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Breaststroke technique for triathletes

Breaststroke offers novice triathletes an easier alternative to the intricacies of front crawl, and could give your swim the boost it needs, says Robin Brew

Breaststroke is an excellent alternative stroke for those swimmers who aren’t confident in their ability to use front crawl over the whole swim section. Although not the fastest stroke, well-executed basic breaststroke can be more efficient and economical than weak front crawl, and so is a great option for the developing triathlete.

Breaststroke has undergone some great technical improvements in the last 10 years. Competitive swimming rule changes and the introduction of more radical stroke-development ideas, such as the wave breaststroke, have allowed coaches and swimmers to push the limits of the breaststroke boundaries.

Through better understanding of the co-ordination and timing of the stroke, swimmers are now capable of reaching speeds of up to 1.75m per sec (mp/s). Because of the increased surface drag, breaststroke is still about 25% slower than front crawl, but swimmers who struggle with the alternate arm action of front crawl may find that breaststroke isn’t any slower. And if you really struggle to integrate breathing into the front-crawl stroke, you’ll find breaststroke to be the faster option. 

Before we continue, it’s important to realise that when you’re learning to improve stroke technique, you should think of the full stroke first before breaking the stroke down to practise key parts. Always return to the full stroke when you’ve finished practising the components. This method of stroke practice is common among swimming teachers and is known as ‘whole-part-whole’.

 The complete stroke

The full stroke cycle should take about 1.5-1.8secs, starting with arms at full extension and finishing with arms back to full extension. Stroke length is essential – it’s often compromised when you try to go too fast and rush the extension at the front of the stroke. 

The front of the stroke provides streamlining and stability for the rest of the body while the legs are finishing the kick phase. Think ‘pull, kick and reach’. You’ll improve your performance if you have the confidence to put your face into the water at the front of the stroke because this helps to keep your body position level and greatly reduces drag. 

The timing of arms and legs is what makes the greatest difference to forward propulsion and stroke efficiency. In the new style of breaststroke the leg kick is extremely late…

The feet remain closed as the hands start the out-sweep of the stroke.

The heels of the feet are only drawn up to the backside in readiness for the kick as the arms are completing the in-sweep of the stroke. This avoids moving the arms and legs at the same time. 

The feet are turned out and driven back as the arms are reaching forward toward full extension. The correct timing of the kick back adds real thrust to the front of the stroke. 

During this phase it’s important that the hips are held high and the arms stretch forward as far as possible with the head tucked into a streamlined position.

Common breaststroke faults

Swim the stroke slowly to begin with and concentrate on how much distance you achieve per stroke. You should travel in excess of 2m per stroke. Try swimming 25m over 10-12 strokes to begin with. The main causes of loss in propulsion within the stroke cycle are:

Poor body position – hips too low.

Timing of leg and arm action.

Dropped elbow – under water.

Stopping with hands together under chin.

Pulling knees up too high on kick.

Wetsuit drag

Swimming breaststroke in a wetsuit limits range of movement during the leg action, but the extra buoyancy and stability should overcome excessive resistance created during the stroke. In summary, the following will help you maximise forward propulsion:

Work on maximising distance per stroke – top breaststrokers cover 50m in under 15 strokes.

Concentrate on streamlining the arms and shoulders.

Avoid bringing the knees up during the kick phase.

Keep the hips up as you extend forward

The body position

The body position of breaststroke has evolved over the years, but as a beginner you should simply aim for a stable platform

The body position for breaststroke has changed from the traditional flat position to an undulating action, and finally to a wave-like action, but as a beginner you’re simply aiming for a stable platform that enables you to control the rest of the stroke. Try to keep your body relatively level to begin with, and allow the natural rhythm and timing to develop from there. Here are some key points to focus on when practising breaststroke body position:

 Extended body position at the start of the stroke.

Wave-like action during the propulsive phase.

Head tilted forward during arm extension.

Keep hips high at the end of the kick.

Streamlined body position at full extension.

Leg Action

Unlike its front-crawl sibling, the breaststroke relies heavily on the legs for powerful forward propulsion

The breaststroke leg kick is important because it can provide up to 60% of the forward propulsion in the stroke. Within a stroke cycle of 1.8secs the leg kick accounts for 0.5secs, so is performed relatively quickly. It’s a powerful action when done properly. Remember the following key points when practising the kick action:

Kick ends when the feet touch.

Keep knees in during recovery.

Bring the heels right to the backside.

Rotate the knees and feet outward.

Drive the feet out, back and fast together.

Start the propulsive phase of the kick slowly and finish it fast. 

Arm Action

Key to a fluid and strong arm action is to keep things flowing smoothly from propulsion through to extension

Breaststroke arm action is a powerful movement and relies on good leverage. The pull from full extension begins slowly and gathers momentum through the out-sweep (the in-sweep and hand recovery is the fastest part of the pull phase). The arm action, like the leg action, takes about 0.5secs to complete. It’s vital that
you avoid pausing the hands under the body halfway through the arm action because this will lead to a dramatic drop in the body position and a disproportionate increase in resistance.

From full extension, pull wide and straight [1].

Turn the hands to drive the elbows down and in [2].

Just before the hands come together, drive them forward fast, taking the shoulders forward too [3].

As the hands extend, the head bows forwards, narrowing the shoulders for
low resistance [4].

Work on distance per stroke.

Breathing and Timing

It may be the simplest aspect of breaststroke but there are still technical pointers to maximise your speed

The breathing is the easiest aspect of breaststroke, but there are several key points that you need to master to keep the stroke on track:

Breathe in during the powerful in-sweep of the arms and at the highest point of the body lift [1].

Exhalation occurs as the hands begin to extend forward [2].

Drive back with the leg kick when the arms are almost at full extension.

When the feet touch, the next arm pull starts

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