There are 5 basic phases of the stroke
There may be multiple phases, but there is no separation between each phase. Each phase transitions smoothly into the next. There should be no stops, stalls or pauses. That does not mean that every phase moves at the same pace, just that there is no separation.
The Setup is perhaps the most important phase of the stroke. If you do not position yourself to make a good Setup, you can not make a good Catch. If you do not make a good Catch, there is nothing you can do downstream in the stroke to make up for it; it’s a lost stroke. So, the first rule of the Setup is to be deliberate with the positioning of your blade and your body. Be patient with the Setup and you will be rewarded with a more powerful Drive.
On Saturday I had to jump around a bit to diagnose your stroke, as I wandered between very specific issues that stood out, from the catch to the exit.
#1: Reduce top arm movement
As your top arm moves around, so does the bottom arm, there are many symptoms to look for, but the biggest will be a paddle that is all over, going vertical to horizontal etc.
Try and envision your top arm almost perfectly straight, just slightly relaxed. Keep the top hand in front of your forehead area, from about the height of your head to the height of your adams apple. If you pay attention you will notice that the top hand will move in a D shape. When paddling on the right side the straight part of the D is the drive, the curved side is the return.
#2: Increase reach, drop bottom shoulder, open the A frame
Visualizing a swimmers stroke will help you to recover your stroke and plant simultaneously, rather then recover to the air and catch. The body positioning is critical so that you are rotating, dropping the lower shoulder as you slice the blade in the water.
First stop turning in your wrist (especially your top hand), then reach out with your bottom arm, allow your shoulder to slightly drop as it sets the paddle in the water, during that moment your body will open up and you can reach more as you rotate.
Here is an excerpt from an article from Dave Kalama regarding top hand:
Perhaps the most common mistake is to lower your top hand too much during the recovery or exit stage of the stroke. The reason you want to keep your top hand at shoulder level or higher is that the lower you take it, the more you have to raise it again to get into proper reaching position. The more you lower it, the more wasted movement you’re creating for yourself.
The first reason your hand will drop too low is because you pull the paddle back too far. In order for your paddle to go past your feet, your top hand has to drop to accommodate the angle. The reason that’s bad is because it is very difficult to generate much power or momentum once the paddle has gone past your feet and also at that point you are actually starting to pull yourself down into the water. The fix: Don’t pull the paddle past your feet and then your top hand won’t drop too low.
The second reason your top hand can drop too low is because during the recovery stage (moving the paddle forward to reach again), you lift the blade too high out of the water. I see people lift their paddles any where from six inches to three feet over the water while bringing the paddle forward. That’s anywhere from five inches to two feet eleven inches too much. Unless your paddle is much too short the only way for your blade to get that high is to drop your top hand to the side to accommodate the angle. Technically your blade only needs to be a fraction of an inch above the water to move forward without hitting. One way gain awareness about where your blade is during this phase is to actually touch the water on the way back to your reaching position. So while you’re swinging the paddle into it’s forward position give the water just the slightest tap at the half way point. This will insure that the paddle is not too high as well as give you instant feedback on how high the blade is relative to the water. As long as the front edge of the paddle is slightly higher than the back edge, your paddle won’t dive down into the water when you tap. Once you have a feel for it, just skip the tap and go straight to the reaching forward position.
Keeping your top hand above your shoulder can take a lot of energy, and fatigue you quite quickly, so here’s some free extra energy. Support the top hand by supporting the paddle with your bottom hand. Your bottom hand has good leverage, so it can do the work easily. This allows your top hand the opportunity to rest for a split second while the bottom hand is doing the work for the top by using gravity as an ally. By hooking your finger tips and cradling the paddle shaft in your bottom hand you can support the weight of the paddle and your top hand quite easily. That’s a lot of things to remember in mid-stroke, so you might cue that support when you break your wrist inward to feather the blade. Let your lower hand hold the weight and push the paddle forward toward the reach position while your upper hand rests.
One good way to be aware of your top hand is to actually focus on it and watch it for five stokes. I mean actually pick a freckle or knuckle or whatever is on the back of your hand and for five strokes keep your eyes focused on it. If your hand stays in front of your face you shouldn’t have to move your head, if you find you are moving your head to keep your eyes on it, then you’re moving your top hand too much, and you can tell if the drop in your hand is down or to the side. The trick to this is locking your eyes on the chosen spot and don’t look away or past it.