Aqua Notes

What Grade is Your Freestyle Recovery?


When you fill up your tank at the gas station, usually you are offered three grades of gasoline, regular (low octane 87), mid range (about octane 91), and premium (high octane 93). The high-octane gas is more expensive, but it increases the energy and efficiency of the engine. It makes your car go faster.

In swimming, I like to describe the freestyle recovery as having three octane grades; low, medium and high. The lowest octane recovery means that the elbow is bent almost maximally, the length of the arm reduced by half, as it recovers from the release phase after the propulsion and moves to the front of the body for the next stroke cycle. This form of recovery requires the least amount of energy for a given stroke cycle rate, and not surprisingly, it is what we see in most distance freestyle swimmers.

When we get to shorter, middle-distanced races like the 100 and 200 meters, we often see the hand elevating from the water, with the elbow less bent on the recovery. This middle-octane form of recovery requires more work than the low-octane recovery, but produces more kinetic energy for the same stroke rate.

Finally, in the sprint freestyle event, the 50 meter, we often see the hand elevated even further, or even a complete straight-armed recovery, the high-octane recovery. With the arm straightened, the radius of the arm has now doubled from the low-octane recovery stroke. If the stroke rate is the same as with the low-octane recovery, the kinetic energy in this motion is quadrupled. In fact, we often see the stroke rate in the 50 sprint at around twice that of the distance swimmers, which means the energy in the recovering arm may be 8 times greater than for the distance swimmer. That requires a lot more work of the swimmer to create all that energy. So why do it?

Once the stroke rate gets above 80 or so, the recovering arm becomes one of the two coupling motions of the freestyler. The other is the rotating body. The degree of coupling, augmenting the force of the underwater pulling arm, or the kick, is proportional to the energy in the coupling motion. In other words, the more energy in the recovering arm and/or the rotating body, the further down the pool we swim with each pull, so long as the two motions are connected.

Just like in the car, the faster we want to swim, the more octane we need in the recovering motion. Sprinters need high octane in order to win, while distance swimmers often like to use low to medium octane recoveries, saving their energy for the body rotation and the underwater pull and kick.

It makes no sense to use a high-octane recovery, requiring a lot of effort, if the stroke rate is around 60 or slower, a hip-driven freestyle. The reason is that the pulling arm is held out front during most of the recovering motion and by the time it starts its propulsion, the recovering arm is already in the water and lost its kinetic energy. In other words, there is no coupling going on with the pull with this slow of a stroke rate. The motions are not connected.

Because of the sheer mass of the upper body, the rotation of the body is the most important coupling motion we have in freestyle. Therefore, regardless of the level of octane used in the recovery motion, one should always use a fast body rotation with the pulling arm in propulsive phase.

In teaching these various forms of freestyle technique at The Race Club, we often imagine that there is a string going from the shoulders straight up to the sky. With each stroke, we try to get the swimmers to bring the elbow up to the string. In this way, regardless of whether the recovering motion is low, medium or high octane, with the elbow at the string, the body (or at least the shoulders) must be rotated fully. That means that the body must turn quickly to the other side in order for the other elbow to reach the string. The quickness of the body rotation creates a lot of coupling energy for the underwater pull. One can then add the recovering arm’s energy to the body rotation, low for distance, medium for mid distance or high for sprints, to optimize the technique for each race.

No one leaves The Race Club without having at least two freestyle techniques, because there is no one technique that works well for all distances. Some, like Race Club swimmer and Olympic champion Nathan Adrian, change their technique during the race. Nathan often goes from a mid-octane freestyle recovery to a high-octane, straight-armed recovery with a higher stroke rate to finish his 100-meter freestyle. Nathan wins a lot of races that way.

If you need to tune up your engine, come to The Race Club and let us help you determine what grade of arm recovery you need in your freestyle events.

Yours in swimming,

Gary Sr.

