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by Hermine Terhorst

February 5, 2014

Are you in over your head yet?

  • “Backstroke and I are getting a divorce”
  • “I hate backstroke”
  • “Anything but backstroke”
  • “It’s so tiring, hard, and stressful”

Backstroke is a mystery to so many swimmers, even ones who swim it well.

But you can take away all the pain, confusion, and discomfort with one simple sentence. Backstroke, just like the other three strokes, requires breathing in the rhythm of the head in and out of the water.

I teach a clinic every Monday at 6 a.m. The fourth Monday always covers backstroke, and the groans can be heard down the street when folks realize they got the week wrong and they’ve arrived at the pool on backstroke day.

The usual issues show up every time: saggy bottoms (suits and all), head forward (on chest), or arms moving in a windmill pattern instead of a front quadrant pattern. We’ve used countless drills to try to correct these issues. Then one day lightning struck! I realized most problems stem from swimmers attempting to keep their head out of the water throughout the whole stroke (‘cuz you can).

For most swimmers, this bad habit reaches way back to when we were 6 years old and first learned the stroke. You probably got a nasal cavity full of water, and it stung. So you lifted your head out of the water to avoid this problem, and the habit became ingrained. 

The problem is, when you keep your head out of the water, although the water stays out of your nose, your butt sags and your breathing becomes labored. Your arms can’t get all the way back in a perfect circle off your ball joint, and the swimmer who isn’t lifting his or her head is beating the saggy bottom off of you! Missy Franklin, the Olympic gold medalist and world record backstroker, wears a nose plug when swimming not because she is afraid of the water, but because she spends a lot of time under it. The nose plug keeps the water out.

Back in my clinic, when I said, “all four strokes are underwater,” the collective sigh of understanding turned into palpable relaxation. Here’s what we did:

  • Lie on your back in the water.
  • Press the back of your head deeper into the water and exhale. (While your face is under, you exhale, exactly as you do in all the other strokes.)
  • Inhale when your body brings your head back up.
  • When you add in arm strokes, you are most elevated as your hand exits the water at your thigh.

Stroking is done in a perfect rhythm in all four strokes. Breathing within that rhythm is actually easier on backstroke when you let your head fall under the waterline. You’ll find a rhythm in and out, up and down. Your inhale-exhale-inhale-exhale pattern becomes one with the rhythm of the stroke, which creates ease.

Drills To Get You There

Try these two drills to improve your tolerance for having your face underwater in backstroke.

  1. Lying on your subside (not your back and not your side, but the space in between) extend the subside arm out and begin kicking. Lift the other arm up to the sky, sinking your bodyline and face below the water’s surface. Now exhale. Bring your arm back to your leg, raising your bodyline and face above the water. Now inhale. Do several 50s of this, 25 per side.
  2. Begin like the first drill, by lying on your subside with one arm extended toward the other end of the pool. Raise the top arm toward the sky and leave it there for at least 10 kicks. The entire time your hand is up, your face will be submerged and you will need to exhale continuously, just like you will do when swimming backstroke. After 10 kicks, switch sides. During the switch, your bodyline will rise momentarily allowing you to inhale without moving your head off your spine line. You are now on the other subside, arm straight up, head submerged, kicking at least 10 kicks and EXHALING like a madman.

The most natural thing the human body does is inhale, and it takes just a moment to fill your lungs. What’s less natural is the exhale. Remember, exhaling clears out the carbon dioxide produced by used oxygen, clears your body of toxins, and makes space for fresh air and the oxygen that makes your body move. A double bonus on the exhale is that when your head is in proper alignment and you are exhaling, there will be no more shoulder and neck aches, no more saggy butts, and no more water up your nasal cavity.


  • Technique and Training
  • Coaches Only


  • Backstroke
  • Stroke Technique
  • Drills