Swimming Technique October - December 2002 Feature Article

By Wayne McCauley

Rethinking Sprint Breast Stroke

Should sprint breaststrokers breath every stroke or use alternate breathing? The suggestion is made that there is a benefit to alternate breathing, while Olympians Mike Barrowman and Kristy Kowal offer their reactions. Barrowman suggests even less frequent breathing.

The Proposal

Why do swimmers breathe every stroke in the 50 and 100 short course breaststroke races? Coaches say, "Breathing is part of the biomechanics of the stroke. Therefore, why not?"

That answer is not good enough for me.

Consider the facts derived from scientific research and published by the American Swimming Coaches Association:

  • Breaststroke requires more strength (power) than any other stroke, including butterfly.

  • Anaerobic glycolysis is the primary energy system used for the first 40 seconds of a sprint. This encompasses all 50s. Discounting the dive, 40 seconds accounts for about 75 to 80 percent of the 100 yard breaststroke. The fastest men's 100 yard breaststroke is 51.86; the women's record is 59.05.

  • More coaches are teaching breast and fly together as the short axis strokes: "pressing the T,'' "the outstroke is identical in both," the butt rises in both, the minute the butt sinks, swimmers using both strokes start swimming "uphill" instead of the desired "downhill."

    The speed generated by college sprint breaststrokers is amazing: there have been numerous relay splits of sub-23.5 for short course yards. Jeremy Linn's split was 24.28 on the way to his amazing 51.86 American record for the 100 yard breast in 1997. Even Masters swimmers at age 52 have done 28.0 for 50 yards.

    Mark Warnecke of Germany owns the 50 short course meters world record at 26.70 from 1998. The record for the 100 is 57.66 by Ed Moses (who also set the 200 breast record of 2:06.40 one day later).

    In addition, Moses also holds the long course WR in the 50 meter breast with a 27.39 from the U.S. nationals in March. And in the 100, Russia's Roman Sloudnov became the first man to break a minute when he went 59.97 in June. He later lowered that to 59.94 at the World Championships in Fukuoka, Japan.

    How can these times be improved?

    Probably not by strength alone - former breaststrokers Steve Lundquist, Richard Schroeder, John Moffet and Linn were probably some of the strongest swimmers ever to race breaststroke; likewise, Penny Heyns among the women. Increasing already strong men's and women's flexibility to improve streamlining can certainty help to better these world records. And we must always work on reducing water resistance.

    Dimitri Volkov, who won the Olympic 100 breast in Seoul, had, perhaps, the best start and underwater stroke in history.

    Dimitri Volkov

    Consider This...

    I propose another idea for sprint breaststroke: how about rethinking the idea of breathing every stroke?

    Coaches do not insist that their freestylers and flyers breathe every stroke. In the 50 fly, more than two breaths will cost a swimmer a race because someone will breathe less and win.

    It has been established that we use the anaerobic glycolysis for the first 40 seconds of a race. This means we are using energy stored in the muscles (CP) and energy stored in the liver (glycogen) for the first 40 seconds. This can occur without any oxygen (anerobic), meaning we don't need to breathe at all for 40 seconds!

    So why not breathe every other stroke, or every third stroke in the 50 and 100 breaststroke races?

    The reasoning for not breathing every stroke in butterfly also applies to breaststroke. Too many breaststrokers have too much vertical force. By not breathing, the head and body remain in a position where the swimmer can apply more horizontal force (swimming "downhill").

    Let's discuss the 50 breast first. Breaststrokers cut their underwater timing by 1-2 seconds to maintain race speed, get to the race stroke and "power" the swim. The problems begin when swimmers break their streamline early to breathe on the first stroke up (after breaking the surface of the water).

    Steve Lundquist, 1984 Olympic champion in the 100 meter breast, was one of the strongest swimmers ever to swim breaststroke.

    Steve Lundquist

    I advocate not breathing at all on the first stroke up, it's only five to seven seconds into the race, and it should be the most powerful part of the entire race. By not breathing on the first stroke up, we accomplish two things:

  • We can maintain our streamline by not coming up so high out of the water;
  • We can concentrate more on the first and second arm sculls to keep a more horizontal force

    The first stroke up is so very important,more races have been lost at this time when swimmers concentrate on the first breath instead of the pull (scull).

