Swimming Catch-Up Drills to Improve Technique

Underwater shot of woman swimming in lane of pool

Thomas Barwick / Getty Images

To be a better swimmer, you need to improve your swim technique and you need to improve your swim fitness, two key elements of good swimming (you probably already realized they were needed!). Getting better at either could improve your swimming speed. Getting better at both could improve swim speed and efficiency. The catch-up drill is one of the many swimming drills that can be used to help a swimmer learn better freestyle (some folks call it front crawl) swimming technique. Because it is a lot like regular swimming, once the catch-up drill is learned, the swimming drill can be used at almost any point in a swimming workout, at almost any swimming speed, at almost any level of swimming effort.

Among a lot of other things, the catch-up drill can help you work on body alignment—long and straight, from the tip of the outstretched, extended arm down through your shoulder and side all the way to your feet. Catch-up can help with breath timing and help with learning how to delay starting the pulling until the body is in a good position.

Catch-Up Drill

The catch-up drill is done by assuming a prone position in the water and extending your arms forward; the arms should be just a bit under the surface of the water, pointing at your destination. One arm then performs a regular freestyle pull, starting from that extension, through the catch and finish, then it recovers to an extension, pointing at your destination, back to where it started. The other arm is still, just keep it pointing forward. You should feel like you body is very long or extended, and you may feel pulses or instants of power as you pull, then pulses of gliding as one arm recovers but the other arm has not yet started pulling.

The swimming arm catches up to the arm that is still extended, pointing forward. One arm is pulling, the other is not. One arm is working, the other is waiting for its turn to work. Once the arm that was pulling completes the pull, exits the water and recovers or returns to the starting position, then it is the other arm's turn. It pulls and recovers while the other arm (the one that took the first pull) is still, waiting for its turn to pull again. Key point: you will always have one arm pointing forward toward your destination.

Step-by-Step Technique

  1. Start with both arms pointing forward
  2. Arm #1 swims (catch, pull, exit, recover, enter)
  3. Arm #2 stays out in front, pointing toward the destination
  4. When arm #1 returns to the starting position, pointing forward, toward the destination, arm #2 swims
  5. When arm #2 returns to the starting position, pointing forward, toward the destination, arm #1 swims
  6. Each arm takes its turn swimming or maintaining the pointing forward position
  7. Each hand could tag the other as it reaches the pointing position, as in one arm telling the other "OK, I have caught up to you, I am pointing forward now, your turn to swim!"

Breathing and Body Position

When to breathe? What is your body doing during all of this?

  • Legs: Keep a steady, smooth, relaxed kick.
  • Head: Keep your nose pointing toward the bottom of the pool, eyes looking down, the top of your head pointing in the direction of travel, a good posture from the top of your head through your neck and down your spine. When you need to breath, rotate along that posture line, eyes looking sideways as the swimming arm exits the water and recovers, on the same side as that arm. Get the eyes looking down again before that hand enters the water.
  • Body: Keep a good, long posture position, top of the head through the spine, with a line drawn from the base of the spine through the top of the head pointing toward the destination. Think of that as an axis. Just before an arm starts to pull, that side of the body should already be rotated closer to the bottom of the pool. As the arm pulls, that side of the body rotates from a low/bottom of the pool position to a high/ceiling or sky position (while the other side of the body does the opposite). Visualize it—hold one hand in front of you, fingers extended, palm down. Twist the hand thumb-side up, pinkie-side down and the reverse, with the axis of the twist along a line through your middle finger.

Besides the one-hand-touching-the-other variation of the catch-up drill, you can vary it in other ways. One variation is 3/4 catch-up when the waiting arm starts to pull when the recovery hand is forward of the head but not in the water yet (it starts to pull before the other hand fully catches up to it). You can see a video of this swimming drill and more—take a look at the swimming video, "Swim Faster and More Efficiently" to learn this drill and other swimming drills. Swim on!