With the recent emphasis on faster swimming through decreased resistance, the position of the upper body at the initiation of the breaststroke kick becomes vitally important to increasing one’s distance per stroke, or more accurately, distance per kick, in breaststroke.
The next time you swim breaststroke, mentally photograph the position of your body when the heels have been brought to their highest point in the kick, that is, just at the end of the kick’s recovery and at the very beginning of the propulsive phase. Better yet, if you have access to underwater video equipment, have someone film you and then view the tape, pausing the video at the beginning of the kick.
For virtually all swimmers, the kicking action in breaststroke produces far greater propulsion than any pulling or sweeping action in the arm stroke. Thus, it becomes ever more important to maximize the propulsion from the kick by having a streamlined upper body through this propulsive kicking phase. However, many Masters swimmers fail to obtain that streamlined position at the kick’s initiation, usually falling well behind in the arm stroke to allow for such efficiency. If the streamlined position is reached, it is often done so well into the kick or even after the kick has concluded its propulsive phase.
Imagine pushing off of a wall slightly under the surface with head up and arms bent. This type of pushoff would result in a distance traveled significantly less than during a pushoff that is perfectly streamlined, head between straight arms. The initiation of a breaststroke kick is much like a push off the wall, with the best result coming when the upper body is streamlined at the beginning of the push off.
When swimming a pool length of breaststroke, there is only one push off from the wall. However, in that same length of breaststroke, there are multiple strokes, depending on the length of the pool and the distance per stroke of the swimmer. The point being made is that what a swimmer loses by lacking the proper timing of streamlining in breaststroke is lost many times over, or once each stroke. Lose a 12 inches in each stroke through improper timing and streamlining and you lose roughly 10 yards in a 100-yard swim – or about 10 percent of your time.
So the point made is this:
At the beginning of the breaststroke kick, the upper body should be in its least-resistive or best-streamlined position.
So why do so many swimmers fail to achieve this position? The answer can be found in the recovery of the stroke, the sweeping of the hands and in the head position.
Basically, the recovery of the breast pull is that portion of the stroke where the hands are moving forward. It is non-propulsive and highly resistive. Therefore, it is advantageous for the swimmer to recover the hands quickly, thus achieving the streamlined position sooner. Many Masters swimmers are found to recover the hands slowly instead of accelerating the hands until the arms reach their most extended position. In the "old style" of breaststroke, the acceleration ended as the hands were brought together at the end of the inward sweep. The newer style of breaststroke requires a swimmer to continue the acceleration forward through the extension so that the swimmer can achieve the streamlined state just as the kick begins.
Another common fault with the recovery is that the hands are directed at a steep angle downward rather than straight forward. Many swimmers who attempt to achieve an undulation in the body’s core do so by diving down with the hands, shoulders and head. While the end result is higher hips, the loss of streamlining by having the upper body at such a steep downward angle negates any advantage gained from undulation in the stroke. While the swimmer with this stroke fault may be fully extended at the beginning of the kick, the downward angle of the upper body is far from the ideal streamlined position.
Like the recovery, the sweep in breaststroke is a quick, accelerating action – and it requires strength, power and efficiency. Without this desired quickness, the swimmer is unlikely to execute the sweeping action of the arm stroke with enough speed to reach the recovery – and ultimately the streamlined position – at the proper time. Swimmers who sweep with relatively straight arms, which often end up too deep on the insweep, will also have timing troubles. And, those with excessively wide hand positions at the meeting of the outsweep and insweep also typically experience delays in achieving the streamlined position.
Another common stroke fault lies in the position of the head when it has re-entered the water after a breath. Often, breaststrokers are caught looking forward, which makes performing an ideal streamlined position impossible. For the head to be directly between the arms, the swimmer must look down, which will likely drop the head level with the arms. When breathing, the breaststroker should keep the chin tucked in slightly toward the chest to allow for an easier and quicker replacement of the head between the arms. If a swimmer looks straight forward on the breath, the head will have to travel further to reach the "top" of the breath and the same distance to return to its origin. Interestingly, the same holds true for butterfliers, many of whom now breathe with a chin tucked closer to the chest than in the past.
The result of reaching one’s best-streamlined position at the start of the kick is obvious: more distance per stroke, better rhythm and flow to the stroke and faster times. Conversely, a late arrival for the streamlined position means less efficiency, a broken and slightly jerky stroke, and more time to get to the wall.
So which do you prefer?
Scott Rabalais is director of Crawfish Aquatics in Baton Rouge, La. He is chairman of the USMS Fitness Committee and Fitness Editor for SWIM.