Gary Sr. Podcasts All Things Triathlon Swim Training with Kevin Koskella

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Kevin Koskella from interviews Gary Hall Sr. on all things triathlon swim training in this podcast.
-Gary Hall Sr. background
-How to accomplish varying goals
-Triathletes, masters, and age group swimmers
-Mindset – “I am a swimmer”
-Body limitations & core strength
-Minimizing drag and maximizing propulsion
-Hip driven/Shoulder driven freestyle
-Velocity meter 
-Importance of high elbow & stroke rate
-Importance of drag drills
-Swim bench
-Tips for triathletes: flip turns & more


The Race Club –
Velocity meter –
Tempo Trainer – Tempo Trainer
Freestyle Pull- drag drills:
Upcoming Race Club swim camps:

Listen on iTunes or by clicking here.

The Power of the Surge


At The Race Club, I often ask our campers where is the fastest place one can swim in the water. As you can imagine, most of them say below the surface, but the answer is, of course, above the water, or hydroplaning. Unfortunately, it is estimated that in order to hydroplane, the human body needs to be going around 15 miles an hour, or faster. With world record speed in the 50 at just over 5 miles an hour, I don’t think we will be seeing anyone hydroplaning soon.

So, if we can’t swim on top of the water, where is the next best place to be? Under water is the next best place (our campers aren’t too far off). In fact, swimmers with very strong kicks are able to go faster underwater, with legs only, than they can swim on the surface with arms and legs going at full speed. Part of the reason for this is because the pulling motion contributes to both propulsion and frontal drag. However, the biggest reason is because of surface or wave drag.

Surface drag occurs only when the swimmer is on the surface and is caused by the body moving through the interface between air and water. Just like a boat, swimmers create a small bow wave, mostly from the head, as they move through the water on the surface. Surface drag is as significant for a swimmer as it is for a submarine. Submarines go much faster under water than they go on the surface, and so do humans.

When we speak of underwater movement of the swimmer, most coaches think in terms of starts and turns, and after 15 meters the swimmer is, by the rules, relegated to the surface. Indeed, the underwater speed on both starts and turns is extremely important. What most coaches don’t realize is that each stroke has an underwater phase…or at least it should. Breaststroke is the most obvious one, where in all but the 50, where stroke rates approach 60 or higher, the body submerges completely during the strike phase after the kick propulsion. That is when the breaststroker achieves the greatest speed; when he/she surges forward.

Though it is less noticeable, there is also an under water surge phase in freestyle, fly and backstroke. The under water surge should occur at the peak velocity in the stroke cycle, so the drag coefficient is lowest when the speed is highest. Frontal drag is proportional to the speed squared, not just the speed. In freestyle, the peak velocity occurs when one hand first enters the water. For hybrid freestylers, like Phelps, Lochte or Ledecky, or hip-driven freestylers, liked Sun Yang, the surge occurs right after the breath stroke, when the head submerges momentarily. In butterfly, the underwater surge occurs after the second down kick, when both hands have entered the water and head is tucked down. In backstroke, one often sees a slight trickle of water come over the face of the swimmer as the hand is nearing entry into the water, the surge point.

In order to surge, a swimmer has to create propulsive forces to surge with, and, at the right time, the swimmer must be under water. The propulsion comes from two sources substantially, the hands and the feet. One can augment the propulsive forces of the hands and feet by using coupling motions in all four strokes. In freestyle and backstroke, the coupling motions are the rotating body and, depending on the stroke rate, the recovering arm. In breaststroke, the coupling motions that augment the kicking force are the downward pressing of the upper body and snapping down of the head. The coupling motion that augments the pull is the upward motion of the upper body and head. In butterfly, the coupling motions are primarily the arms swinging forward and the head snapping down, timed with the second down kick. We are just beginning to understand how important these coupling motions are to swimmers to increase power, speed and distance per stroke.

