A Unique Stroke
Breaststroke can come and go like the wind. It is frustrating for both swimmers and coaches to have a swimmer’s breaststroke clicking one season and then, in the next, ‘poof’, the technique vanishes. Gone…and so are the fast swim times. Breaststroke is a tough stroke to do well and continue doing well. When done properly, it differs from the other three strokes in the following ways:
Breaststroke is the only stroke where the kick and pull occur independently
Breaststroke is the only stroke where the body speed goes to nearly zero with each stroke cycle
Breaststroke is the stroke most dependent on a strong kick
Breaststroke requires a completely different set of anatomical/biomechanical tools
Breaststroke is the only stroke that does not offer any ‘recovery time’ for either arms or legs
The coupling motions of breaststroke are the most timing sensitive and difficult to achieve
Let’s examine each of these six differentiating points of breaststroke and help get you on the road to a fast breaststroke again.
How to Get Your Breaststroke Clicking Again
First, since the kick and the pull occur independently in breaststroke, that means that the legs/feet cannot get in the way when the arms are pulling. Similarly, the arms/head/upper body cannot get in the way when the kick is happening. In other words, one end of the body must be streamlined to reduce frontal drag while the other end is working to create propulsion.Too often, breaststrokers fail to do that.
When the kick propulsion happens, the swimmer is often relaxing the arms out front with the head positioned too high, the so-called superman pose. The swimmer is trying to take a mini-vacation for the arms. Or in other cases, the swimmer is over anxious to start pulling and separates the arms while the kick propulsion is greatest. In either case the frontal drag increases tremendously during the important propulsive phase of the kick. When the pull is happening, too often the legs and feet are hanging down, relaxing, also causing a bad frontal drag position.
At The Race Club we practice a lot of two kick/one pull drill in the hyper-streamlined position or the racing streamlined position, which improves the speed of the body moving forward from the kick and also teaches the swimmer to be patient with the pull, keeping the hands together out front. To improve the streamline at the back end, we do many kicking drills with the heels lifted and feet pointed backward at the end of the kick.
The Standing Dunk
Second, the speed of a breaststroker approaches zero when the two thighs are brought forward and the shoulders are elevated in preparation for the next kick. Since frontal drag is related to the swimmer’s speed squared, at that particular moment, with the speed near zero, frontal drag is no longer an issue. Therefore, we want the breaststroker to get into the best possible position for the next kick propulsion. That means elevating the shoulders as high as possible, while keeping the legs pointing straight back.
I call breaststroke the ‘standing dunk’ of swimming. You don’t get to run and dunk the basketball, like you do in free, back or fly. You have to try and dunk it from a dead stand each time. That means we want to maximize the propulsion for each kick which requires the highest elevation of the shoulders possible, bending, not rotating on the short axis, and drawing the thighs forward to a 100 degree angle with the upper body.
The Kick is Key
Third, while the kick is important in all strokes, in good breaststrokers, the kick is providing as much as 80% of the total propulsion, which is a higher contribution to total propulsion than all of the other strokes. To get your breaststroke clicking or be fast in the IM today, one must develop a strong breaststroke kick.
The kick propulsion is determined from the amount and speed of the surface area of the instep of the feet pushing backward. The larger the area and faster that area can be pushed backward, the stronger the propulsion. Most of the propulsion occurs in the early phase of the feet pushing backward, not toward the end of the kick.
Besides having strong legs and good kicking technique, there are three sets of anatomical tools that are extremely important in order to develop a fast breaststroke kick. The first is a flexibility of the hip to externally rotate the leg, so the feet can point further outward creating more surface area. The second is the dorsiflexion of the ankle (pulling the toes back), which also helps to point the feet outward. The third is the lumbar flexibility of the spine, which enables a swimmer to elevate the shoulders higher out of the water, while still keeping the legs pointed straight backward.
If you are not gifted naturally with these tools, don’t worry. You can still work hard to develop them. You just need to know how. In the next article we will describe some dryland stretches that will help you get your breaststroke clicking, as well as how to use the important coupling motions to improve the power of your kick and pull.
Yours in Swimming,