Who is there?
Head hovering right above the water, perhaps even with regular rimmed glasses on and dry hair, arms slowly pushing the water to the sides with a rhythmic, lazy, and very wide breaststroke-like kick in a weird angle to the bottom of the pool.
I am sure you know who I am talking about.
The most common breaststroke swimming position in our swimming pools all around the world.
In the Czech Republic, we have a name for this type of head above the water, lazy breaststroke swimming style. We call it "paní Radová" breaststroke. In literal translation, it means "Mrs. Mayor".
In the olden days, the stereotypical wife of the town's mayor used to be a very respected individual, lazily strolling through the town with her nose held high. And this was translated into the swimming terms when someone swims very slow breaststroke with the head above the water at all times as if they are above anything else.
You know, however, that to properly swim and enjoy breaststroke, the "Mrs. Mayor" style is not the way to go.
This type of breaststroke puts quite a lot of pressure on one's lower back since the swimmer needs to bend to keep the head above the water.
Ok, this is a bit of an extreme and most people who are at least a bit serious about learning to swim breaststroke do not swim like that, but there are a few commonalities and pitfalls that appear in breaststroke swimmers' strokes.
Below are just a few of the most common breaststroke mistakes out there:
1) Excessive arm pull past shoulders
One of the biggest pitfalls during the breaststroke arm movements is the exaggerated pull which causes swimmer's arms and elbows to go too far back, passed the shoulders.
The current form of breaststroke technique actually puts a lot less emphasis on the arms than the kick, but many swimmers use their arms to move forward instead of their breaststroke kick and this is causing them to pull too far back with their arms.
Imagine a wall 1 meter (~3 feet) tall and 5cm (~2 inches) thick. The top of the wall is nice and flat. Pretend like you'd sit on your knees with your chest to the wall and bring your arms over the wall, so you are basically resting on your armpits on top of the wall. Your arms are free and you can move them around on the other side of the wall.
Now try to do a breaststroke arm pull. It has to be small because you cannot move your arms through the wall toward your body.
This is almost like swimming breaststroke.
Another way to try this in the pool is to hang on the lane rope (as if it was the top of the wall). Hang on the lane line at your armpits, extend your legs horizontally behind you and try to do a breaststroke pull. Again, you cannot move your elbows passed the lane line backward.
You can practice these mimicking exercises a few times and then try it when you swim and remember, smaller is better.
2) Taking a breath too late
Along with the problem of too big of an arm pull as described above, comes the late breathing mistake.
One of the first principles of swimming is that if a body part (head, arm) is taken out of the water, there always has to be another body part which serves as a support in the water.
The more body parts that are above the water and the longer they are above the water, the easier it is for the swimmer to sink down.
In other words, the harder the swimmer has to work to keep afloat.
The same principle applies during breaststroke breathing.
When your body rises to take a breath, your head is above the water, so you need to minimize the time your body is above the water and use the arms for support.
The common mistake here that I am talking about is taking a breath when the swimmer's arms are already by his/hers shoulder area or even worse, by his/hers hips (see mistake number 1).
When this happens, the body (head) is out of the water, but there is no support in the arms to keep the body afloat as the arms already finished the pull, therefore, the swimmer feels like they are sinking every time they take a breath.
So, next time you are breathing in breaststroke, remember, take a breath at the same time when you start your pull (when your arms are still stretched upfront) and finish the breath (head in the water at the same time you are stretching your arms forward.
3) Hesitation in the middle of the stroke
If you have read my post about how to use your arms during breaststroke, you already know what I am talking about here, but if not, here is the scoop.
The goal position of the swimmer's body in breaststroke is right below the surface of the water.
The important key element is the hips which should ride at all times very close to the surface of the water.
The "high hip" position, is very vulnerable during the time when the swimmer just finished the pull and is ready to return the arms back to the front position (this is called the arm recovery).
