In traditional swimming lingo the underwater part of the freestyle stroke is called the pull, as in pulling back on the water, as in pulling the body forward, and this is regarded as the most important part of the whole stroke.
In Total Immersion we call this the catch-and-hold, because we understand the main purpose of this part of the stroke is to get a grip on the water at a certain point, hold that point, transfer that resistant force to the other side of the body and slide forward in streamline Skate Position.
In the traditional style stroke, the swimmer is urged to fling the arm forward in the recovery, splash a flat arm down into the water and immediately start pulling back. This usually results in the swimmer not reaching as far in front of the body as he might be able to. Because the pull, and especially the last half of the pull is believed to be the most valuable part – after all, one can feel the arm and shoulder muscles working hard to make that final push, with the hand traveling down the thigh.
In contrast, in the Total Immersion view, the entry and extension is the most important part of the whole stroke, where the body is channeling all the gathered force into that streamlined body and most easily sliding forward. Then the swimmer reaches and gets a grip on the water as far in front of the body as he comfortably can. The first half of the stroke is viewed as the most important part, starting as far in front as possible. The swimmer is urged to shape the forearm at the set of the catch in such a way to get that grip on the water as smoothly, as quickly as possible far in front, then hold that grip as the body rotates forward, around that grip point.
In the traditional style stroke, since the swimmer wants to push back as far as possible, he must pause his elbow at his waist while the forearm-hand continue to push back (using the tricep muscle), pivoting on that elbow. By pausing the elbow (not allowing it to exit and begin the recovery) the hand can keep pushing and feel resistance of the water. Observers can often see a big splash or ‘rooster tail’ of water shooting out behind the swimmer as his hand flings that final bit of water behind.
In the Total Immersion style stroke, the elbow never pauses, as it gets to its farthest point, but immediately ‘boomerangs’ out of the water and forward on an elliptical path. The hand continues to drift back behind the elbow, like a tail whipping behind. The elbow moving forward while the hand moving backward neutralizes the water pressure against the hand. The grip on the water fades away as the hand reaches the waist. There is not final push of the forearm and hand. Instead, as the elbow swings forward and the hand extends behind to its farthest point, the elbow pulls the hand forward, slipping it out of the water without splash or sound, like slipping an arm out of the sleeve of a jacket.
Can you see the difference?
In traditional swimming, the front end is not important, the back end is. So one must pause the elbow in order to keep pushing water past the waist and down the leg. The overlap of the arms before switch, the patient full extension into Skate, the reach to start the catch farther in front – these are less valuable and therefore quickly sacrificed in the eagerness to get back to the pull and push at the end.
In Total Immersion, the front end is most important. No pause at the back is allowed because the arm is eager to get back in front, to get back into streamline, to get to the next gripping point farther in front of the body. The absence of the elbow pause means the hand has nothing to lever against at the very end of the stroke and so pressure dissolves from the waist line back.
Especially in a fast tempo stroke, every swimmer has to cut down travel distance and time somewhere – there are options on where to cut the stroke down, and those options are not equal.
The default human solution is to sacrifice the front and keep the back end, because this is easiest on the muscles to do, especially when they are getting fatigued, but less effective for actually maintaining forward momentum. This results in a shorter and shorter stroke, with an increasing tempo as fatigue sets in.
But the superior solution, the one that does not come easy, but when trained is more effective and maintaining forward momentum, is to sacrifice the back end and keep priority on the front end. This results in a stroke that resists shortening at fatigue sets in, allowing the swimmer to protect pace better.