Thursday, March 13, 2008

Discussion of Catch-up and Stick Drill

The catch-up drill and the stick drill, why to do them

And why you might want to avoid them.

The catch up drill and also the stick drill are often recommended for swimmers for a number of reasons. The first thing to note about them is that they are very simple to get the hang of. When your hands touch out front then you pull, that’s all there is to it. Another version of the drill is the stick drill where you hold a stick out in front of you and switch it between hands out front as you switch from pulling with one hand and then another.

The drills take almost no time for a coach to describe and also very little time for the swimmer to learn at a basic level. So they are recommended often. So what’s the problem; happy coach, happy swimmer,everybody wins. However, while the drills induce some good changes in most folks’ swimming, they can also induce a healthy number of bad changes in your stroke.

Why do these drills?1

The most obvious reason why you might want to do these drills is to add more catch up to your stroke, ergo the name. The idea is that you always want to have at least one hand out in front of you as you swim. You would do this to cut down on your form drag. For example when I have my hand stretched out above my head, I am 8 feet from fingertip to floor. But when my hands are down I am 6’5” from head to toe. So the length of my body (which you can think of as a boat) increases or decreases by 18 inches on different parts of my stroke. On the other hand if I always keep one hand out in front I stay 8 feet long all the time. If you take two boats of equal weight and power one 8 feet long and the other 6.5 feet long, the 8 foot long boat will slip through the water more easily and be faster. That’s the reason most often given for why you would want to do these drills. And that’s all fine and dandy but the big question is how much do you lose when no power is being applied. If one hand is out front and the other hand is recovering, then there is no power being applied to the water and you are slowing down. So do you gain enough speed by having a longer line than you lose by having the delay in your strokes? That’s the question of the decade. I’ve never seen anything more than a thought experiment on why we might pursue one style or another, there have been no studies to my knowledge on what might happen if we change swimmers from one style to another by using the catch up or stick drill. So like many other things all we have to go on is a coaches intuition. My impression is that it CAN be beneficial but that it depends on the swimmer. You can certainly overdo this type of thing and make yourself slower by doing it.

If there’s so much “maybe” in this whole thing why do I recommend people do the drill?

While I think that the front quadrant timing may be beneficial the main reason I have people use the drill is if they routinely lift their heads to breathe, a common issue among the relatively inexperienced swimmers I work with in my triathlon swim classes. Lifting your head to breathe is not really bad in and of itself. But rather it is the things we need to do with our hands in order to lift our heads that are bad. In general you want to push water backwards, that’s what moves you forward through the water. However to lift your head you need to push water downward in one way or another. That’s the only way to get the upward force necessary to lift your head.

In order to get the force necessary to lift your head and breathe, people need to push water down toward the bottom of the pool. Pushing the water down tends to push your hands back up, you can then transmit this upward force to your head and lift it. Moving the water to the bottom isn't free, you will pay the price in one form or another for doing it. So eliminating it is a good idea.

Stage 1 Head Lifters!

The first way people lift their head is to push down with their outstretched arm as they breathe. This is demonstrated in the picture to the left.

I call this a stage 1 head lifter and is the key thing that I think the catch up drill works on. In fact everyone does this, only that the better swimmers do this so little that you really can’t see it when you watch. Poor swimmers might do this as much as the guy on the right. (His name is Paul BTW.) The most obvious way this slows you down is that it is wasted energy, why burn the energy required to push the water down when it i better used to move yourself down the lane.

But there is an other much more direct detrimental factor facing stage 1 head lifters; as your hand pushes downward it also rotates backward. The end result is that you lose the first part of your stroke. You may have started with the ability to pull for 4 feet, but if you push down to lift your head, you only have 2 feet left to pull.

You can see a fine example of this in the embedded video below.

The swimmer in the video pushes down sharply with her left hand as she breathes and as a result she gets her hand into a position to move water backwards very late in the stroke, she has lost the front half of her stroke and gets no propulsion from it. This is opposed to her right hand which gets into position to pull water backward while it is still in front of her head.

What the stick drill or catch-up drills do is that they MAKE you keep your outstretched arm out front, rather than pushing own toward the bottom. If you don’t leave it there then you won’t be able to catch up with it. Or in the case of the stick drill, you won’t be able to switch hands with the stick. You can see the same swimmer after an hour of practice below.

That’s great, problem: lifting head to breathe, solution: stick drill. Let’s all go home and rest.

It’s not exactly that easy, the example given was one hour one on one with a coach at her side helping to correct the other little things that pop up as she progressed. Without as much feedback, you might introduce some bad habits into your stroke.

