Imprinting A Quality Catch

Here are some great questions from a comment on Opportunity Cost. He is asking about Early Vertical Forearm (EVF) and what to expect in establishing this skill:

I’ve been musing on this very thing [opportunity costs] in my TI practice. I’ve recently started paying a lot of attention to a vertical forearm, high elbow catch. I find I can DO it–but only VERY slowly and with intense concentration, otherwise my old catch takes over and I’m pulling without that EVF position.My conclusion has been that I should concentrate exclusively on holding correct form without worrying about the higher SPL and slower times it’s giving me for now.Is there a rule of thumb for how long I can expect building this new habit to take? And do you think I’m right to avoid all compromise in form while trying to make a permanent change in my stroke this way?

Here are some thoughts in response, though I bet these will cover more than he was asking for. I offer the abundance for the benefit of more readers…


I bring up form because the Catch only works well if it is formed well! We may compare my notes against yours…

We need to keep in mind the purpose of the Catch – to catch a pocket of high pressure water (orö to use Terry’s metaphor for this, ‘a pilates ball full of water molecules’), hold it, then use the rotation of the torso to leverage against this hold which enables us to steadily drive the body forward on the path of least resistance. It is NOT so that we can push water back longer.

EVF is not just early, it can also be extreme in what it does to the shoulder joint if not done with extreme care and perfect timing. Even then, in the style admired and imitated among the elites, it may be technique fit only for the lucky or freakishly injury-proof.  Pursue with caution.

Rather than early ‘vertical’ forearm I would rather think of it as an early effective catch. The purpose, after all, is not to get the arm to look a certain way but to get a good grip on the water.

Therefore, I would encourage you to use these three Focal Points, and let the early-ness and angle of the catch happen (more safely) as a byproduct**:

“Reach For A High Shelf”

When the spearing arm is extending underwater, on its track, let it try to reach just 1 cm further than normal- as if you were trying to touch a shelf just slightly too high. Reach further by opening up the axilla (the armpit) rather than by contorting or over-rotating the body. Just slide the whole shoulder unit (scapula and clavicle bones together) forward another couple centimeters. (I can think of a few rock climbing moments where I was trying to get my fingers on a hold just a fingernail further away than I was comfortable reaching. It’s amazing how the body can loosen up just a little more when we try… or are desperate!)

“Quicken The Recovery”

If you want to create a few more microseconds for a longer extension, and catch further in front, then speed up the recovery. But keep the catch/pull as steady as possible. Even at slow tempos this exercise will show you how to redistribute microseconds around the stroke cycle so you can keep a patient lead arm at faster and faster tempos. You should be able to use this approach to hold a front quadrant stroke roughly up to .90 tempos (in my experience). Past that point you may need some guidance on how to adjust other parts of the stroke cycle to draw the most effective compromise between competing interests of power and drag reduction.

“Hold The Ball Of Water Molecules”

When you form the catch you want to hold that (metaphorical) pilates ball of water molecules with the entire hand, gently splayed fingers, and forearm. You will hold it with your full hand and forearm and feel a consistent pressure along this entire inner surface of your skin. And you train to feel it and hold it during the entire catch/pull phase. Mixing in a lot of closed-fist swimming is a great way to build this skill.

The shape of the arm, rather than truly vertical is more like hugging that giant pilates ball over the top hemisphere. The elbow is pointed straight out to the side (during the ENTIRE stroke cycle) and slides outward to allow the hand to stay directly in line with the shoulder,  palm ALWAYS facing directly back.

And it is critical – for the safety of your shoulder, not to mention the power advantage – that the moment of the Catch be synchronized perfectly to the start of the core rotation. When the two come together you can start to feel magical ease in the stroke (depending on a few other details in your body also).

** These focal points assume you already have basic TI skills in place such as good rotational balance control, your spearing arm extends to the target directly (no clock arm) and a patient front arm in a wider range of tempos. If not, you will find yourself somewhat hindered in imprinting the new skill.

A couple of my Catch drill demos- just a little practice forming the Catch in Skate Position.



Think of your EVF motor skill as a new appliance hooked up to an electrical system with a circuit breaker. But in this organic electrical system, when you hook up a new appliance, the new wires connecting this new appliance are very thin, and without insulation (myelin). Thick wires can handle more intensity and insulation makes the signal faster and more precise. They only get thicker and get wrapped with insulation as you repeatedly send signals down that new wire to stimulate the connection. BUT if you send signals too fast or too hot for that new thin wire it trips the circuit breaker and shuts down your control. The brain shifts back over to some old motor pathway to finish the job. In this case your old catch pattern (dropped elbow???) is the default.

So at first, you can only send low intensity signals down that wire, but you can do it as frequently as you have time  for. Repetition with precision stimulates the growth you want. Practice with concentration and more practice. Day by day and that wire gets a bit thicker and a bit more insulated. And gradually, by patient persistence the circuit will be ready and even urging you to send a more intense signal down that wire.