I never would have believed that someone could swim a 200 meter butterfly in 1:55 with a stroke rate of 31 (typical stroke rates are 48 or so in the 200). Yet Yajima Yuma from Japan did that in the World University Games recently, maximizing the force of his strong kick with an elevated diving body, strong forward arm swing and head snapping down, all coupling motions, into an underwater surge in a streamlined position. That swim is a testament to the power of coupling.

Do not underestimate the importance of getting the head and most of the body underwater during the surge phases of each stroke. One millimeter under water is enough to eliminate the surface drag. Although in the 50 sprints, because of the high stroke rates, we would be hard pressed to say that there is any significant surge point, in all other races, surging underwater is a key to fast swimming.

Best in swimming,

Gary Sr.

Create a Thing of Beauty with Your Backstroke Start


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A great backstroke start is a thing of beauty. I liken it to a dolphin leaping out of the water and piercing the water through a hula-hoop, or David Boudia, scoring a perfect 10 off of the 10-meter tower. You see no splash and hear no splash.

Unlike from the starting block, the backstroker begins the race at a lower height. Gravitational forces are still important, however, so in order to take advantage of them, the backstroker must launch upward, not just backward, to achieve the greatest speed at entry. Further, in order to reach the highest speed on the backstroke start, the swimmer needs to avoid dragging any part of the body through the water. The body needs to go completely airborne during the start.

If you could freeze the backstroker at the very peak height of the start, you would find the feet and hands are very close to the water, yet the bum is a couple of feet above the surface of the water, with the body forming an upside down U shape. In other words, the body is arched way back, and is completely out the water.

If a swimmer is to have any chance of reaching this extraordinary height on the start, he or she must launch from a high position. Taking your mark, the swimmer must elevate the body until the bum is right at the surface or above the water. This is most effectively achieved when the toes are very near the surface and gripping the touch pad. On a flat wall, the feet can be placed slightly above the surface of the water.

Upon elevation of the body, the back should be straight and the chin held upright, rather than looking downward. Some backstrokers prefer to keep the bum further away from the wall than the head, while others are positioned more straight up and down. Just like doing a pull up, it requires a lot of strength to reach this high position. With the additional weight from the body leaving the water, there is also more risk of the feet slipping down the wall. World-class backstrokers Missy Franklin and David Plummer know what that feels like, as that mishap occurred to them in the Olympic Games and World Championships, respectively.

Much of the risk of the feet slipping has been mitigated by the introduction of the backstroke wedge, an adjustable plate that sits against the wall under the surface, helping prevent the feet from slipping down. This device is now approved by FINA for all major swimming championships.

When given the option of a vertical or horizontal bar on the starting block to grasp to elevate the body for the start, most elite backstrokers at the World Championships chose the vertical over the horizontal bar. Those that chose the horizontal bar, always selected the higher bar, not the lower one.

Once elevated, with the sound of the beep, the swimmer throws the arms more or less straight back overhead, and extends the head backward, as if looking upside down to the end of the pool. The energy of the arm swing and the head snapping backward are both coupling motions that augment the force of the feet pushing the body upward and backward. With the back fully arched, the swimmer avoids contact with the water until the hands enter first, and with the high launch, reaches a greater speed at entry. The hands should be wrapped together wrist over wrist at entry in a tight streamline.

Just before the hands enter the water, the head begins to come up and the back begins to straighten to avoid going too deep with an overly arched body position. Since the heel of the foot is the first part of the foot to reach the water, the foot actually relaxes from its plantar-flexed (pointed) position to create the least amount of drag at entry.

Once the body is underwater, the real backstroke race begins with the dolphin kicks. In fact, in short course races, more of the race is swum underwater dolphin kicking rather than on the surface backstroking. The faster the kicker, the better the start becomes. Since the swimmer usually goes deeper with a backstroke start than with a freestyle start, the minimum number of dolphin kicks to reach the breakout is usually 5 or 6, with the maximum to reach 15 meters usually 10 to 12 kicks. The right number of kicks to reach the surface for each swimmer depends entirely on the speed of the kicker.