Stage 2 Head Lifters

So you get hip to this, you read an article on the internet or in a magazine and decide to do some stick drill, no more pressing down for me. You get on it and start swimming catch up drill and all is good right? Well you might have made some steps forward but you may have taken a step back in another area. The first thing that doing catch-up drill and stick drill might make you start to do is become a stage 2 head lifter. A stage 2 head lifter doesn’t push his hands down anymore, but he still pushes water downward just in a different way. What a stage 2 head lifter does is that he angles his outstretched hand up. The angle of his hand means that as water hits his hand it is redirected down toward the bottom of the pool. If you do this, you will get a full pull, you won’t be cutting it short. However, you don’t get to push the water down to the bottom of the pool for free; you pay a price in terms of resistance. If your hand is angled up you are putting the brakes on. I call it the “STOP, in the name of love!” due to it’s similarity to The Supremes’ stage show. So while you have made a step forward you still are leaving a lot to be desired.

Here is a video of someone who has worked on his swim for quite a while but still has the STOP motion going. Look at his left hand as he breathes, in this case the camera is about 2 inches below the water’s surface and we can still see the palm of his left hand as he breathes. Also notice he doesn’t really drop his hand very much to hold his head up, he is past stage 1 and is now a stage 2 head lifter.

What to do about it?

Two things you need to do to avoid going down this path.

Hold on Tight

The first thing you need to do if you are doing the stick drill is that you need to grab the stick deep into your hand just as you would grab a relay baton in a track race. I sometimes see people who are using the stick for a drill but they use only their thumb to hold the stick and they extend their fingers out in front of the stick as they stroke. This is just a short trip away from the STOP! in the name of love that we see in the pictures above. So hold the stick securely and make sure you grab it with your fingers and thumb wrapped around the stick.

Keep Your Arm Low

The second thing you need to do is to make sure that your arm is angled down from your shoulder a bit as you swim. Realize that as you swim your arm originates from your shoulder socket. Since you are rotated onto your side a bit then your shoulder socket will be several inches below the water’s surface as you swim. Even if you were to put your arm straight forward from there your hand would have to also be several inches below the surface. I actually recommend erring on the lower side with your arm and hand angled slightly down from your shoulder. The sketch shows the desired position.

You can see in the embedded video that our friend from above who I used to show what the “STOP! in the name of love” is has eliminated the issue. The wonder of video makes it look like he made the change in an instant. These videos were taken one month apart. In between the swimmer did workouts specially designed to correct the "STOP! in the name of love" roughly three times per week.

What this means to us when we do stick drill or catch-up drill is that we need to make sure our hands are angled down as we do these drills. Start at around 16 inches below the surface and go from there. Like most things you can overdo that as well. You want to position your hand and arms so that there is a slight downward angle from your shoulder at full extension. Let’s say that slight in this case means 5 to 15° below horizontal.

Swimming Flat

Another thing that the catch up and stick drills can tend to do is to reinforce a flat swimming position. It is only natural that when you do these drills that you would tend to stop in the middle of your stroke, that is where you make the change from one hand forward to the other hand forward. But hanging around in a flat position puts both of your shoulders at the water's surface creating waves. Wave drag is bad, really bad. Fom drag and friction drag both increase with the square of your speed, double your speed and you will feel 4 times the drag. But wave drag rises with the cube of your speed, try to go twice as fast and you'll be facing EIGHT TIMES the amount of drag you were facing before. Triple your speed and your wave drag increases 27 times! So let's stay away from this wave drag.

When you linger in the flat position you extend the amount of time you have two shoulders at the surface each pushing a wave in front of it. In the slightly rotated position we are in when extended, only one shoulder is at the water's surface pushing water so less of a wave. We don't want to reinforce lingering in the flat position. On every stroke you will be flat for some period of time as you rotate from one side to the other, but you should only be passing through from one side to the other not spending extended time there.

The video below2 shows a swimmer doing the stick drill and spending a lot of time in the flat position, notice that his belly button is pointing to the bottom of the before his recovering hand enters the water.

To avoid this when doing the catch-up or stick drill, what you'll need to do is make sure that when you reach forward with you recovering arm you do so while staying on your side. Don't rotate back too soon or you will end up staying flat for too long.

Now we have someone doing the catch-up drill who is wise to this fact and is doing a much better job of staying on his side while doing the drill. If you freeze the video at 5 seconds as his left hand enters the water you'll see his belly button clearly pointing about 45 degrees off to the side. Likewise if you freeze at 7 seconds you will see the same thing as his right hand enters the water.

How do we get there?

