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.