Breaststroke: easy or maybe the hardest?

February was dubbed the fitness month.  For the experienced swimmers and triathletes, it was the critical month to build your base endurance work for the season ahead.  For the New Year resolution swimmers, it was the critical month to make it a permanent habit to keep going to the pool on a regular basis and enjoy it.  By now, you may be worn out by those long freestyle sets.  It might be the time to refocus on technique, and maybe experience another stroke.

In previous articles, I have addressed some basic points of technique in freestyle (Dec 2017), backstroke (March 2018) and butterfly (July 2018).  In this article, I will try to give you some pointers for breaststroke.

For the longest time, breaststroke has been the staple of swimming.  My parents or grandparents, if they could swim, could only do breaststroke, and it was the only stroke learned at school or swim lessons around the country.  Why?  Easy, you can swim breaststroke with your head up in an almost vertical position and without having to get your hair wet!!!  When I swim at my local pool, there are still a few lap swimmers going back and forth slowly in that type of breaststroke for hours.  This is fine, it keeps them fit and it certainly beats watching soap operas at home.  However, if you have read my other articles about technique, you will know that the key element of better swimming is the horizontal position of your body on top of the water.  Breaststroke and butterfly are short axis strokes (you need to bend at the level of the waist), so it is impossible to stay completely on top of the water.  Breaststroke is giving you the extra challenge of recovering the arms under water, and a tricky kick which makes you drop your knees and put most of your weight on the back of your buoyancy center (your lungs).  This also explains why it is the slowest but also hardest stroke to master well.

  1. Horizontal position of the body. This is by far the hardest to achieve in breaststroke, which means to get back into a streamline position close to the top of the water after each cycle of one-arm-one-kick. The kick is crucial and usually plays a dominant role.  Most often you are a natural breaststroker or not.  If you have a good and powerful breaststroke kick, you already know.  If not, it is time to work on it to make it legal and more efficient.  According to the rule book, the feet must be turned outwards during the propulsive part of the kick and all movements of the legs shall be simultaneous and in the same horizontal plane without alternating movements.  In other words, no scissors, no flutter and no downwards butterfly kick (except for one during the pullout).  Easier said than done.  Here are a few drills to get a better feel for what you are doing in the water: vertical kick in the deep end.  Are you going up and down or are you going sideways?  If you are really turning your feet outwards, you should have the sole of your feet turned to the bottom of the pool and the push should bring you straight up.  If you are going sideways, you are not fast enough to turn your feet outwards and you are probably doing a dolphin kick.  Once you are going up and down, watch where your knees are: can you see them in front of your body, are they very wide, way out of your body line?  Time to get close to the wall on the deep end, put your belly button on the wall and your legs straight down, keeping your knees on the wall, draw your heel up to your butt then point your toes out and sweep down.  You must feel the pressure on the inside of your foot.  A good breaststroke kick is indeed narrow, quick and powerful to get in the best streamline position as soon as possible and enjoy the power of your legs!!!  Now let’s get back to reality, as most of us are not natural breaststrokers, and are no longer 25 years old.  Our knees, ankles and hips have seen better days.  We probably will never achieve that perfect powerful kick, but we should keep working on it.  First: have your feet turned out and simultaneous to make it legal.  Second: do not drop your knees, but bring your heels toward your butt to avoid the resistance of your thigh against the water.  Third: to achieve a better horizontal position, narrow your kick as much as possible to make it quick, powerful and streamlined.  Practice, practice, practice: with a kickboard, without a kickboard, practice with your hands on your side trying to touch your ankle, practice both on your front (breathe when you bring your legs up) and on your back (no knees out of the water).  If you are not yet very streamlined, make sure you bring your legs slowly to avoid too much resistance and push very forcefully to get as much power as possible in your glide.
  2. Efficiency of the arm movements. Due to the nature of the kick, it is very hard to keep the horizontal position unless we are consciously keeping our hands and head forward to keep our center of balance towards the front.  We need to swim extended up to our fingertips!  Our arm movement will be short, quick and our eyes will be looking towards the bottom of the pool.  It is crucial to start with an efficient sculling motion towards your power position (arms in a Y position, head still looking down).  From there, you will have an explosive arm movement which will bring your forearm in a catch position (90 degree and elbows remaining at the top of the water), reach to the front as fast as possible to be able to breathe without lifting your head and avoid the resistance of the water.  Of course, the more power you have in your arms and back muscles, the higher you will be able to go and the faster you will be able to get back in a streamline position.  Most of us will never be able to achieve great height over the water, but we all should try to keep our arms extended to the front as long as possible, do a quick and small arm movement to keep our center of balance to the front and not having to lift our head to breathe.  To help with the arm movements, practice sculling (are you going somewhere?), practice very small and quick circle arm movements keeping your elbow up and not going too far back.
  3. Coordination between arms and legs: In the short axis strokes (breast and fly), the timing between the arms and the legs is the key.  In a nutshell, it is streamline, sculling with head down, then 3 things happening more or less at the same time: quick arms circle, breath, initiation of kick (bringing the legs up) then powerful kick to bring you over the water as much as possible and back into a streamline position.  Note that most of us will not be able to use as much of the undulation and hip movement used by the very strong breaststroker.  So, unless you are very powerful to go over the water, it is a mistake to use a too big undulation to go down under water as the resistance of the water will slow you down.  Instead of up and down, think forward, forward and extension.

By far, breaststroke is one of the hardest strokes to master, and often you are or you are not a natural breaststroker.  There are still a lot of very experienced swimmers who can swim everything except breaststroke, and you have very good breaststrokers who can only swim breaststroke.  Why?  It is a beast by itself.  But it is a skill like any others, it just requires more practice than some, and most swimmers do not like to swim it in practice because it is slower.  Who likes to be the slowest of the group?

On the other hand, if breaststroke is the only stroke you learned and can swim, keep at it, extend to the front, look down and stretch it out.  Or why not give yourself a challenge and start learning freestyle?

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