Re-thinking Sprint Breaststroke

Alternate Breathing in Breaststroke

Why do we breathe every stroke in the 50 and 100 short course breaststroke races? One reason only, "coaches" say breathing is part of the biomechanics of the stroke, so why not. That is not good enough for me.

Letís start with the facts derived from scientific research and published by the American Swimming Coaches Association.

    1. Breaststroke requires more strength (power) than any other stroke, including butterfly.
    2. Anaerobic glycololysis is the primary energy system used for the first 40 seconds of a sprint. This encompasses all 50ís. Discounting the dive this lasts for 80% of the 100-yard breaststroke. The fastest 100 yard breaststroke is 51.86 seconds.
    3. More coaches are teaching breast and fly together as the short axis strokes: "pressing the T", "the outstroke is identical in both", the butt rises in both, the minute the butt sinks both strokes start swimming up-hill instead of the desired downhill effect.

The speed college sprint breastrokers generate is amazing. Numerous relay splits of sub 23.5; Jeremy Linn's split of 24.28 on the way to the amazing 51.86. Even Masters at age 52 has done 28.0 for 50 yards. Warneke of Germany reset the 50 short course meters record at 26.70.

March 24 2000 Ed Moses (USA) shattered both the 100m breaststroke 57.66 and the next day the 200m breaststroke 2:06.40.

How can we improve these times as coaches and swimmers? Probably not by strength alone. Steve Lundquist, Schroeder, Moffet, Linn, are probably examples of the strongest swimmers ever to race breaststroke. Increasing already strong men's flexibility to improve streamlining can certainly help. We must always work on reducing resistance to the water. I propose another idea for sprint breaststroke.

How about we rethink our breathing every stroke. There is not a coach around who insists their freestylers and flyers breathe every stroke. In the 50 fly more than 2 breaths will loose the race for you because someone will breathe less and win. We have established that we are using the anaerobic glycolysis for the first 40 seconds. This means we are using energy stored in the muscles (CP) and energy stored in the liver (glycogen) for the first 40 seconds. This can occur without any oxygen (anaerobic), meaning we donít need to breathe at all for 40 seconds.

So why not breathe every other stroke, or every third stroke in the 50 and 100 breaststroke races? The very reasoning for not breathing every stroke in butterfly also applies to breaststroke. Too many breaststrokers have too much vertical force, by not breathing the head and body remains in a position where the swimmer can apply more horizontal force (swimming downhill).

Let's discuss the 50 breast first. Breaststrokers cut their underwater timing by 1-2 seconds to maintain race speed and get to the race stroke and "power" the swim. The problems begin when swimmers break streamline early to breathe on the first stroke up.

I advocate not breathing at all on the first stroke up- itís only 5-7 seconds into the race, and should be the most powerful of the entire race. By not breathing on the first stroke up we accomplish two things. First we can maintain our streamline by not coming up so high out of the water and second we can concentrate more on the first and second arm sculls to keep a more horizontal force component. The first stroke up is so very important; more races have been lost during it when swimmers concentrate on the first breath instead of the pull (scull).

As a Masters swimmer who always best at the 200 and horrible at the 50 sprints, I have experimented with breaststroke for 35 years. In the 60ís I swam the Russian style when most U.S. swimmers were trying to be like Chet the "Jet". I know close to 55 different breaststroke styles, such as undulating, flat, chicken wing, Russian, "Chet the Jet", the wave etc. Only when I started practicing and racing the 50 breast using every other stroke breathing did my 50 times come down. And boy did they, over 2 seconds drop and a masters All-American ranking. I even won a masters national championship in the 50 breaststroke. The last 5 years more and more masters' breaststrokers have noticed my success and have started swimming their races breathing every other stroke. Every single one reports a drop in their time! I have experimented with age group women (10-13) and so far they have dropped their times by one second per 25. I get e-mails from around the world, swimmers who have only improved once they adopted the alternate breathing technique I advocate. Coaches sometimes disagree with the swimmers, but amazingly officials embrace it. You need to have fast hands and fast feet for the 50, with no slipping. By concentrating on the sculls and not breathing, the sculls are faster with more power output.