It is at this time (hands are right in front of your chest) when the swimmer's hips are forced down by the hands above the water position.
So, the longer the swimmer takes to get the arms back forward the more likely are the hips to sink deep down from the surface.
Many swimmers (even some experienced athletes) make a big mistake by pausing the hands in the chest position before returning the arms forward.
In reality, it should be totally opposite, there should not be a pause, the arms should actually speed up as the swimmer throws them (along with the upper body) forward.
A good way to practice this is by using a drill where you use freestyle kick with very fast breaststroke arms. This drill will not let your hips sink since the freestyle kick is supporting them, but it will get you tired very fast if you keep pausing in the breaststroke arm pull.
4) Head movement instead of body movement
This is a very common mistake and if I were to venture a guess, it is practiced by 90% of the swimming population out there.
Contrary to the belief, there is no (or very little) neck movement during breaststroke.
It is the opposite of butterfly, where you should slightly move your neck to get the head out of the water. You can read about that in the top butterfly mistakes post.
In breaststroke, you can imagine you have a neck collar (one of those you get in a hospital, also called the cervical collar) which does not allow you to bob your head up and down.
Instead, you should move the chest along with the head.
You might now wonder: "well why shouldn't I move my head. It works fine for me."
True, you can swim breaststroke with the head bobbing, however, you are not then swimming properly up to your potential.
The head bobbing introduces unnecessary up and down motion to your body which causes you to lose the forward motion engagement as well as hips at the surface position (see point 3 above) and increases your drag.
You can practice this by utilizing a few tricky drills.
One way to get your head immobilized is to put a tennis ball or a bit bigger ball under your chin and keep it there while you swim.
The other way, which I like the best is to utilize the Finis front end snorkel but use it backward in the back of your head to not let your head move up from its natural position.
In another way to think about this is, if your face is vertical (eyes looking straight ahead) during the breathing cycle, it is wrong. Your head is an extension of your neck, so you need to look in an angle towards the water somewhere in front of you in order for your hips to stay at the surface.
5) Improper breaststroke kick
I discussed the proper breaststroke kicking sequence in one of my older breaststroke leg posts, however, let's talk about it again.
Proper breaststroke kick is a must if you want to succeed in swimming this wonderful stroke.
The most common mistakes in kicking are a scissor kick, too wide of a kick or the worst, modified butterfly kick.
The main ingredient to a good breaststroke kick is the revelation of what part of your leg actually pushes the water and where.
So, let me shed some light on that.
Breaststroke swimmers always need to push water backward behind them since they want the kick to propel them forward. In the scissor kick (wrong type of breaststroke kick) the water is pushed to the sides and in too wide of a kick water is pushed almost nowhere.
The proper way to push water behind the swimmer's body is by utilizing the inner shin (from knee down) and the inner foot (from ankle to your big toe) as the main parts.
In the scissor kick and modified butterfly kick (wrong type of breaststroke kick), it is the front shin and front foot that is wrongly being used.
In the too wide of a kick (wrong type of breaststroke kick), it is only the sole of swimmer's foot that stomps the water backward which actually generates almost zero propulsion forward.
As you see, all three variations are using totally different less efficient propulsive mechanisms to get a swimmer forward.
The best way to learn the proper inner shin and inner ankle position is to place your feet in the right alignment against a swimming pool wall while holding onto a lane line and then very gently push off (with your inner ankles touching the wall - foot rotated outward).
Keep repeating this leg wall alignment many times until you feel comfortable and are able to mimic the same ankle rotation in the water.
There are of course many more aspects to a proper breaststroke swim, however, if I'd list them all, it would be for a short book and who reads books these days, right;).
I hope you learned something about breaststroke today and remember, to improve in swimming or as a matter of fact in anything in life, trying new things and understanding why something is done is the key to success.
So go out there and modify your breaststroke for the better.
One way or another, you will discover something new, even if it is just more realization that this is not the way to do it. Have fun and keep swimming.