How to improve your ‘catch and pull’ phase in front crawl

The power of the front crawl swim stroke is in the pull, says coach John Wood. Here he shows you how to improve your catch and pull phase so you increase your distance per stroke


Developing your catch or feel for the water is really important to improving your swim speed and economy. Without this, your hands and arms can slice through the water to not much effect.


Front crawl technique: the key components

Improving this catch portion of your stroke is all about feeling the resistance of the water against your hands and forearms; engaging with the water to press it back past your body and accelerate your body forwards. If you get
this right, the faster you can push your hands back and the faster you will go without having to rush your stroke.

Your catch is the very first part of your stroke under the water and sets the tone for the rest of your pull. When thinking about the first thing your hand does under the water, focus on pushing your elbow out to the side slightly. Then you can push your hand and forearm down to get that high elbow and early vertical forearm (EVF) effect. Think ‘reaching over a barrel’. From here you can press your arm back under the body, hopefully feeling resistance against your forearm and pushing from your lats in your back.

One of the ways you can practise this hold on the water is to use paddles. My favourite challenge is to only use the finger straps, as this forces you to maintain good form and a good hold on the water throughout your stroke.

How to use swimming paddles

If your hand twists under water, or you start to grab at the water, the paddle is likely to come off, so not only can you work on increasing power but you can reinforce good technique as well.

Why you should be swimming ‘off strokes’ regularly

I’m also a big fan of swimming a little butterfly and breaststroke in sessions as these strokes are less constant than freestyle, so they encourage you to control the water with your forearms rather than just freewheel along. Practise this in the session below


Swimsuit, hat,  goggles, drink, paddles, pool clock

4 x 50m as: easy front crawl (FC); with 10secs rest between intervals (RI)4 x 50m as: choice of kick, no float (focus on good body position); 10secs RI
4 x 50, as: descend 1-4 with the fastest above race-pace/effort; 15secs RI

Main session
8 x 50m as: steady FC, 4 with paddles, 4 without – aim for the same time; 15secs RI
50m easy backstroke
4 x 100m as: steady FC, 2 with paddles, 2 without – aim for the same pace; 15secs RI
50m easy backstroke
2 x 200m as: steady FC, 1 with paddles, 1 without – aim for the same pace; 20secs RI
50m easy backstroke
6 x 100m as: alternate 100m individual medley (fly/back/breast/FC) and 100m FC; 20secs RI

200m of mixed strokes with at least 50m non-FC

Adapt for beginners
Do shorter and fewer reps throughout the main session. E.g. 4 x 50m/2 x 75m/6 x 50m, and take a longer recovery. With the medley set at the end, swap butterfly for front crawl.

Adapt for Ironman
Lengthen the overall reps, do more of each distance, or swim the set slightly harder.



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