Why the Late Front Breath in Butterfly Makes Sense

When children learn to swim butterfly for the first time, they often take a late breath in butterfly, pausing their arms at the end of the underwater pull before recovering the arms and taking the breath. We usually try to teach young swimmers to take the breath earlier in the underwater pull to avoid the delay in the arm recovery. While developing a faster pulling stroke rate is important in building a strong butterfly, it may be that the children have it right in delaying their breath.

Two of the fastest butterflyers in the world today, Joseph Schooling of Singapore and Chad Le Clos of South Africa, have a delayed front breath, though they achieve it in slightly different ways. Schooling initiates the head lift later in the underwater pull, while Le Clos holds the head up above water longer before dropping it down. In either case, the head snaps down later than when the front breath is taken earlier in the stroke.

The rationale for the late or delayed front breath has to do with the powerful coupling motions of the butterfly, which include the arms swinging forward during the recovery, the head snapping down and the shoulders/upper body pressing down. None of these motions provide any propulsive force, yet if timed correctly, they can add a tremendous amount of force to the second down kick in the fly cycle. The first down kick occurs when the hands are well into the propulsive phase underwater. The second down kick should be timed with the point of maximum kinetic energy of the coupling motions; when the hands, head and shoulders strike the water on their way down or forward. With the traditional early-breath fly technique, the head is already down before the second down kick occurs, contributing little or no coupling energy to this propulsive force. Similarly, the side breath contributes little or no energy to this second kick. Not so with the delayed front breathing technique.

Nothing is more demonstrative of the power of the coupling motions in butterfly than in the 2015 World University Games 200 finals of the 200-meter butterfly, where Japanese swimmer, Yuya Yajima, won a silver medal in the time of 1:55.7. What was unusual about this swim is that Yuya did that time with a stroke rate of 31, when everyone else in the race swam with a more typical stroke rate of in the high 40’s. Before that race, I would have bet my house that no one could swim a 200-meter fly in 1:55 with a stroke rate of 31. Thankfully, I didn’t.

Yuya’s technique, which has been called the ‘dolphin dive butterfly’, could accomplish that speed only through the use of a strong kick, great streamlining and powerful coupling motions. With the breath on each stroke, Yuya elevates high out of the water, arching the back (similar to breaststroke). Then he swings the arms forward aggressively, snapping the head and pressing the upper body down into a tight streamline, timing the arrival of all three at the surface of the water precisely with the second down kick. The hands are then held in front long enough to take the first dolphin down kick in this streamlined position. The result is an extraordinary surge forward underwater that enables him to be competitive with the other swimmers using a much higher stroke rate.

Neither Schooling nor Le Clos slow their stroke rates, yet by delaying the head snapping and the body pressing downward, they delay the peak of energy from those coupling motions to occur precisely with the second down kick. That leads to a greater surge forward under water after the kick. This technique is similar to the hybrid freestyle, where the swimmer with a strong kick can compete against faster stroke rates by increasing the coupling energy of the body rotation, head drop and faster arm recovery after the breath, leading to a surge forward under water.

Since all fast butterflyers have strong kicks, it makes the use of the delayed or prolonged front breath a plausible technique and worth trying. While in the 50-meter sprint, it is clearly faster to not breathe, for the 100 meters or longer, getting as much oxygen as possible is beneficial. Taking it later in the pulling cycle, rather than earlier, may just be best way to swim fly. Turns out, we may learn something from watching children starting to swim butterfly.

Yours in swimming,

Gary Sr.

16 Responses to Why the Late Front Breath in Butterfly Makes Sense

  1. Bob

    I try and correct children with the late breath – maybe some few world class swimmers with an extreme well body awareness can manage to keep the bodyline along the surface when doing this movement, for most swimmers however, the feet tend to fall when the head is up, to compensate for weight/balance . . . by this they create a bigger surface and more resistance . . . and the more tired they get, the more their feet are dragging on the bottom of the pool . . . . with the head in before the arms, the balance of the body pulls up the feet and they lie along the surface and have less drag.
    Bob T+

    • garyhallsr

      Fly is one of the two most kick-dependent strokes (the other is breaststroke), so in order to take advantage of the late head drop, one must develop a strong second down kick. Most children don’t have the strength yet developed to do two strong down kicks, yet again strong up kicks. Children get the late breath not for coupling but for lack of strength.



