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Gold in the Water: The Extraordinary Pursuit of Olympic Glory

Teaching breaststroke

by David Salo

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We have had our share of excellent breaststroke swimmers come through the ranks of our program, culminating with the American record set by Amanda Beard at the Olympic Games. While we tend to have some preconceived ideas of the ideal stroke-there is still consideration for individual variation. I don't think that I would characterize what we promote through our program as the wave breaststroke or any other particular term, but there are some fundamental features of what we are looking for in the stroke. These continue to develop and change as we see the performances of our swimmers and the development of technique internationally.

The basic tenet that dictates the development of our breaststroke swimmers is maintenance of high hand and heel velocities during training. There is little room for slow breaststroke swimming in our program. Additionally, I have characterized breaststroke training doing component training. While our breaststroke swimmers perform 80 percent or more of their training as breaststroke- no more than 20 to 40 percent of that total is whole stroke swimming.


One of the first criteria I stress as being extremely important to the overall success in breaststroke is the recovery to streamline. The streamline position-no matter how brief-assures full extension and maximum distance per stroke. One of the major problems for the breaststroke swimmer in competition is the shortening of the stroke with the onset of fatigue-as well as the loss in turnover rate with full extension. Therefore, to further express the importance of this aspect of the stroke, I stress extending into the outsweep of the stroke.


I consider the entire pulling phase of the stroke as triphasic, i.e. outsweep, insweep and recovery. I would characterize the outsweep as a setup for the more propulsive insweep phase, emphasizing a more constant velocity through the outsweep. Consider the swimmer moving through sheets of parallel planes of water: During the outsweep, the arms remain straight and confined to a plane near the surface of the water (six to 10 inches). At the widest part of the stroke (which depends on individual strength) the insweep begins to take form, characterized by increased velocity through to the recovery phase.

The insweep takes form as the inside edge of the arms (which I refer to as the blade-thumb-side) begins to take the lead. The edge extends from the finger tips to the elbow. Consider the edge to cut through the series of parallel planes with the elbows maintaining their position within the original plane. The blade therefore cuts through these planes much like a propeller, creating resistance and propulsion on the inside of the arm. Through the completion of the insweep, the swimmer finds the hands coming toward each other with the elbows trailing and ending closely together. The position of the hands at this point should be above the level of the elbows as the swimmer begins the recovery phase. Through the insweep phase the shoulders and back lift while driving forward (this is stressed so as not to create too much upward motion-thereby sacrificing forward movement). Also during this phase, the elbows remain fairly close to their original planar position.

Reduction of drag should characterize the recovery to the extent that the hands are held close together with the elbows also being close together through the forward extension. Whether or not this phase needs to occur above the surface or below the surface is not as important as emphasizing that the hands should not be lifted out of the water into the recovery phase. More important is that at the beginning of the recovery phase, the hands are at a position slightly higher than the elbows, and that recovery occurs straight forward as opposed to downward. As the arms recover, the head is maintained in a position in line with the back and settles between the arms ending the stroke cycle in a streamlined position.


Among the factors that are important to the breaststroke kick is a concentrated effort on heel speed, especially during the recovery phase. The biggest mistake breaststroke swimmers make in kicking is the manner in which they train. Very little effort is placed on the recovery phase of the kick-specifically the acceleration of the heels during recovery. The heels should be drawn up toward the hips with maximum speed and the toes are turned outward to initiate the propulsive phase. The heels should continue to be the leaders and with the heels in a position outside of the knees, propulsion begins. The heels take an elliptical path as the legs are extended-pressure maintained on the bottom of the feet. At full extension the heels come together and the completion of the kick occurs as the toes are extended to maximize the streamlined position.

The question as to how wide the kick should be, again, like the arm pull, depends upon the individual swimmers characteristics of strength, flexibility and relationship to the capacity of the pull.


In my mind, there are certain components of the stroke where timing can be evaluated and corrected. In the pull, I look to the velocity characteristics of the outsweep and insweep. I look to see that there is a relative constant velocity through the outsweep with an increase in velocity through the insweep into the recovery. During the kick and the initiation of the heel recovery, I suggest that the swimmer feel the recovery begin through the outsweep so that as the recovery phase begins, the propulsive phase of the kick occurs nearly simultaneously. In all, there should be a sense that during the propulsive phase of the arm stroke the recovery (and hence the drag phase) of the heels is occurring and vice versa.

Lastly, I look for the lift of shoulders and back to occur through the insweep phase of the stroke with the head staying in-line with the back.


I believe that the most effective way to train for the breaststroke is through component training. The major problem in training breaststroke occurs when the stroke is not maintained correctly; i.e. with proper timing, body position on the water, appropriate streamlining characteristics, and heel and hand speed. Continuous long sets of breaststroke foster improper mechanics and the ability to turn-on the stroke through a race is compromised.

Component swimming involves the breakdown of the stroke into its components and training at high rates of velocity. Components do not simply mean kick and pull, but rather all components that accelerate those characteristics of stroke mechanics. For example, elbow position during the stroke is very important. To enhance this through training, we have developed a drill called Scrunch Scull. In this drill, swimmers are poised in a vertical position, head and shoulders out of the water. Knees are bent and held in front of the chest, with the heels positioned below the hips. The swimmer then performs a breaststroke pull forward, with the elbows held in a high position, not pulling the elbows back. The blades sweep across the knees and extension forward is carried out with high velocity. This drill carries significant aerobic factors as well as specific training for the breaststroke pull.

Breaststroke swimmers in our program do about 80 percent of their training in breaststroke components, with only about 30 to 40 percent of this using the whole stroke. In this manner, they maintain a very high level of velocity through their training.

Throughout our season, very little changes in terms of specific yardage requirements. From day one of a given season, most of our work is performed at race velocity with an average practice session consisting of less than 6,000 yards. Except for morning workouts from June to August, training is conducted in a short course pool. I believe that it is advantageous to the breaststroke swimmer to train short course throughout the year as opposed to excessive long course training. This maintains the intensity of high speed training and cant be done as effectively, training long course. Prior to the 1996 Olympic Trials, Amanda Beard had only two workouts long course (for a total of two hours) while Steve West, who finished third in the 200 breaststroke and fourth in the 100 breaststroke at Olympic Trials, had a total of five long course workouts. Both swimmers performed significant lifetime bests at the Trials.

The taper phase, also known as the fine-tune phase of our season, occurs over the final ten days prior to major competition. During this period, the yardage drops almost immediately to 2,000 to 3,500 yards with more focus on long, stretched-out swimming with interspersed periods of fast, intense, short swims. I dont time pace 50s, etc., as this is a period we fine-tune the starts, turns and stroke timing. Also, a great deal of time is spent through the last month and a half on relaxation and visual imagery training.

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