Heres to the Crazy Ones – Breaststroke Swimming with Misfits

breaststroke swimming
Photo Credit JD Lasica

“Think different” became an apple slogan in the late 90s. And in order to try and understand breaststroke swimming, the mantra is spot on. So here’s to the crazy ones. Those that are born with it and those called to it.

Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.

Steve Jobs

To perhaps understate the obvious, breaststroke is different from the other three strokes. The most distinctive being an underwater arm recovery. And this “round peg in a square hole” leads to the main technical difference.

In every other swimming stroke, your arms provide the main propulsive component. In breaststroke, the legs drive the “human race forward”. 

Breaststroke vs Freestyle

Regarding the catch and “perpendicularity”, some coaches teach a high elbow catch, much like the start of freestyle (or a world-class butterfly). Theoretically, there is merit to this, especially if the swimmer is an average or poor kicker.

However, this likely allows swimmers to bring their heads up ‘early.’ Which in turn negates the effectiveness of the kick.

Breaststroke Form

Interestingly, considering the importance of the perpendicular relationship of limbs and body from a mechanics perspective, unlike the other three strokes, the legs take more responsibility for propulsion. This is the ‘why’ behind why the legs drive the stroke.

Breaststroke Kick

Although there are many different styles of breaststroke, the goal is to develop a great kick with the ability to adapt from 100yd/m to 200yd/m tempo. From time spent on deck coaching, many athletes do not understand where the ability to ‘speed up’ most effectively originates.

These breaststrokers speed their hands up when they want to go faster. This results in very inefficient swimming. Great breaststrokers keep their hand speed the same.

Instead, they bring their kick up sooner and/or make their feet move faster to speed up. This ‘rear-wheel-drive’ thinking in breaststroke can win or lose many IM and breaststroke races.

The best breaststrokers over the early 2000s were best in the world at both the 100 and 200-meter breaststroke. They kept the tempo of their arms at the same speed for different distances. To go faster, they simply kick earlier and quicker.

Setting feet perpendicular to the body. The higher (closer to the torso from front to back) the feet can ‘set up’ perpendicular to the body, the longer they will push the water in the correct direction. A great breaststroke kicker does this well enough where it appears they are pushing on solid ground when they move their feet backward after the feet are set.

Breaststroke Catch

But we are seeing a shift in breaststroke swimming at the top end speeds. Like with freestyle technique for the outlier events.

Watch most short course specialists, as well as Peaty and Lily King. Might come from a more dolphin-like whipping action in the short course specialists? But fundamentally Peaty and Meili do a unique version of the breaststroke kick that allows them to get more “power” from their catch.

Regardless of your stance on tempo and kick effectiveness. Keep your head down on the out sweep. This sets up either kicking action and makes for a timely breath. It also keeps the hands from pulling back too far. 

Breaststroke Body Position

Kicking into a tight body line. Whether the swimmer is gliding for a short or long time, kicking into a streamlined body position is imperative for carrying momentum from the kick.

And the timing of finishing that kick into the extension referenced is a truly unique connection. While pulling back, the feet are loading. And then there is the slightest of pauses before the kick explodes with perfect timing. Like an isometric movement, just above the hip (oblique muscles) or a rubber band at full extension, just before it snaps.

Kitajima, Soni and now Efimova – “love them or hate them” do this better than any other world class breaststroke swimming.

But in breaststroke swimming, you also get ‘late’ breathers. The athletes who bring their head up too soon. The timing is never regained because they pull back too far, miss the sweep altogether, and kick in a non-optimal direction.

Breaststroke Swimming Drills and Tips

Great breaststroke swimming is both complex and straightforward. The tenets above are a simple version. Differences in flexibility, limb and torso length and buoyancy all play parts in choosing the best stroke for each swimmer.  

Assuming the task of improving the breaststroke kick is part of the plan for improvement, choose different catch technique(s) based on limb length (anthropometrics). In other words, really long-armed swimmers need to pull differently than short forearmed swimmers.

Inch Worm, Vertical Breaststroke Kick against the Wall, Kick on your back