When it comes to swimming, the breaststroke looks easy. After all, the arm recovery is underwater, unlike the butterfly stroke, you get to breathe every stroke, and there are recovery periods for both the upper and lower body limbs during the course of the stroke cycle.
And yet, it’s profoundly difficult to truly master. The timing is where most beginner and intermediate swimmers struggle—how to sequence the breaststroke kicking and pulling motion to limit loss of propulsion is something that comes with practice and patience in the water.
But once you do start to get a hang of it, there are fewer feelings that you will enjoy more than the undulating, free-flowing movement that comes with good breaststroke technique.
Here are some tips for helping you master the breaststroke.
1. Choose your pulling motion.
There are two different kinds of breaststroke pulling motions: a palms-straight down pull, and a Y-pull, where your hands and arms form a Y at the outset of the pull motion (also called the turn-press pull). The palms down pull is useful for very short sprints and short course swimming as it is more taxing. The Y-pull works best for long course swimming and the longer breaststroke sets and races.
2. Breathe at the right time.
One of the perks of breaststroke is that you can breathe much more regularly than in freestyle or even butterfly. When swimming breaststroke wait until just before you are about to break the surface of the water with your head to exhale. Holding the air in your lungs for this extra moment will help you maintain buoyancy in the water and keep a straighter body line, which will reduce drag and keep your hips up.
3. Squeeze your head with your shoulders.
A helpful cue for breaststrokers is to have them squeeze their head with their shoulders when at the apex of the breathing/pulling motion. Boost this by imagining yourself throwing your shoulders and arms forwards into a hole in the water about two feet in front of you. This will help keep you focused on swimming forwards, and not simply up and down. (This cue is helpful for butterflyers as well!)
4. Kicking properly.
The breaststroke kick is an interesting movement, and one that is unnatural, which is why so many swimmers, regardless of ability, have such a hard time with it. It’s requirements, lateral ankle flexibility, internal hip flexibility, and the ability to time it perfectly all make it challenging to master.
Here are some key points to remember when learning and improving your kick:
Make sure that your feet finish together at the end of the kick. Your natural stance is shoulder width, and your feet and ankle will default to this position. Kick all the way through and have your feet touch at the end of the kick.
Accelerate your heels to your backside. Once the kick has been completed, recover the heels to your backside quickly. The faster your heel recovery, the faster you can pull your way through the stroke motion. Remember: your stroke is interconnected, what your arms do affect your leg timing, and vice versa. Snap your heels back quickly.
Knees should be around shoulder-width apart. For maximum power and range of motion your knees should be around shoulder width apart through the kicking motion. The hips don’t internally rotate very well, so the added space between your knees will allow you to kick more water backwards.
The breaststroke is a tough nut to crack. Follow these tips the next time you hit the pool deck for one of your swimming workouts and grind your way to a smoother, faster, and more enjoyable breaststroke!