But there are two sides to the training effort: Intentional stimulation of the new circuit and intentional atrophy of the old one. You’ve got to make the old one wither away from disuse so that it is no longer there to fall back on. [I’ve imprinted my stroke this way so deeply that even under intentionally designed 3-hour swims with no food or water meant to test myself under complete energy drain I have no bad stroke to fall back into- I stay balanced, long and streamlined, and the catch stays the same – its the only position my body knows now – but I just don’t have any more acceleration to offer. Now I don’t worry about my stroke falling apart under stress like that.]

So, in your case, you need to develop a discipline for making incremental increases in intensity. You can’t work a little in first gear and then expect to jump into 5th gear suddenly and go. You’ll spend a season in 1st gear, and then 2nd gear and then 3rd and then 4th, and finally imprint it at highest intensities. You can always experiment and play up and down that intensity ladder, but failure is sending you a message. Read it.

Practice in incremental increases just up to failure point, assess why it failed, modify your approach, and then work around that failure point. There is far more likelihood that it fails because of concentration waning than because of strength is waning. This is neurological exhaustion.


It will depend on a lot of things!

It depends on how strong your foundational skills in balance and streamline are that support propulsive skills like EVF. If your balance is impeccable and you’ve developed active streamline (spearing hand pierces the water at the moment you set the catch- and you have a compact streamline kick behind you) then EVF will be much easier and much safer to develop. If you are completely stable at higher intensities and tempos then you will have a much easier time imprinting an adjustment like this to your catch because then your hand will be able to focus completely on holding water rather than stabilizing a wobbly body. If not, you will struggle a great deal under higher intensities and take greater risk against your shoulder health.

It depends on how dedicated you are to neglecting the old default patterns.

It depends on how frequently you can practice the new patterns, and how many repetitions you make.

It depends on how well you concentrate, and for how long you can hold that concentration during practice sets. Design sets according to your strength of attention, not your energy. Repetition PLUS precision makes good skill sink in.  To challenge yourself just enough but not too much use distance and rest intervals as well as variation in intensity levels.

And if you have access to open-water you can imprint such skills so much faster when there are no walls to interrupt your rhythm and concentration. I only discovered the imprinting power of open-water training once I started spending most of my time there a few years ago. I don’t rub this in because I realize how few have consistent or reasonable access to ow for training. But if you have the chance, do repeats of 100+ un-interrupted strokes each while holding a certain focal point and you’ll see how sensitive you become and how quickly you can form new habits and break old ones.


This too is a complicated topic.


It may be helpful to take a long view of your stroke development. I use this analogy of a marble sculptor approaching his project. He doesn’t start with a blank slab and chisel out a hand, polish it off, and then move on to carve out the knee. There is an exhaustive series of roughing in and refinement going over the entire sculpture in greater and greater detail until at last it is a perfected, polished piece. Every part gets a bit of attention in turn, in order of priority. But the whole piece, every piece, gets worked over and over again, little by little, in proportion and in priority to the others.

If you’ve got nothing forcing you to put pressure on an under-developed feature in your stroke then why not take your time and be as careful as you can in every practice, in every stroke? It is an investment up front that pays very big returns later on.

And if you are just entering race season, are your performance goals fixed only in one-year terms? (I gotta share an old proverb my uncle used to tell… I will stick it at the end) Must you aim for a PR using your old stroke in the next race, or can you set some other objective for that experience – one that will prepare you for an achievement even better beyond that? Setting long-sighted, conditional progress goals for the upcoming race may put you in position to go even further next race or the season than you could if you compromised your disciplined progress plan to go as fast as you can, no matter the cost, in every race this year.

You also have a whole set of supporting skills that need to be developed in coordination with EVF, or any other propulsive skill. So over-emphasizing EVF could be a problem if you are not also addressing more important foundational skills that are just as weak. EVF will only be as effective as your Balance and Streamline skills permit.

For instance, if you have a scissor kick with legs splaying outside your profile line while you catch- you are effectively putting the breaks on while you step on the accelerator pedal. No point pulling harder until you fix the excess drag caused by a wide (or deep) and scissoring kick. Always work first to reduce your work load before trying to increase it. 

So view your Catch skill in context of the other skills that make that Catch work well. Build up the foundation and it will be so much easier to make gains. Compromise on the Catch if you’ve got more critical weaknesses negating its effectiveness anyway- spend some time addressing those as well, if not first. You can only focus on one thing at a time and while you are focusing here you’ll be aware that you are failing over there – that’s ok. As long as you take note and prepare to address each, in their turn, you will eventually fix all of them. Work on them one by one, a few each day.


Ok. The old hunter’s proverb for you that I learned from my uncle…

elk herd

There was once two big bull elk standing on a rise in the deep forest, looking down upon a meadow full of cow elk during rut season.

In his excitement, the young bull says to the older bull, “Hey, let’s run down there and get us a fine cow!”

The older bull turns and say, “No son. Let’s walk down there and take the whole herd.”



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