The Catch

The “catch” is the phase of the freestyle stroke commencing with the entry of the hand in the water through to the beginning of the “pull”. You’re catching a hunk of water and directing it backward with some downward pressure as well.
Your hand enters the water forward of your shoulder, which is then starting to rotate downward. The hand then reaches forward underwater and starts pressing down. There’s a gliding feeling and your hand and forearm descend as you prepare for the pull, which is the phase with the greatest propulsion.
Importantly, the pull starts forward of the head, coinciding with the other hand entering the water [see Principle #4 of my Swim Easy DVD]. This means that while one hand is going through the catch the other hand is doing the whole remaining cycle.
The catch is also a powerful element of propulsion. The objective is to maximize backward pressure on the water and this is achieved by keeping a “high elbow” i.e. your elbow stays higher than your hand. The forearm is also part of your “paddle”. Try swimming with clenched fists and feel the amount of pressure exerted by your forearm [the banned full length swimsuits used to have rough material on the inside of the forearm for better grip].
A common error is to “drop the elbow” as your shoulder muscles become engaged.
Keeping a high elbow as the catch develops is sometimes called swimming “over the barrel” as the shape of your arm has a curved profile to fit a row of barrels that you’re “swimming” over.
The catch is, [pun intended] that the “catch” is critical to the timing of your whole stroke.
Keeping a high elbow can cause the error of pointing the fingers downwards too early, which leads to starting the pull too early – before the other hand has entered the water. Remember, delaying the “pull” maximizes the combination of arm pull and body rotation, so if you pull too soon you’re just using muscle because your body hasn’t started to roll yet. It’s like hitting a tennis ball with your shoulders square to the net, and you’re driving in 2nd gear, revving, using more fuel and going slower!
To avoid pulling too soon, continue to reach forward in the early phase of the catch. This also encourages more body rotation, hence more power, and gets you closer to your destination with your forward hand. The trick is to reach forward while keeping the elbow higher than your hand.
Don’t confuse arm speed with swimming speed – drive in 7th gear. The bottom line is that doing this will lead to fewer strokes per lap and greater speed while saving energy. You’ll therefore have more energy to apply to the [delayed] pull.