Breaststroke is a funny stroke. To some, it comes naturally. Others struggle with it.
Once learned, however, one of the biggest misconceptions is that breaststroke is easy. I can’t count how many times I’ve told squads that a practice will be breaststroke oriented, and everyone either breathes a sigh of relief or cheers. This typically happens early on in a season, and with athletes I haven’t worked with before.
In my opinion (key word being OPINION), out of the four competitive strokes, breaststroke is the easiest stroke to swim easy. When executed with proper timing and streamline, it is indeed very relaxing and energy efficient.
…but what happens when you want to go fast?
Once an athlete begins to truly understand what is required to be competitive in breaststroke, they typically change their tune. Just ask anyone how excruciating that third leg of a 400 IM can be, or the mental fortitude required to finish a 200-breast strongly.
The biggest key to great breaststroke is PATIENCE. Unlike free or back, you can’t just jack up your tempo and spin your arms like crazy to increase speed. You’ll end up going nowhere, and exhausted and out of breath to boot. Power and quickness is are an absolute must, but even more important is control. I often quote Master Yoda to athletes that just want to go fast at the expense of technique: “Control, control, you must learn CONTROL!!!”
So, what are some aspects of a “patient” and “controlled” breaststroke? For one, you MUST follow through with your kick before executing the next stroke. That is, the feet must snap together, legs fully extended, followed by a glide of race-appropriate length. For example, you will glide longer during a 200-breast than you would for a 50. You’re sacrificing some speed for endurance and efficiency, no different than any of the other strokes.
Another critical aspect of breaststroke is a quick breath. One of the hallmarks of a great breaststroker is the ability to take a breath and get that head back into the water (i.e. get the body back into streamline) as quickly and efficiently as possible. Whether you’re swimming a 50 , 100, or 200 or the breaststroke leg of an IM event doesn’t matter; the longer you spend with your head up, the less efficient your stroke becomes. Momentum is critical for efficient breaststroke, and if you’re having to spend excessive time with your head up, your speed and efficiency will suffer. This means exhaling BEFORE your airway leaves the water – it’s no different than free or fly. You don’t want your face hanging out any longer than is absolutely necessary.
Finally, as with any stroke, you must constantly be moving FORWARD. If your tempo is too high, and especially if you’re not following through with your kick, your progress through the water will be slow and clunky. Conversely, if your tempo is too low (i.e. you’re gliding too long), you’re going to slow down, sometimes to the point of coming to a screeching halt. One of my favorite ways to train proper tempo and efficiency is to set two parameters for yourself when practicing breaststroke: put a limit on the number of strokes you take per length, as well as set a goal pace. For example, you might be doing a set of 50s breast, and you want to go no higher than 6 strokes per length, but no slower than 45 seconds each 50. In reality, the number of strokes and pace will depend on whether you’re sprinting or training for a longer race. As you proceed through the set, holding both should become more difficult. If you reach a point where holding either one is not possible, the set is finished.
Remember, what happens in practice will happen in a race, and if you’re always training to crash and burn, that will carry over to a meet. But with lots of safe and smart training over a period of time, your body will acclimate, and you can set new parameters for yourself.
(and here’s a secret: this strategy works wonders for the other three strokes, as well!)
In any event, remember the old adage, “If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you!”