Swim faster by performing these drills to reduce drag and increase efficiency
The term “recovery” has two distinct meanings in swimming:
- The phase of a stroke that repositions body parts after the power or propulsive phase, to establish proper position to begin the next stroke, and
- The time allowed for the body to replenish and rebuild itself after exercise.
This discussion focuses on the first definition. Breaststroke is unique in two ways:
- The breaststroke pull moves your swimmers’ hands through a pattern that ends with their hands and elbows below the water’s surface near their body’s centerline rather than pulling past their hips and leaving the water as they do in every other stroke.
- The breaststroke kick has discrete power, glide, and recovery phases, unlike the flutter and dolphin kick, which are continuously propulsive in both up and down phases.
These distinctions provide an advantage to breaststrokers who focus on the motions between the propulsive phases. Here are some drills to develop quick and effective recovery movements in breaststroke.
Think of the breaststroke arm recovery as a streamlining effort. If your swimmers’ shoulders are pulled in near their cheeks while their hands and elbows are close together (prayer position) at the end of the propulsive phase, their arms can immediately move straight forward with fingers pointed, minimizing drag.
Many swimmers pause at the end of their propulsive phase, creating a noticeable separation between the pull and the recovery and an associated dead spot in the stroke. Describe the arm/shoulder motion as a “stroke cycle” rather than a two-part “pull and recovery” to reinforce that the re-acquisition of streamline occurs without hesitation after the propulsive phase. Use these drills to solidify these concepts.
Swimmers can perform this drill by bending at their waist to practice completing the stroke cycle without hesitation. To prevent formation of bad habits, watch and give immediate feedback during the drill.
- Beginner: The goal is for them to achieve a continual movement from streamline to streamline without stopping their hands beneath their body. Watch for and eliminate hands pulling too far back (under the sternum or abdomen),
lack of shoulder movement to squeeze toward face, and wide elbows during the forward extension.
- Intermediate: The goal is for them to perform the movement with proper hand and forearm pitch for propulsion. Watch for and eliminate nonvertical forearms (dropped elbows), ineffective palm angles (such as palms facing the pool bottom), and lack of acceleration. They should feel effort from their lats, pecs, and traps throughout the movement.
- Advanced: The goal is for them to perfect the timing of their breath to ensure that their forward lunge achieves full streamline to take advantage of kick thrust. Watch for and eliminate unnecessary neck movement and synchronization mistakes. Provide audible cues to indicate when their kick should fire.
My favorite swim equation: Reduced drag = free speed.
Before every breaststroke set, remind your swimmers that minimizing shoulder width during re-acquisition of streamline is the easiest way to reduce drag. This means bringing their shoulders inward and forward as their chest muscles squeeze the final thrust from the pull and holding this narrow profile until the subsequent pull begins.
- The tale of the tape: While they stand at attention on dry land, measure the width of your swimmers’ shoulders. Then have them pull their shoulders up and in as they would during the stroke, and re-measure. How much thinner can they become?
- The skinny plank: Using a towel or BOSU as a base, have swimmers hold a plank position with forearms on the ground, palms and elbows together, and their shoulders shrugged up to their ears. Have them close their eyes and visualize how narrow they’ll be when using those muscles to reduce their width in the water.
- The breaststroke balancer: Breaststroke (and these shoulder drills) require extensive use of the pectoral muscles, which over time will tend to pull the shoulders forward into poor posture. Driving, working at a computer, and other common activities also contribute to this. To counteract tight pecs, have swimmers allocate part of their daily stretch routine to lying face-up on a foam roller with the spine aligned along the length of the roller. They should release their shoulders and let gravity draw their shoulders downward to gently stretch out the pecs.
As with the breaststroke armstroke, the breaststroke kick can be regarded as a cycle from glide to glide, with no pauses in movement from the end of the glide through the initiation of the subsequent glide. Likewise, the movement that prepares their feet for the propulsive phase should consider drag reduction as a primary goal.
Watch swimmers as they practice the breaststroke kick motion in a stationary position, whether standing on dry land, in the pool holding the gutter, or sharing a board facing another athlete. Provide feedback to ensure that they achieve:
- Continual motion—Once they break from the toes-pointed, straight-leg glide position, there are no hesitations throughout the kick cycle. Heels lift up (butt kick) without excessive knee separation, then ankles turn out symmetrically (no scissor or egg beater kick) to the optimal width for the highest propulsion-to-drag ratio, followed by complete closure as their legs accelerate together and resume the streamlined glide position.
- Thrust awareness—Although the movement is quick and continuous, most of the kick cycle should be reasonably relaxed. The maximum effort comes only during the thrust phase as their legs come together. Many swimmers thrust early, putting force into an outward motion that leaves their legs hanging in a wide “V” position, providing zero propulsion and major drag.
- Toe-point timing—The recovery begins from the streamlined glide position, so it’s important to find that position immediately upon completion of the previous kick. Pointing toes too early reduces thrust. Pointing toes too late (or leaving the ankles at 90 degrees) is like dragging an anchor.
Some swimmers may find it beneficial to do these motions one leg at a time, or to have you provide tactile feedback to help them identify the thrusting surface or proper ankle angles. It may help to place your palm on the inside edge of the foot at full foot spread, and have them feel the pressure of your resistance as they bring their ankles together. (Always ask permission before touching an athlete.)
Catch the sensation
Have swimmers perform breaststroke kick on their backs. Ask them to:
- Watch the wall or ceiling as they go through the cycle to ensure that their recovery motion doesn’t stop them or move them backward.
- Feel the pressure of the water on the sides of their thighs and calves to create awareness of the width of their recovery motion.
If you can do it at your facility, use a rope or bungee to drag breaststrokers on their back while they experiment with foot and knee width in kick recovery position (i.e., when the ankles are turned out immediately before thrust.) The more your swimmers develop awareness of hydrodynamic forces during their recovery, the better they’ll become at minimizing drag.
Breaststroke is a difficult stroke. Many of the movements are contrary to every human instinct, and the complexity of coordinating all these moving parts with precise timing can be overwhelming for those not blessed with the breaststroke gene. Be patient. Be prepared to see people respond to your instructions with movements that seem entirely unrelated to what you asked for. Put yourself in their shoes and recognize that for many athletes mastering breaststroke is going to be a long-term project. Let them know that you’re in it with them, and that any incremental breakthrough is worth a cheer and a high-five.
Remember that every athlete processes information differently. I have seen swimmers completely baffled by what I thought was the most clear and lucid explanation imaginable and then watched as the light bulb goes off when another coach uses radically different words to delineate the same concept. If the approach you use doesn’t work, try something else. And when the breakthrough comes, please let me know what worked. Thanks, and good luck.
- Technique and Training