Both Missy Franklin and Tyler Clary have convinced me that wearing a nose clip in backstroke makes perfect sense…unless you have one of those upper lips that can occlude your nose. The reason is that with the nose clip, the air can be retained in the lungs, keeping the body weight at zero right up to the break out. With much of the air expired out of the lungs, the body weighs about 8 lbs by the time the swimmer is ready to break out. Another advantage of the nose clip is that the swimmer can burst exhale right before breaking out and does not need to take a gaspingly deep first breath to refill the lungs. The quicker first breath enables the swimmer to explode out of the breakout with less delay and a faster stroke rate.

The best way to improve your starts is by practicing starting. But first, watch the amazing start of World Champion backstroker, Junya Koga.  At The Race Club, we often do backstroke sets by beginning with a start, rather than a push off the wall, just to get that extra practice in.

Yours in swimming,

Gary Sr.

What’s So Important about Dolphin Kick?

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Dolphin kick, which is now used in all four strokes, is often referred to as the ‘fifth stroke’. It is so important to faster swimming that Olympic coach Eddie Reese dedicates sets in each practice to improving the dolphin kick. It is no wonder that Texas had 6 out of 8 finalists in the men’s 100 yard fly at the NCAA Division 1 Championships this year. If you aren’t devoting a lot of effort to building a stronger dolphin kick, then you should rethink your training.

When I ask our Race Club campers how many dolphin kicks they are allowed to take during a butterfly stroke cycle, the usual answer is two. The real answer is four, two down kicks and two up kicks. In analyzing the acceleration and deceleration from our velocity meter studies during the dolphin kick, it appears that the down kick provides about 80% of the propulsive kick force and the up kick about 20%. However, the up kick provides another important function, so it cannot be taken lightly without paying a big price.

The muscles driving the up kick, primarily the lower back, hamstring and gastrocnemius (calf) muscle, are not as strong as the quadriceps muscles, primarily driving the down kick, yet they need to be developed for this important motion. The motion of the feet during the up kick is the only motion of the body that provides propulsion without having the feet move backward in the water. Since water is liquid, propulsion is derived from the propelling surfaces (hands and feet) moving backward relative to the still water (Newton’s third law of motion…action and reaction). During the propulsive phase of the down kick and the pull, the feet and hands are moving backward, but not during the up kick.

The reason the up kick can provide propulsion while the feet move forward is because the preceding down kick creates a vortex (wake) behind the feet that moves forward and downward, trailing the feet. In addition, there is a vortex (wake) behind the body of the swimmer, following the swimmer. The combination of these two vortices causes a stream of water to move forward behind the swimmers’ feet. In order to provide propulsion, the feet need to be moving backward relative to the still water. Since the water behind the foot is moving forward, the motion of the foot during the up kick can move forward at a speed slower than the vortex and still create propulsion. That motion also creates a vortex that helps the subsequent down kick. Therefore, the more aggressive the up kick, the more powerful is the following down kick.

One of my favorite dolphin kick sets is five, 45-second vertical kicks (with or without fins), with the arms held in a streamline above. 15 seconds of rest are taken between each vertical kick. On virtually any horizontal dolphin kick set, the swimmer can take it easy on the up kick motion. Not so on the vertical kick, if the swimmer wants to keep the head out of the water in order to breathe.

Work on the dolphin kick, whether it is on your side, stomach, back (on your back the up kick is really the down kick) or vertically. But work it. Particularly, work on the weaker part, the up kick, as it is more important than you might think.

Watch The Fifth Stroke Part II Swimisode

Yours in swimming,

Gary Sr.

What Can We Learn from Emperor Penguins and Sun Yang?


