Come together to optimize your breaststroke
As a distance freestyler and occasional conspiracy theorist, I’ve often suspected that fast breaststrokers are the result of clandestine genetic experiments involving amphibian DNA and extra-terrestrial influences. Although the strength, flexibility, and precise timing needed to perform the stroke well can be elusive for the rest of us, there is hope for us mere mortals. Let’s look at one simple mantra we can use to begin a breaststroke breakthrough: closure.
Let’s start with legs, because that’s where the concept of closure is most obvious. Your feet separate during the kick recovery, reaching an angle from which you can push backward on the water to create thrust. From this open position (feet apart), it’s clear that closure is required to return you to streamline position. Snapping your feet back together generates forward propulsion.
The problem is that it’s easy to make mistakes during this motion, including the following:
- Drawing your knees toward your torso during recovery, rather than lifting your heels up while spring-loading your hips with a fairly straight line from torso through thighs
- Applying thrust as your feet go out, rather than as they come back together
- Allowing your toes to point (align with your shin) during your kick, rather than retaining water pressure on the instep and sole of your foot
- Stopping your thrust before achieving complete closure—in other words, letting your legs drift at the end of your kick rather than deliberately bringing them all the way together to minimize your drag profile
- Keeping your feet at a right angle to your shin during the glide phase (toes toward the pool bottom, also known as “dragging the anchor”) rather than pointing them in a full streamlined position
The best breaststroke kickers can flex their feet inward so that their soles face each other at the end of the thrust phase. For such flexible folks, closure means touching the bottoms of the feet together. For those of us who are less limber, it may be the thighs or ankles touching to let us know we’ve achieved closure.
Do some kicking drills to practice achieving complete closure with each kick motion. Slow down your kick rate to a speed that allows you to focus on feeling the water pressure on your instep as you push back and on feeling your feet finishing the motion by touching each other. Specially designed equipment (such as the Speedo Breast Stroke and FINIS Positive Drive fins) can help develop strength and a better feel for the thrust component of your kick.
Even though the breaststroke pull also involves both an outward and inward movement, closure for your arms differs from your legs. For your upper body, closure consists of executing the cyclical motion of your pull with maximum force and minimum drag. There is no pause when your hands return inward; the motion is continuous from your catch through your pull until your arms are extended into full streamline glide position.
The closure mantra is also a reminder to compress your drag profile. By squeezing your shoulders up against your ears as you also press your elbows toward each other at the end of your pull, you narrow your shoulders to eliminate resistance as your hands shoot forward back to the glide position.
Focus on closure only helps if you execute the stroke correctly, so have your coach review your technique as you incorporate the closure mantra into your practice. Review the article by Coach Jeff Commings in the July-August 2017 issue of SWIMMER and watch Coach Cokie Lepinski’s video on how to correct common breaststroke arms mistakes. Freestylers may find it helpful to visualize a slightly modified vertical forearm position as the end of the out-sweep and beginning of the closure movement.
One word of caution: Watching elite breaststrokers is a great way to understand the stroke’s timing and the compression of the shoulders to minimize drag, but their power can create a false impression that coming up high out of the water is a desirable trait. When they generate elite-level thrust, there’s a natural tendency for the water to lift them, but all your power should be focused on moving forward, not up.
If you haven’t yet mastered the timing of your kick and pull together, practice your stroke and your kick separately until you have eliminated all pauses that aren’t in the streamline glide position. It may help you to do a dolphin kick (with or without fins) to establish proper arm and breathing rhythm, but make sure you hit the glide position and stay there long enough to remain streamlined during the propulsive phase of your kick. Do the same thing on kick drills; momentarily keep your legs straight and toes pointed as you’ll do when your full stroke comes together.Focus on closure during every pull and every kick you take. Before you know it, your rivals will think you’re an alien frog-person, too!
- Technique and Training