about six in your head and then swapping. Each time your change sides focus on keeping that lead hand out in front of you for support before the rear hand gets to the front.

When you’ve got this nailed down nicely it’s time to try some full-stroke swimming keeping that lead arm out there for support. Try this with the fins on at first, the extra support from them is useful while you work on the timing of the stroke like this.

Finding The Right Timing

Swimming with the hands completely meeting at the front is called a ‘catch-up stroke’ which is pretty much the opposite end of the spectrum from where you started where the hands were slipping through the water.

We don’t really want a full catch-up stroke because it introduces a big pause which isn’t very efficient or rhythmical. Instead we want that lead hand to start its stroke just a little earlier before the recovering arm reaches it. This gets the best of both worlds, it gives you a long stroke with lots of support combined with a nice rhythm to the stroke.

Finding the right stroke timing is a matter of experimenting a little and discovering what feels best to you – give yourself several sessions at least to find this out. You’re looking for much more support when you breathe and a feeling of lower effort which means you’re swimming more efficiently. You should soon be able to string several lengths of the pool together in succession without having to pause for a rest or to catch your breath!

One more quick tip: when breathing you may find you forget that lead hand for a second and it starts to slip down again. If you’re breathing every three strokes a useful mantra to help is to say ‘one-two-stretch-one-two-stretch’ to yourself with the stretch on a breathing stroke. This reminds you to keep that lead arm stretched out making your breathing much easier.

Two Great Strokes To Watch

First, make sure you take a good look at our animated swimmer Mr Smooth, you’ll find him on our main swimming technique website – the animation is great because you can view him from any angle and slow down the footage to a very slow speed to see how exactly he performs the stroke.

The second stroke to watch is a girl called Hannah who swims with us in Perth, she’s not an elite swimmer and her stroke isn’t perfect but it has a lot of good elements to it which you might find interesting to see. Check out her stroke technique here:

more About Swim Smooth – the home of great swimming technique

Swim Smooth is a swimming coaching company based in the UK and Australia. We’re famous for a straightforward no-nonsense approach to improving your swimming. On our website you’ll find a wealth of easy to read articles to improve your stroke technique. We offer swimming DVDs, swimming training plans and training tools to improve your swimming including our unmissable new DVD Catch Masterclass packed with fantasic footage of elite swimmers showing us their stroke secrets. Also don’t miss our unique animated swimmer “Mr Smooth” showing you an ideal freestyle stroke in action:

Swim Smooth's DVD Boxset

mr smooth

Article © Swim Smooth 2011

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