The other day I was doing my swim at Founder’s Park in Islamorada, when Chris, a marine researcher from Key Largo, swimming in the lane next to me, asked me if I had ever seen a documentary on Emperor Penguins in the Antarctic. I hadn’t.

“They have this amazing ability to sequester air under their feathers”, he explained. “When they are swimming under water and getting chased by sea lions, they somehow release all that air around their bodies which results in a sudden burst of speed. That’s how they avoid getting eaten for lunch.”

“Hmmm”, I thought. “Interesting.” I was wondering what the relevance of this was to us.

“I watched Sun Yang on Youtube”, he continued, “and couldn’t help but notice that he blows air out through his nose after each breath and a lot of that air ends up under his body. Do you think that makes him faster”?

I had never really thought about it, but perhaps Chris is right. Perhaps it does make a difference.

Sun Yang does a few things out of the ordinary. While swimming the 1500, he takes 3 or so successive breaths in to and out of each turn and often again in the middle of the pool. Except for the final 100 meters, he takes only four out of the six beat kicks, opting to rest on two during the breath stroke. He bends his knee on the kicks, when the opposite hand enters the water, more than one would think he should (what I call the ‘surge’ kicks). He takes no dolphin kicks off walls. And he seems to get more air bubbles under his body than most, coming from his nose. He tucks his chin down pretty close to his chest after the breath strokes and that may be responsible for the released air staying under his body.

He also has an enormous wingspan, pulls with an extremely high elbow, has a monster kick, especially in the last 50 meters (who else finishes under 26 seconds?) and with a stroke rate of 60, manages to beat everyone else and break world records.

With each of these quirky techniques, I can’t help thinking that there is a method to the madness. I can understand and appreciate that with a stroke rate of 60 breathing every cycle (30 respirations per minute) would not be enough to maintain such a high speed. The extra 5 or 6 breaths each lap could really make a difference. Giving up the two dolphin kicks off each wall seems a bit contrary to what most coaches would advocate, but perhaps the trade for the earlier breaths is worth it. I have never seen another swimmer use his unusual kicking technique, but in spite of forfeiting two kicks each cycle, he somehow manages to maintain his speed with a slow stroke rate. Undoubtedly, that enables him to finish with his incredible kicking speed. But what about those air bubbles?

It always seemed to make more sense to me to keep air in the lungs as long as possible before exhaling prior to the breath. After all, the more buoyant we are with the air in our lungs, the higher in the water, the less frontal drag. It would seem, but perhaps not.

Water is some 800 times denser than air and the frontal drag forces in water are astronomically higher than in air. The Emperor Penguins do not escape the wrath of the sea lion by kicking or pulling harder, but by reducing frontal drag, surrounding themselves with tiny air bubbles, rather than water, at that critical feeding time. I know that some racing boats put steps in the hulls in order to trap air under the boat and increase lift and reduce drag. Perhaps a few air bubbles under the chest of a swimmer has more impact on reducing frontal drag than keeping all of it in our lungs. Who knows?

I do know this. Swimmers, like Sun Yang, end up teaching us more than we think we know. It is up to us to observe, to think, to question and most importantly, to learn. Chris might be right. The Emperor Penguins and Sun Yang may be on to something.

Yours in swimming,

Gary Sr.

The Art of Swim Parenting


Being a swim parent is not easy. If it were, we would likely have 2 million registered USA Swimming members, rather than half a million. Swim parents have to be unselfish, dedicated, loving, committed and invested to help their children succeed in the sport. In this day and age, how many parents will sit on a hot bleacher or in a chlorine filled natatorium or behind a starting block, timing all weekend, for the pleasure of watching their child swim for a few minutes? Or how many children today would rather be sitting around for the same duration in the same environment waiting to race when they could be in their air-conditioned home in front of their large screen television playing Minecraft or Game of War?

Those are some of the challenges that face the sport of swimming, as well as every other sport in America. What about you as a swim parent? What challenges do you face in order to see your child truly enjoy swimming and derive the most benefit from the sport?