  3. Logan Fluegel

    Interesting. I feel it’s a very unorthodox technique. I rarely see it done. I think if you made a video discussing and breaking it down more it would be a great representation of this note. Thanks for sharing too! Would love to see more aqua notes in the future! -Logan

  4. D. Dolan

    Excellent insights! I’m curious about how Sarah Sjostrom swims butterfly. Would you classify hey breathing style for the 100m fly as late or early?

    • garyhallsr

      Sarah tends to hold the head up longer and snap it down hard timed with her strong kick…similar to LeClos..but with less shoulder elevation than he has.

  5. cathy

    Well, in a 50 she doesn’t breathe at all…

    • garyhallsr

      Yes..but in the 100 she breathes every stroke after the first 30 meters or so.

  6. Andrew Webber

    So the rules say remain on the surface, does anyone else think Yajima’s style should be a dq? I’m not sure if you dip under during a normal stroke you should get done, but he’s definitely taking a kick underwater. Dq for me.

    • garyhallsr

      Yajima takes two kicks with the hands in front, rather than the traditional one. That slows his stroke rate a lot (30ish in the 200) but enables him to surge with his strong kick…mostly underwater. His technique shows the power of kick and coupling energy in fly…which he maximizes with high elevation on the breath.

  7. Peter Juiris

    I find late breathing to be more tiring. I feel you must exert more energy to rise the head + arms out of the water (the creation of potential energy) vs. the head, then the arms cycle of an early breath. The PE of the head + arms gets released as kinetic energy when the head + arms crash down and then couples to create a more powerful second kick. So is this more efficient or powerful over the course of a 100 or 200 meters? Is it faster? I don’t think so. The late breath results in more frontal drag due to the ballistic crash. The early breath creates a flatter, more efficient stroke and the ‘soft hands’ entry style of Phelps. You simply cannot have that ‘soft hands’ entry with the late breath style. The added benefit of the early breath is that it places the arms into a better and stronger stretch position that harnesses more (and free) power from the stretch reflex and stretch shortening cycle (SSC) in the shoulders and lats, two of the most powerful force producing forces in the human body. (These forces are why you can jump higher from a jump when you drop down and then jump vs. jump from a still squatting position, or bench press more from a full bench press motion vs one starting from the chest position). The late breath will not work as well in this manner since its doesn’t place the swimmer into as ideal of a stretch position. (look at phelps underwater when his hands enter and you’ll see that deep stretch). Overall, the early breath harnesses a flatter, less drag inducing technique and better harnesses the ‘free’ power of the stretch reflex and SSC. The early breath may not produce as good of a DPS since it doesn’t couple as well with the second kick, but in the end, it creates less frontal drag and better harnesses the ‘free’ power of the SSC. I personally believe that the free power in the back from the SSC + soft hands entry + flatter style of the early breath results in a faster style over 100-200 meters than does the increased power of the coupled second kick + higher drag of the late breath.

    If were looking at kids, look at kids in practice that use one vs the other. I coach some kids and the early breathers always dominate practice sets. They invariably tire less quickly.

    • garyhallsr

      Interesting thoughts. I am not sure that the late breath increases frontal drag. It may reduce frontal drag. Whether early or late, the important fact of physics is to time the maximum kinetic energy of the arm swing and head motion with the second kick. An early breather that holds the head up longer, a la Phelps, LeClos or Sjostrom, works fine, so long as the timing is right. Not sure I can comment on any difference in propulsion from the early vs late frontal breath, but Joseph Schooling seems to manage a lot of propulsion with his late breath.

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