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How to swim right: breaststroke | Life and style | theguardian.com

How to swim right: breaststroke | Life and style | theguardian.com.

Not only does bad technique increase drag, making you swim slower than you need to, it can also put excessive stress on the joints. For example, swimming with your head out of the water compresses the neck, which has a knock-on effect on the lower back. “For every inch you lift your head, your hips will drop two inches,” says Shaw. “Your stroke becomes very inefficient if you don’t submerge your head.”

Shaw uses the mantra ‘easy, work, enjoy’ to break down the stroke into its component parts. ‘Easy’ is coming out of the glide, pulling with the arms and inhaling, ‘work’ is thrusting the legs back as you exhale and ‘enjoy’ is the glide. “The more powerful your leg kick, the further you’ll glide,” says Shaw. But don’t wait until you’ve come to a complete standstill before you begin the next stroke. “When you start to feel yourself slow down, begin the next arm pull,” he says.

And when you do, think of ‘releasing’ with the arms. “People often make the mistake of working too hard with the arms when it’s actually the legs that are the engine of the stroke,” says Shaw. Karen Pickering, a former world champion swimmer who now runs her own national swim school, agrees. “You don’t need a huge, sweeping arm pull to propel yourself forwards,” she says. Visualise yourself scooping the inside of a bowl, keeping the elbows within the span of your shoulders.

In stark contrast to front crawl, 70-80% of the propulsion in breaststroke comes from the legs. That’s why Shaw calls it a ‘rear-wheel drive’ stroke – and also why it’s so essential to get the leg kick right. Which brings us to another joint problem in waiting: a condition called ‘breaststroker’s knee’, which can result from ‘snapping’ the legs out and in too forcefully during the leg kick.

“In the ‘whip kick’, you keep your knees in and then snap your lower legs together,” explains Shaw. “It is faster, but it makes the knee joint vulnerable.” That’s not to say you shouldn’t put a bit of oomph into your leg kick, but do so by turning your feet and knees out, like a frog, pushing the legs back and then actively bringing them in together.

According to Pickering, a common mistake with the leg kick is not to ‘finish off’ properly. “A lot of swimmers don’t bring their legs together at the end of the leg kick,” she says. “Think of driving the legs out and back together as one fluid motion.”

You also need to take your legs in the right direction. “Many people adopt a sort of ‘tuck’ position in the kick,” explains Pickering. “You don’t want to bring your knees to your chest, but your heels to your bottom. Think of the kick happening behind you, not beneath you.”

Another widespread error is a ‘screwkick’. If you’ve ever swum behind someone who looks as if their legs are doing two different things, then you’ve witnessed one. “The feet and legs should be symmetrical,” says Shaw. “If you’ve got one foot turned out and the other turned in, it can cause the back to twist.”

A screwkick can be as a result of limited mobility in the joints – but often, it’s simply a lack of awareness. Swimming on your back with a breaststroke kick will enable you to observe your leg movement and identify any asymmetry. Pickering suggests swimming close to the pool wall on the side of your screwkick leg. “The wall gives you a reference point as to where the foot should be travelling,” she explains.

Just after the legs close is the fastest point of the stroke. Or at least, it should be. But many of us sabotage ourselves by beginning to pull with the arms too early. “While you’re gliding with the legs together, the arms should be straight out in front, so that you are streamlined,” explains Shaw. “If the arms are open, it’s like driving a car with the doors open.” Pickering agrees. “Breaststroke is all about timing,” she says. “You can’t kick and pull at the same time or you’ll go nowhere

And what about breathing? “The fact that your body is flat in the water makes breathing in breaststroke easier than in front crawl,” says Shaw. “But people often jerk their head back, or lift it too far out of the water to breathe. The movement of the arms will take your mouth clear of the water, so you don’t need to force it.”


Turn the feet out, to allow the ankles, knees and hips to externally rotate as you begin the kick. Drive the feet back and out to straighten the legs.


As the knees straighten, turn and point the feet and draw the legs together so you can glide in a streamlined position.


Think about bringing your feet towards your bum, rather than your knees towards your chest.


“Breaststroke uses the abdominal muscles more than front crawl,” says Shaw. “Try to engage the core as you thrust the legs back and release as you squeeze the legs together.”


Visualise your arms extending from the back – this helps you engage the strong latissimus dorsi muscles in the back as you perform the arm pull. Don’t take the arms too wide.

Shoulders and neck

Don’t tense and tighten in the shoulders and neck as you perform the arm pull and breathe. Stay relaxed.


When you are gliding, have your eyes looking down. When you breathe, don’t lift the head too high. Think about having your chin resting on the surface of the water.


Breathe in through the mouth, not the nose.

Develop your front crawl technique with Karen Pickering | Life and style | The Guardian

Develop your front crawl technique with Karen Pickering | Life and style | The Guardian.

Swum well, front crawl it is the fastest and most efficient of all techniques, yet most of us struggle to master the breathing and timing that are crucial for the movement to be flowing and streamlined. Master it and you will cover considerably more lengths with less effort.

Body position: Your body should be parallel with the water’s surface and as flat as possible. If your legs or lower body are too low it will slow you down. Despite remaining flat, your body should rotate lengthways, rolling slightly from side to side. This allows you to extend your reach by engaging your back muscles.

Head: Don’t look too far down towards the bottom of the pool – this lowers the body and reduces its streamlining effect through the water. Instead, aim for the water level to meet your forehead with your eyes beneath the water but look slightly upwards towards the end of the pool. But don’t hold your head too high as this increases drag and strains the back and neck.

Breathing: Don’t lift your head too high out of the water when you breathe – you will barely notice when an elite swimmer takes a breath and it should be as smooth as possible. If you breathe on every third stroke, you will take a breath on alternate sides. This encourages good balance in the water.

Arms: As you reach forward with the arm taking the stroke (the active arm), it should be fully extended for a moment before your hand catches the water. Enter with fingertips first and then the hand and forearm. Keep the elbow slightly higher than the forearm. It can help to imagine you are grabbing the water with the palm of your hand and pulling yourself past that hand. As you pull, keep the arm close to the body for streamlining, accelerating through the stroke. By the end of the stroke, the elbow should be straight. The hand should exit when it passes the hip, when the elbow should be flexed again.

Legs and feet: Kick from the hips, not the knees. It is vital to keep feet and ankles as loose and relaxed as possible – think of the way a dolphin’s tail moves in the water. Flex your feet and you can send your body in the opposite direction or bring yourself to a virtual standstill.

How to make a tumble turn

Olympic medalist David Davies explains the fastest way to turn at the end of a length:

1. As you swim towards the wall, look for the T on the bottom of the pool floor. Try not to slow down and don’t lift your head. Just before you reach the wall, perform a forward somersault. Keep your chin on your chest and as your feet meet the wall they should be shoulder-width apart.

2. Stretch your arm out. Push your feet hard against the wall and twist on to your front. Don’t slow down or speed up. Push hard with your feet and twist on to your front. Add a leg kick as you start to reach the surface.

• David Davies won bronze at the 2004 Olympics in the 1500m freestyle, and silver in Beijing in the open water 10k swim