Every swimmer of any age who comes to The Race Club is told the same thing. It is more important to have fun than it is to win Olympic gold medals. Of course, I always make sure that when I tell the swimmer this, the parents are standing right behind them. The truth is, the message is more directed to the parents than it is to the swimmer.

Too often, parents are overzealous in their desire to help their child succeed. While they only want the very best for their child, their words of advice, criticism or even encouragement can backfire on them. To a child, these words, no matter how well intended, are often construed as feeling pressure to succeed. A swimming career should be viewed as a marathon, not a sprint. If a swimmer feels pressure coming from the parents or coach for too long a period of time, he or she will often rebel and quit the sport. If not, then swimming ceases to be fun. Either way, the child loses out.

I learned a great deal about swim parenting from my mother. My father was a solo-practicing Orthopedic surgeon in the days before cell phones. He was on call 24/7 and could never leave the house phone. He rarely got to see me swim. My mother drove me all over the LA basin to workouts and meets and volunteered to time at most of them. She rarely said much to me, but when she did, it was always positive. Before I would compete, she would always tell me to ‘have fun’. After each race, whether good or bad, she would put her arm around me, hug me, and say ‘I love you’. Those were the only words I needed to hear.

As parents, my wife, Mary, and I had six children (3 boys, 3 girls)…all swimmers. Of course, Mary did most of the driving to meets and workouts. Once, when they were young, and dabbling in different sports, they started to get hooked on video games. I put my foot down.

“You are all going to do some sport” I told them. “I don’t care what sport, as long as you do something.” That was naïve.

“Are you kidding me?”, Mary interrupted, having overheard this conversation. “Do you think I am going to drive six kids all over this valley to different sports programs? What do think I am, a taxi driver? No, we have a great swim club nearby. They should all swim.” So that is what they did.

All six children had different levels of ability and passion for the sport. Mary and I subscribed to my mother’s philosophy of swim parenting and basically told them to ‘have fun’ and always ‘I love you’ after each race. They all had various levels of success, but I believe that they all had fun and, for the most part, look back fondly on their swimming careers. Swimming taught each of them many valuable life lessons.

My advice to all swim parents is to do the same. When you feel the urge to critique your child for an obvious mistake, bite your lip and keep your mouth shut. Let the coach coach. Your role is supportive, emotionally and financially. If you truly want your children to enjoy swimming and you want to help them succeed, and if you want your children to swim for life, not just as children (what other sport has an age group for over 100 years of age?), then simply remember two important sentences, ‘have fun’ and ‘I love you’. Get them to swim practices and the meets. If they need help in technique and aren’t getting enough of that at practice or if they need more motivation, bring them to The Race Club. Do those things and tell them those five magical words. The rest will take care of itself.

Yours in swimming,

Gary Sr.

The Art of Swipping


Swipping is a conjoining of the words Swimming and Slipping. Swipping is a new word that I invented to describe swimming with the least amount of frontal drag possible.

In each passing year that I teach swimming technique at The Race Club, I gain more appreciation for the importance and the sensitivity of frontal drag to the swimmer. Because our sport takes place mostly in water, which is some 800 times denser than air, the forces of drag come into play at much lower speeds. Further, minute changes in body or arm or leg position can lead to significant increases or decreases in frontal drag. Swimming is indeed a sport of minute details.

For the most part, elite athletes, competing at the highest levels of our sport, have learned how to swip rather than swim through the water. Either through a process of trial and error, good coaching, a better feel for the water, or some combination of all three, these athletes have learned how to get through the water with a lower amount of frontal drag. While they are also quite powerful, it is the former quality, rather than the latter, that may have led to their ability to win races.

