Satisfying the unique needs of swimming’s overlooked athletes
As a shy and awkward youth, my social life was greatly enhanced when my roommate borrowed his dad’s ski boat. We’d invite swimmers we admired to accompany us for time on the tow rope, figuring they would consider temporary association with geeks a fair price to pay for an afternoon of fun on the lake.
Our team’s most decorated athlete was a brutishly strong fellow nicknamed “The Caveman.” He had been in the finals at multiple national championships, so we expected him to conquer water skiing with the same ease he dominated his competition. Though he hadn’t skied before, he smiled with confidence as he grasped the rope and yelled “Hit it!” But his first attempt to stand on skis ended in a hilarious face plant. So did his second. In fact, after hours of watching him eat it as he failed to stand up on the boards, we gave up and returned to the dock. How could this amazingly talented athlete fail to master something we back-of-the-packers had figured out relatively quickly?
Once on dry land, I glanced at the Caveman and pondered the mystery. Something about the way he was standing…
“Now I get it!” I shouted to the group. “He’s a breaststroker!” As Caveman stood on the shore, his right toes pointed north, and his left toes pointed dead south. The anatomical gift that blessed him with such a ferocious whip kick was also the reason he couldn’t hold two skis parallel.
This point I’m making, dear coaches, is that breaststrokers have unique talents and needs. We must recognize and embrace these if we’re to help them achieve their potential as competitive swimmers.
Breaststrokers fall into five general categories.
- Comfort breaststrokers—Generally found only among non-Masters lap swimmers and hot springs patrons, these folks are unconcerned with speed; they simply enjoy a stroke where they can keep their face out of the water.
- Scissor kickers—Injuries, hip/ankle mobility issues, and other imbalances can cause a “pointed toes” asymmetrical kick that results in disqualification. Many scissor kickers say, “Breaststroke’s not my thing, man,” and prefer to just stick with freestyle or backstroke. However, if they are motivated to swim legal breaststroke, you must work individually with these swimmers (and perhaps a physical therapist) over time to achieve a meet-legal kick.
- The majority—Most swimmers are ambivalent toward breaststroke. They don’t seek it out, but they can do it and enjoy occasional individual medley and breaststroke sets for the variety they bring to the workout.
- Breaststroke competitors—Although breaststroke may or may not be their primary stroke, some will regularly compete in IM or breaststroke events. These athletes welcome breaststroke drills and sets and will take them seriously.
- Born breaststrokers—These are the folks whose anatomy and inner makeup has given them an advantage in breaststroke. They make it their main focus and may not have much interest in other strokes. But if they do race other strokes, they may swim faster in backstroke and butterfly with a whip kick.
Born breaststrokers and breaststroke competitors must swim breaststroke in practice. A balanced Masters training program should regularly feature breaststroke and IM sets for variety and to enhance overall swimming skill, but consider these additional options for breaststroke specialists:
- Split practices so that certain lanes are designated for breaststroke sets.
- Have specialists swim breaststroke during freestyle sets. This may require moving them to a speed-appropriate lane.
- Hold scheduled breaststroke-focused practices, or add breaststroke sets on the days attended by your team’s breaststrokers.
Race breaststroke is intensely demanding, and the longest designated breaststroke race is only 200 meters. Therefore, breaststrokers should focus on short, intense training with high workload and longer rest. They don’t get much benefit from the long-distance freestyle pace workouts preferred by triathletes. Drills for drag reduction and stroke timing may be done effectively at slow speed and low intensity, but other long, easy breaststroke swims in practice are likely to develop bad timing habits and lazy turns.
In other words, breaststrokers should swim hard for a good portion of their training, and get enough rest to perform the stroke correctly on the next repeat.
As you design workouts for breaststrokers, consider that:
- Cadence and timing are different for each race (50, 100, 200). Include sets to work on specific cadences for each race the athlete is going to swim. Have the athlete use a tempo trainer to dial in a sense of cadence.
- A good kick is critical. Up to half of the breaststroke workout should be focused on legs, with continual coaching feedback on closure and glide posture. Include kicking against resistance (stretch cords, opposing another swimmer, board held vertical against the water, etc.)
- Always enforce two-hand touches and race-quality technique on turns. Provide opportunities to do center-line (not circle) turns to develop the habit of swimming along the stripe instead of around it. Give the swimmer feedback on the elements of each turn (initial glide, timing and amplitude of dolphin kick, pull-down and glide, kick, and breakout). Have 100 and 200 swimmers practice turns while fatigued so they learn if there’s a timing difference on the first turn versus the last. In other words, should they expect to have the same underwater timing when they’re fresh as when they’re exhausted?
- Recovery is part of the training process. Add enough between repeats (and between intense workout days) to allow the athlete to maintain the desired training intensity. If you notice significant stroke deterioration or athlete disengagement, it’s probably time for a rest break. (NOTE: As long as performance is adequate, the sounds of whining, suffering, and general disgruntlement are not a concern. When you detect these, respond with some enthusiastic drill-sergeant encouragement and keep the set going.)
As we eventually deduced with the Caveman, you can’t treat breaststrokers the same as freestylers and expect them to be successful. Recognize and reward their gifts and talents with workouts specifically designed for them, and you’ll all be happier as a result.
- Technique and Training