    Different Breaststroke Styles

    I am currently a Masters swimmer who swims breaststroke, and I have experimented with the stroke for 35 years. I was always best at the 200 and horrible at the 50.

    In the 1960s, I swam the Russian style of breaststroke when most U.S. swimmers were trying to be like Chet the "Jet" Jastremski. I know close to 55 different breaststroke styles, such as undulating, flat, chicken wing, Russian, "Chet the Jet," the wave, etc.

    Only when I started practicing and racing the 50 breast by breathing every other stroke did my 50 times come down. And, boy, did they ever! I dropped two seconds and achieved a Masters All-American ranking. I even won a Masters national championship in the 50 breaststroke!

    It seems that more and more Masters breaststrokers are swimming their races by breathing every other stroke. Almost everybody who does reports a drop in his time. I have also experimented with age group girls (ages 10- 13), and they have dropped their times by one second per 25.

    Swimmers need to have fast hands and fast feet for the 50, without any slipping. By concentrating on the sculls and not breathing, the sculls become faster with more power output.

    If anaerobic glycolysis is the energy system used for the first 40 seconds, there is probably no reason to breathe at all in the 50. Probably the only reason is to exhale carbon dioxide to delay the effects of lactic acid and acidosis. This will help in your next race, but not in the 50 you are swimming or just swam. The 50 does not begin to produce acidic blood pH like it does in the 200 breast.

    I foresee 23 flat splits for the 50 yard breaststroke leg of the men's college 200 medley relay if swimmers use two or three strokes between breaths. And in short course meters, I believe a 26 flat for the men's 50 breast is possible.

    What about the 100 meter long course breaststroke in the Olympics? The fastest split is not Lundquist's from '84, or Frederic deBurghgraeve's in '96. It was Russia's Dimitri Volkov's 28.12 in 1988. He swam that fast because he had the best start and underwater stroke in history. He was the last swimmer to break the surface after the start of the race, but he emerged over one body length ahead of the field - streamlining and body position are everything!

    I maintain that a properly trained breaststroker who breathes every other stroke could go out in 28.0 and come back in 31.5 for a 59.5 long course meters breaststroke. Too many times I have seen races won in 1:01 with a swimmer sprinting hard at the end, but with lots of "gas left in the tank" because he went out in 29+.

    High school and college coaches should be the first to benefit from this new thinking in sprint breaststroke. Teach the drills to freshmen and sophomores, and by the time they are seniors, they'll be record holders.

    Recommended Drills

  • Forward eggbeaters (25 yards), all-out pumping each leg This helps develop speed and leg endurance.

  • All out sculls (25 yards), with Zoomers or other fins, using dolphin and flutter kick. This helps develop hand speed and awareness of water speed as well as streamlining at above race speed. Have your swimmers try to break 10 seconds.

  • Sprint full stroke (25 yards) completely underwater, all out.

  • Push off and dive 25 yards, quick underwater and no breath first stroke up, then breathe every other stroke.

    Sprint breaststrokers should always do their sprints during the first 30 to 40 minutes of workout because studies have shown that after 20-30 minutes, the fast twitch muscle fibers were completely depleted of ATP-CP and slow twitch fibers use their ATP-CP more sparingly, so only slow twitch fibers are still available for work.

    You cannot use anaerobic glycolysis at the end of a workout because there is no glycogen left for sprinting. And you must use anaerobic glycolysis for your sprint breaststrokers.

    Do lots of dryland training and lots of plyometric training for sprint breaststroke. Convert all the muscle fibers you can to fast twitch. Train the anaerobic systems. Improve the ATP-CP within the cells and muscles. Do much of the drills at SP1, SP2, SP3 and EN3. Train them as you would a sprint freestyler, but remember that the breaststroker needs to be stronger.

    Another important thing to consider is the taper. Freestylers, flyers and backstrokers can use Zoomers to exceed race pace speed in order to work on race pace streamlining, breakouts, etc. But there is nothing available to breaststrokers except assisted pulling devices-and I believe they do not work properly for breaststrokers, anyway. If you eliminate the timing between the sculls and the kick, you are not swimming the same stroke.