The real challenge of learning to swip, rather than swim, is that swimmers don’t feel the frontal drag forces as they are moving through the water. Typically, they feel the propulsive or lift forces on their hands, or if they really concentrate, they may feel forces against their feet as they are kicking. That is about it. Unfortunately, the positions of maximum propulsive power are not the same as those of minimal frontal drag. Consequently, most swimmers fall into the power trap. That is, they swim, instead of swip.

The high elbow pull in freestyle is a good example of learning to swip. While the deeper arm pull produces more propulsive power, the speed of the swimmer, which is determined by the propulsive forces minus the drag forces, ends up being slower (over the longer distances) than while using the high elbow pull. The high elbow pull is like the skate boarder cruising down the street who keeps tapping the asphalt backward with his foot to maintain his speed. He goes a lot faster and with less effort than the skateboarder who slows down nearly to a stop and has to push really hard with his foot to regain the speed over and over again. The tapping skateboarder is not only using less energy but is also taking advantage of the law inertia to stay in a more constant motion.

There are many other examples of swipping through the water, but the important point is that it doesn’t take much to change from a swip to a swim. Swimming is a sport of millimeters, tenths of seconds and degrees. Drop the elbow a few millimeters and the drag jumps way up. Begin the breaststroke pull a few tenths of a second too early and the drag during the kick goes way up. Reduce the external rotation of the hip by a few degrees so the knees must be wider on the breaststroke kick and the drag goes way up.

We don’t expect coaches to have the time or ability to spot every detail of stroke technique during a crowded workout. It is hard enough just to keep swimmers on the right intervals. That is what we do at The Race Club. We pay attention to the details above water and below water. We turn swimmers into Swippers.

Yours in Swimming,

Gary Sr.

10 Swim Camps in 2016


We are excited to announce that we will increase the number of swim camps for next year, 2016. More options for you in this Olympic year will hopefully allow you to become a faster swimmer by coming to train with us. As always, you can choose which sessions you want to attend during any of our scheduled camp dates. We have a morning and an afternoon session every scheduled camp day.

February 12th – 18th, 2016 in Islamorada, FL

March 10th – 13th in Los Angeles, CA

March 25th – 31st in Islamorada, FL

April 21st – 24th in Los Angeles, CA – Triathlon Specific Swim Camp

June 18th – 26th in Islamorada, FL

July 8th -14th in Los Angeles, CA

September 2nd – 5th in Islamorada, FL

October 7th -10th in Los Angeles, CA

November 21st – 26th in Islamorada, FL

December 17th, 2016 – January 2nd, 2017 in Islamorada, FL (Christmas Eve PM session and both Christmas Day sessions are off)

You can schedule private sessions anytime during the year we have availability. You can also schedule Private Coaching for a Race Club coach to come to your city. Email us for more information.

We now have a small training group that trains year round in Islamorada, FL. Come for any amount of time to get customized training. The fee for the training group is very reasonable compared to our swim camps and private rates.

Two Distinct Breaststroke Techniques and Three Key Timing Tips


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Breaststroke is the most inefficient and slowest of the four strokes. It is also the key to a successful IM. It is also the one stroke that seems to come and go like the wind, and is perhaps the most challenging to master. How can a swimmer do so well at breaststroke one season, only to find that he or she is struggling to approach the same times the next season? It is all about timing.

When ESPN did a study on Rebecca Soni’s stroke they found that her kick provided around 100 lbs of propulsive force, while her pull provided about 20 pounds of propulsive force. While not many have the propulsion in the legs of Rebecca, the truth is that most of the propulsion from all good breaststrokers comes from the legs, not the arms. The key to a fast breaststroke is to develop a strong kick and to reduce frontal drag after the kick.

In the world, there are lumpers and splitters. Splitters would say that there are many different breaststroke techniques that are effective, each one perhaps having some subtle difference from another. As a lumper, I consider that there are two distinctively different breaststroke techniques today; the fast arm-recovery and the delayed arm-recovery technique. All of the elite breaststrokers of the world use some variation of these two techniques and the majority of them use the former.

