Swim Drill Of The Week: Catch Up Drill

drill-of-week-chalk copy

Welcome to the “Swim Drill of the Week”. Swimming World will be bringing you a drill, concept, or tip that you can implement with your team on a regular basis. While certain weeks may be more appropriate for specific levels of swimming (club, high school, college, or masters), Drill Of The Week excerpts are meant to be flexible for your needs and inclusive for all levels of swimming.

This week’s drill is catch-up drill, one of the fundamental drills for beginning swimmers to work on their distance per stroke in freestyle. This is one of the best drills to teach young swimmers, as it helps to set a rhythm for their stroke by slowing down their tempo and reminding them to control the rest of their body while they swim.

To perform the drill swimmers will swim freestyle normally with one exception: they need to wait for one arm stroke to be completely finished before starting their next stroke. That is where the name of the drill comes from, as one arm is always trying to catch up to the other. Once a swimmer’s hand enters the water in front of them, they can take the next stroke.

With young swimmers who are just learning freestyle, it is common to see them taking many more strokes than they need to, sacrificing efficiency and proper technique to see how many strokes they can get in. Even when performing this drill it is common to see swimmers try and rush through, avoiding waiting for each stroke to be completed before starting their next. An easy way to make sure they do this is to require them to physically hit their opposite hand at the front of their stroke. You can see this from on deck and they will know whether or not they are doing it correctly.

When done correctly, this drill should help lengthen out your athletes freestyle stroke and develop a smooth, consistent tempo. Make sure to remind your swimmers to maintain a strong kick throughout this drill to keep a high body position. Also, use this opportunity to check in on their strokes and make sure they are swimming with a high elbow catch and they are finishing their stroke by their hips. Once they are experienced with the drill, you can lengthen the time between hand hits or combine it with fingertip drag to work on different parts of their stroke at once. This is a great basic drill to use with our young age group swimmers repeatedly until they develop long, smooth freestyles. Happy swimming!

All swimming and dryland training and instruction should be performed under the supervision of a qualified coach or instructor, and in circumstances that ensure the safety of participants.


  1. Tanner Barton

    Kelly Murphy Chance Davis Kirsty Hessing Jack Scott

  2. avatar

    This is a good drill as drills go. As with every drill though there are negatives. The big thing to teach, and this isn’t easy or everyone would swim like Ledecky and Yang with their elbows near the top of the water all the time, is to rotate the shoulder girdle while rotating the shoulder joint inward (medial rotation). Catch-up encourages flat strokes and (often) dropped elbows. If you’re not sure you have to video. Vid from the side and the front. The side shows alignment and where the elbow is relative to the top of the water. The front shows rotation and also shows the direction of shoulder joint rotation. You are far stronger if you catch with your shoulder rotated inward and it sets you up to catch the water in your forearm in front of your face.

    I would say that doing catchup is for that poor swimmer who is a thrasher and needs to feel the arm lengthen in front. If you are trying to help swimmers keep their kicks going all the time this might help too. But as soon as possible you should take your swimmer off this drill and graduate to drills and full strokes that encourage the complex rolls and rotations and the ryhthm great freestylers have. I say this all the time and it’s not just because I invented the EyeSwim — if they aren’t seeing themselves on video daily they are at a huge disadvantage to those who are. I have filmed over 3,000 stroke drills and this one has its place. But be careful and be focussed on getting what you want along a carefully constructed continuum of progressive improvement.

  3. avatar


    Catch-up stroke is still very much a part of the conventional wisdom of swimming technique. It is the most common drill in our culture, so it’s understandable that you would include it as a “Drill of the Week.”

    However, catch-up stroke is completely counterproductive because it stresses the shoulder and reinforces a negative index of arm coordination.

    In addition, there are absolutely no effective technique elements that can be learned or improved using catch-up stroke that can’t be mastered more quickly using modern strategies.

    Catch-up stroke was the topic of my first “Misconceptions” article in Swimming World (Jan, 2014). Related articles were on: drills (Feb, 2015), arm coordination (Nov and Dec, 2015), and arm entry (Jan, 2016).

    There is a presentation from the MIT Sports Analytics conference posted online with info about shoulder stress and arm coordination:

    You might also review the research conducted by Ludovic Seifert on arm coordination. He found that expert swimmers use a positive index of arm coordination to swim fast.

    I sincerely hope that you review the available info and reconsider your position on this drill.

