Mullen Musings: Serious Breaststroke Technique Talk

By G. John Mullen

SANTA CLARA, California, October 10. INNOVATION distinguishes between a leader and a follower. -Steve Jobs Don't wait for your ship to come in – swim out to it. ~Author Unknown

Deep thought and reflection drives innovation and progression. In sport, innovation and progression must be added gradually, to confirm correctness of the progression. However, this can cause staleness and dullness in a sport with much room for improvement.

This series discusses certain areas I have thought about for a while, but am ready to put on paper. Sometimes (like this article) the musings will have a theme, other times it will be random thoughts, but the goal of this is to encourage thinking, discussions, and progressions in the sport. I'm the first to admit that many of these musings may be inaccurate. In fact, at least 20 percent will be incorrect, but these are my interpretations balancing my research and anecdotal experience. Please join the discussion in progressing the sport of swimming.

Mullen Musings: Breaststroke Volume 1
The man who is swimming against the stream knows the strength of it. ~Woodrow T. Wilson

Breaststroke, unlike other strokes, receives the majority of propulsion from the legs. Combine this with unique timing which positions the body to use the propulsive legs with the body in a straight line (see past articles: Olympic breaststroke technique and better breaststroke) and you have a highly different and variable stroke between swimmers.

Variations even exist between elite swimmers. These variations often confuse those attempting to emulate their ideals but remember, elite swimmers do not always use the best technique and imitation is not always ideal, as different people have different constraints. This variation between elite swimmers has sparked a lot of my musings, enjoy!

1. Why do people recover their arms above the water?
I know the thought process, air is less dense than water, so recovering the arms over the water creates less drag, which is good! Unfortunately, the arms must create considerable drag to exit and re-enter the water; remember Newton's 3rd law, if one body part rises another will try to sink. This unnecessary movement likely offsets the benefit from the brief air recovery time. This has been documented by Dr. Rushall as he has said the following about Daniel Gyurta's recent 200-breast (former) World Record swim:

“Behind the upper arms as the hands move forward and upward over the water there are large pockets of turbulence indicating a large increase in resistance. The question has to be asked: “does the resistance reduction from having the hands out of the water offset the extra resistance created by the arms to get to that position?” In this writer's opinion, the answer would be a resounding “No!”

Remember, before making a stroke correction, consider the consequences of the alteration. Changing one movement at the arms causes a reaction down the body, ensure the one correction improves the whole stroke not only the area questioned.

2. Oppositivity for maximum speed?
Oppositvity is when the arms and legs perform opposing actions. In breast, it is most notable in Cameron van der Burgh, as his arms begin the outsweep when his legs snap together. Mastering this ability helps increase tempo while maintaining streamline, which is why Cameron was able to hold a 0.9 stroke cycle during his 100-meter world record race! This form of breast, provides the potential of maximum force production, but seems a high-risk, high-reward skill. This type of breast is likely most beneficial in 50- and 100-meter races, as maintaining this tempo is difficult and likely increases fatigue.

3. Recover with elbows together?
It is generally accepted to bring the elbows as close as possible together prior to the recovery for an optimal streamline position. However, a few elite swimmers break this rule, most notably Rebecca Soni. This begs the question: does recovering with wide elbows decrease arm recovery time without increasing drag? Or does Soni keep her elbows wide to prevent interference drag (caused by two body parts being close to each other). With the elbows wide, the athlete will save time upon arm recovery in a high drag position. If the elbows recover under the swimmers body, their body is wider and likely increases front drag. However, if the elbows are wide, the body is flat and potentially more streamlined. Even if the close elbows does decrease drag, it may not outweigh the extra time necessary to perform the movement.

4. Upkick for speed?
Many breast swimmers are beginning to perform an upward motion with the feet at the end of their kick. This upward motion could be the natural movement of the feet at the end of a kick, or a strong upkick at the end of the kick. Van der Burgh uses this technique, which I feel is a upkick for slight forward propulsion. However, this movement may also provide a more streamlined position as the body rises, helping keep the body curved as it decreases the amount of water on top of the swimmer, causing less drag for each subsequent breath. This could result in a higher swimming velocity and the appearance of the swimmer sitting higher in the water, likely decreasing frontal drag.

5. Hyperextended back for proper bodyline?
Short axis strokes require flexible spines. In fly and breast, hyperextension is mandatory at the thoracic (this location is this writers opinion, no studies that I'm aware of have analyzed this position). This mobility allows the swimmer to breathe, while keeping their hips high and pressing the body continually forward. Moreover, the higher the hips, the less water on top of the athlete, the more streamlined their position, the less frontal drag.

These theoretical musings are possible improvements for the stroke. Every swimmer should strive for ideal mechanics, but perfect mechanics may not be possible for everyone as they likely don't have the ability to perform specific movements. Keep working on these movements and stroke mechanics, give yourself the tools outside the pool to move properly in the pool. Progressing the stroke requires innovation, not too long ago swimmers were using an “S-curve catch”, what will be the next biomechanical innovation in the sport? We can't say for sure, but I invite you to try some the presented ideas and see if they work for you.