The fast arm-recovery breaststrokers (Peaty, Cordes, Meilutyte) do precisely that. They get their hands quickly through the pull cycle, snapping the elbows downward and then pushing the hands forward over the surface into a streamline before the kick propulsion takes place. The delayed arm-recovery breaststrokers (Soni, Gyurta, Larson) either never drop the elbows on the pull and bring the elbows further back behind the chest, recovering with most of the forearm over the water (Soni) or slow the hands above the water before pushing them forward into the frontal streamline (Gyurta, Larson). The advantage of the fast arm recovery is that the swimmer gets a little more power out of the pull by pushing the elbows down and accelerating the hands through the pull cycle. The advantage of the delayed recovery is that it reduces frontal drag on the recovery by elevating most of the forearm out of the water (Soni) and augments the coupling effect on the kick by adding the kinetic energy of the arms moving forward to the pressing upper body and head energy (Soni, Larson and Gyurta).

With either technique, the timing of all motions is critical. During the pull, in order to reduce frontal drag, the hips and legs need to be near horizontal with the surface with the feet pointed (plantar flexed), while the upper body elevates to the highest point possible. That elevation requires full extension of the lumbar spine. The higher the elevation of the upper body and head, the more kinetic energy can be created in the press forward. Gravity and core strength have a lot to do with developing that energy on the way down. Some, like Peaty, press forward with tremendous force and speed to augment the power of the kick. In order for that upper body energy to couple maximally with the kick, the most powerful moment of force from the kick must occur precisely when the kinetic energy of the upper body is greatest. The most powerful moment of force from the kick occurs just after the feet begin moving backward and the moment of greatest kinetic energy from the upper body occurs just as the shoulders strike the water. In order for these two events to coincide, there is precious little time to get the legs up under the body in position to initiate the kick prior to the shoulders entering the water. Further, with both thighs pulled forward under water, the body’s drag coefficient goes off the charts, so it is in the best interest of the swimmer to not remain in that position any longer than necessary. For these two reasons, one sees all elite breaststrokers get through the kick cycle extremely fast, pulling the legs forward quickly to minimize time in that position and pushing the feet back quickly to generate more propulsion. When observing the speed of the legs of an elite breaststroker from above, all one sees is a blur, like the twitch of a frog leg.

The second timing issue with breaststroke is the initiation of the pull cycle. Often, breaststrokers begin the pull too early, during the moment of the most powerful force from the kick. If the hands separate out front too soon, then the drag coefficient goes up again and the force of the kick is wasted on a bad body position. It is critical that the breaststroker be patient enough to benefit from their kick during the strike phase by having the chin down nearly touching the chest under water, the hands held together out front and the shoulders pushed forward as far as possible. However, if the breaststroker holds in this position too long, reducing the stroke rate, then the body decelerates too much after the kick before the initiation of the next pull. There is very little margin of error between initiating the pull too soon or too late. Of course, the shorter the race, the higher the stroke rate.

The third timing issue in breaststroke is on the arm recovery. By delaying the recovery of the arms, the mass of the arms moving forward is added to the mass of the upper body and head to increase kinetic energy for coupling with the kick. With this technique, the hands must get into the propulsive phase of the pull quicker, once they are in the streamline in front, so there is little time spent there. With the fast arm recovery, the arms are already in the streamlined position before the kick propulsion takes place, so no coupling can occur, and they remain there longer before initiating the pull. Many breaststrokers using this technique (Cordes, Peaty) will snap the head down, rather than lay the head down, to increase kinetic energy from the head (which weighs around 12 pounds).

Because the timing of breaststroke is so sensitive, it lends itself to doing drills more than any other stroke. At The Race Club, we practice many breaststroke drills working on the fundamentals of a strong kick, great streamlining and perfect timing for all motions. Here is one of the drills we use for breaststroke pull:

Yours in swimming,

Gary Sr.

breaststroke techniques