    Rod Havriluk, Ph.D.
    President, Swimming Technology Research

    • avatar
      Esther W.

      Dr. Havriluk, Thanks for your reply. Are there any drills that you would recommend for teaching freestyle to developmental-level swimmers ages 7-10? We’re working on basic skills such as body position and not lifting the head while breathing. One kid is more advanced but she crosses over the midline in the push phases of her stroke. I would really appreciate any suggestions of approaches that work well with kids and don’t require use of video, which I don’t have access to (either showing or recording.) Thank you!

      • avatar

        Here is a suggestion for a fun drill for your swimmer that crosses the centre line. Set them off on 100’s but change the hand position on each 25. This keeps them engaged as they have to think about which 25 they are on. They have to imagine they are drawing a straight line on the bottom of the pool. So 1st 25 they swim with a fist and just the index(forefinger) extended which in the pen. 2nd 25 they swim making an OK sign, like a deep see diver would so 3 fingers are straight and drawing on the bottom of the pool. 3rd length swim with a fist imagining the the last set of knuckles are drawing and then normal hand position. It also has the affect of teaching them a forearm dominant catch. Just make sure they understand not to stretch down towards the bottom with a straight arm.
        Janet Rowlinson (Perfect strokes Swim Centre.org)

  4. avatar


    Thanks for your post.

    There is only one “drill” that I recommend for freestyle – the “thumb drag drill” – to help swimmers improve their recovery as they feel their thumb in contact with the side of the body from the thigh at the end of the push phase until the armpit at the end of the exit phase. Other freestyle drills distort the body position and slow progress.

    For all other technique elements, I recommend swimming normal freestyle and focusing on specific cues. For example, to keep your swimmer from crossing over the midline on the push phase, it’s critical that she’s ready to change the direction of the hand path when the hand passes under the head. She can visually track the hand path angle from in front of the shoulder at the completion of the arm entry to under the head on the pull phase. As soon as she sees the hand about to pass under the head, she can change the hand path angle so that the hand pushes back beneath the leg. This is not an easy adjustment to make because it requires split-second timing. Practicing with paddles slows the hand speed and makes the motion easier to control.

    There is a lot of info posted on the Swimming Technology Research website.


    • avatar
      Luther Jones

      Doctor Havriluk

      Thank you for your thoughtful post, a question:
      Are you referring to catch-up stroke as a drill? In my opinion there are elements of the drill that isolates effectively specific swimming movements and positions. For example one of the elements is body position. Other elements are body posture and movement symmetries. Then of course you can include limb movement and limb movement dynamics. The above can be instructed from a frontal anchored arm position or from a dorsal catch-up position.

      Catch-up stroke as a drill if taught in a deliberate system approach can be a useful teaching aid. I form my opinion based on the drills reliance on body alignment (streamline posture) that is needed to perform the drill effectively. The teacher, coach or trainer starting from and developing body posture/body position from the catch-up drill, then can introduce and isolate movement (propulsion) strategies for the limbs.

      Luther Jones

  5. avatar


    Thanks for your question and the opportunity to clarify.

    I was referring to catch-up as a drill, but my comments would be no different for catch-up stroke.
    The science clearly shows that catch-up is biomechanically ineffective, physiologically inefficient, anatomically stressful, and counterproductive from a skill-learning perspective. Any of the professed advantages of catch-up drill can be more quickly and more precisely addressed with specific cues using opposition coordination. For example, head and body position can be very effectively controlled with a select number of visual and kinesthetic cues. There is more info on this topic in my misconceptions article in the Jan 2014 Swimming World.


  6. avatar
    A. H.

    My trainer had me do this drill with a pull buoy when I was tired at the end of a swim session, last April 2016, which resulted in a shoulder injury. As of now, Febuary 2017, I am still not able to perform at the point I was at then without pain resulting after the workout. I wouldn’t recommend this drill as it is too easy to forget one’s proper rotation.

    • avatar

      Sorry to hear about your shoulder pain, but I’m glad you shared your experience. Please check the info on the Swimming Technology Research website under the Technique Info menu bar selection. I’ve had many clients with shoulder pain who adjusted their arm entry to replicate MONA (my biomechanical model). With a 40 degree arm entry angle (which is also optimal for performance), there is far less shoulder stress. Swimmers who comply with the adjustment typically report relief in a few days to a few weeks. The same concept applies to the butterfly arm entry.
      Rod Havriluk