    The hardest thing for a sprinter to master is the feel of the water after shaving down. Everything feels strange and out of control. Try having your breaststroke sprinters shave down a week before the big meet-at the point of the taper when things are starting to feel good again. This accomplishes two things:

  • It allows them to train at race speed;

  • It allows them to adjust to the taster speed in the turns and underwater stroke.

    The shave down on race day will still produce the desired results it's just that your swimmer will swim under control.

    In conclusion, breaststroke has always been a thinking persons stroke so how about swimmers and coaches rethinking breaststroke?

    The Reaction

    Mike Barrowman

    Mike Barrowman

    Clearly, the author has the right idea regarding how the body functions. And he's not placing emphasis on the wrong races.

    The 50 breast may, indeed, work with less than one breath per stroke. The 100 may be a different story.

    If you look at Steve Lundquist's 1984 Olympic race in the 100 breast, I believe he did exactly what McCauley is talking about-he held his breath on a few strokes on his way to gold and a world record. However, the 100 is still a bit longer than that period where anaerobic glycolysis is the primary energy system.

    Personally, I hate to see someone lock up and die hard at the end of a race. And by depriving the swimmer of even a small amount of precious oxygen, I think this would happen more readily.

    The primary question for the 100 is: "Can we train oxygen deprivation well enough to ensure that this would have minimal effect?" Remember, the pullout alone already brings breaststrokers into a pretty severe "state of hell"!

    The 50 is different. I think he's on to something that could work. By not having to use energy to lift the 40 or so pounds of upper body out of the water every stroke, the swimmer can now channel that upward motion directly forward. So far, so good.

    To be able to keep the body more streamlined by not breaking the aquadynamic flat plane of the body ... another plus.

    The major obstacle, as I see it, is the rhythm of the stroke. Every stroke at the highest level has a rhythm that keeps the elite swimmer moving with less power than the swimmer who falls out of rhythm and must pick it up again.

    To breathe one stroke and to change to a different style on the next breaks that rhythm. So, in this regard, there may be another option-just hold the head down through the entire 50.

    It's obviously going to take another sweeping revolution in stroke technique, but this is what I see as one possible outcome of McCauley's premise. In the end, I'd love to see what happens with this idea- I've always been a big fan of stroke improvement.

    Kristy Kowal

    Kristy Kowal

    Breaststroke is a discipline that relies heavily on rhythm and coordination. To me, it is the most graceful and the most difficult of all the strokes.

    As breaststrokers, we have changed our stroke styles over the past years with more frequency than any other stroke. Sure, we have seen some variations of the butterfly, backstroke and freestyle, but none as dramatic as the breaststroke. In a heat of eight breaststrokers, it's often the case that no two swimmers share the same style or technique.

    We are constantly looking for improvements that will give us the edge over our competition. It was only a matter of time before alternate- breathing breaststroke would be introduced.

    Wayne McCauley's article is very persuasive. However, I have several questions:

  • Can you teach an old dog new tricks?

  • Can one season of learning a new technique replace years of practicing something the same way?

  • Would focusing on learning a new technique for a 50 take away from endurance training for a 200?

  • Once we learn this new technique, how hard will it be to revert back to our "old" stroke for a 200 meter race?

    When I came to the University of Georgia to swim for Coach Jack Bauerle, the first thing the coaching staff did was make my stroke more energy efficient for my body type. With these improvements, my times dropped dramatically. Therefore, I am not opposed to trying a new technique that could improve my chances of victory.

    However, it would take extensive experimentation on my part before I could feel comfortable enough to try this new style of racing in an actual competition.

    In swimming, what works for one person may not necessarily work for another. It is all up to the individual. If you try this new technique and see vast improvement, then by all means use that to gain the greater edge over the competition. Sometimes the only way of improving a stroke that is already working for you is to change the little things.

    To each his own.

    Wayne McCauley is an ASCA Level 2 coach and Masters national champion in breaststroke.

    Wayne McCauley