What you need to practice, in addition to having your hands about 16 inches below the surface when you do the drill, is to stay on your side until you make the transition of your hands. In the catch-up drill this means stay on your side until your recovering "catches up" to your hand out front. In the stick drill this means that you stay on your side until you have switched the stick into your other hand. A little thing I like to do is have people let the stick rotate with their body as they do the drill. So rather than keeping the stick flat and level, as you rotate let the stick rotate up onto one side a bit and then stay on your side as you grab it. Having the stick stay on it's side helps to remind you of how to do it.

How to use the drills

The first day that you try these drills I recommend stepping through each emphasis in turn with 200 - 300 of each emphasis. Maybe something like this: Set 1. 8 x 25 Stick Drill (:20 rest) [Just try to get the hang of it.]
Set 2. 8 x 25 Stick Drill (:15) [Concentrate on wrapping all your fingers and thumb around the stick.]
Set 3. 4 x 50 Stick Drill (:15) [Look forward at your hands3 as you swim and make sure that you have shoulders above your elbow - above your wrist - above your fingers.]
Set 4. 4 x 50 Stick Drill (:15) [Concentrate on staying on your side as your recover your arm, rotate the stick with you to help remind you]
Set 5. 4 x 50 Catch-Up Drill (:15) [In this drill pretend that the stick is still there and that you have to leave your hand out front until your recovering hand "catches up." Use the same emphasis as set 1.]
Set 6. 4 x 50 Catch-Up Drill (:15) [Use the same emphasis as set 3.]
Set 7. 4 x 50 Catch-Up Drill (:15) [Use the same emphasis as set 4.]
Set 8. 2 x 50 Modified Catch-Up Drill4 [On this drill you wait until your recovering hand touches the water, you don't have to wait until it catches up to the other hand. Use the same emphasis as set 1.]
Set 9. 2 x 50 Modified Catch-Up Drill [Use the same emphasis as set 3.]
Set 10. 2 x 50 Modified Catch-Up Drill [Use the same emphasis as set 4.]
Set 11. 6 x 25 (:20) [Swim while feeling what this new stroke is like.]
Once you have done that workout once or possibly twice, then you can add the catch up and stick drills as part of your warmup and then proceed with your normal workout. I like to do it this way: 6 x 50 Stick Drill (:10) [Do two of each of the above emphases]
2 x 50 catch-up drill (:10)
3 x 50 modified catch-up drill (:10)


Judging by the triathletes I coach one on one, the people I see in my video lesson sessions, and the people I see in my triathlon swim class, I thoroughly believe that a major portion of the middle of the pack triathletes and some front of the packer's as well will benefit from doing these drills for a while. If you administer them carefully and avoid the pitfalls I point out they can be a valuable thing. Unfortunately without care they can be detrimental to your stroke, so think about what you are doing. In most cases, I recommend sticking with a swim skill emphasis for 4 weeks. It seems to strike a reasonable balance between monotony and not wasting too much time learning new drills. Enjoy

1 I don't want to give the impression that using these drills is universally accepted, like most swim drills there are people who will get in big arguments over whether to use them or not. For discussion on the topic from a coaches perspective, search the index of American Swimmer Magazine, two excellent articles have appeared there in the past two years.

2 I don't know who "dalecannonman" is but I am grateful to him for putting his video up on the internet. I am not implying by using his video that his swimming or coaching is somehow not up to par. Coaches and swimmers work together to come up with plans for improvement based on many things including time allowed, coach knowledge, swimmers flexibility or proprioception, etc. I am not at all second guessing the work that "dalecannonman" has done on his swim and wish him the best.

3 No, I don't recommend that you look forward as you swim. But I do know that the additional feedback of seeing your hands helps you understand the proper hand position much more quickly than using your proprireception alone. You can do this for the first couple of weeks that you do the drill until you get the swing of it, then put your head back into a neutral position.

4 I often refer to the fact that modified catch-up drill is also called swimming. I recommend to triathletes that in just about all of their swimming they use this timing, that they wait until their recovering hand touches the water before they take their next stroke. However, that recommendation is speed dependent, the faster you go the less catch up you will show in your stroke and this is a good thing. My main concern is that the swimmer not use speed as an excuse to resume pushing their hand down to breathe. To that end MOST swimming that a triathlete does in training can be done with modified catch-up stroke timing or at least aspiring to that stroke timing during the set. The proper modification when doing a very fast swim set would be to have less catch-up but not start pushing your hand down to breathe either. In my experience it takes a well developed and experienced swimmer to do this, so using modified catch-up drill most of the time is a good idea for the typical middle of the pack age group triathlete.

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