If anaerobic glycolysis is the energy system used for the first 40 seconds, there is probably no reason to breathe at all in the 50. Probably the only reason is to exhale carbon dioxide to delay the effects of lactic acid and acidosis. This will help in your next race, but not in the 50 you just swam. The 50 does not begin to produce acidic blood pH like the 200 breast does.

Many breaststrokers use full stroke swimming underwater as a drill. There are even masters who race "special" underwater breaststroke races, remembering back to the 50ís when breaststroke was swum mostly underwater With 2 or 3 strokes between breaths in the college 200 medley relay breaststroke leg, I can see 23 flat, and sub 24 splits for the 100 breast. With World Cup races of 50 meters short course, a 26.0-second breast is possible if they race not breathing every stroke. A thereís good money to be made in those World Cup races.

March 29, 2001 6'5" twenty-one year-old Anthony Robinson, clocked 27.49 for a new world record in the 50 meters long course breaststroke.Two days later Ed Moses, of Curl-Burke Swim Club, lowered that time to 27.39 seconds

What about the 100 meter long course breaststroke in the Olympics? The fastest split is not Lundquistís from 84, or deBurghgraeve's in 96, it was Russia's Dmitri Volkovís 28.12 in 1988. He achieved it like Lundquist, with the best start and underwater stroke in history. He came up last in over 7 seconds, but over one body length ahead of the field. Streamlining and body positions are everything. I maintain a properly trained breaststroker swimming with alternate stroke breathing could go out in 28.0 and come back in 31.5 for a 59.5. Too many times I have seen races won in 1:01 with the swimmer sprinting at the end, with lots of gas left in the tank because he went out in 29+. Certainly not like Barrowman's 2:10.16 200 Breast. His tank was empty, the near perfect race and a time that may last a dozen years.

High school and college coaches should be the first to benefit from the New Thinking in Sprint Breaststroke. Teach the drills to frosh and sophmores, and by the time they are seniors your breaststrokers will be record holders.


  1. Forward eggbeaters (25 yards) all out pumping each leg develops speed and leg endurance.
  2. All out (25 yards) sculls using Zomers or other fins using dolphin and flutter kick- develops hand speed and awareness of water speed and streamlining at above race speed. Have them try to break 10 seconds.
  3. Sprint full stroke (25 yards) completely underwater Ė all out
  4. Dive 12.5 yards with no breath on any strokes
  5. Push off and dive 25 yards, quick underwater and no breath first stroke up, then every other stroke.

Always do sprints for breaststrokers in the first 30-40 minutes of workout, "because studies have shown that after 20-30 minutes the fast twitch muscle fibers were completely depleted of ATP-CP and slow twitch fibers use their ATP-CP more sparingly, so only slow twitch fibers are still available for work". Say after a warm-up and a drill set (EN1). You can not use anaerobic glycolysis at the end of a workout, there is no glycogen left for sprinting. And you must use anaerobic glycolysis for your sprint breaststrokers.

Do lots of dryland training and lots of polymetric training for sprint breast. Convert all the muscle fibers you can to fast twitch. Train the anaerobic systems. Improve the ATP-CP within the cells and muscles. Do much of the drills at SP1, SP2 SP3 and EN3. Train them as you would a sprint freestyler, only remember the breaststroker has to be stronger. How fast could Ricky Gill or John Moffat have swum in high school with today's rules of the head submerging, the breast to back turn and dipping the shoulders on turns? Add the alternate stroke breathing into the equation. Can you say 53.0 seconds? A high school swimmer in 1998 did 53.66 using conventional techniques! Perhaps one of your swimmers will be the next high school or college record holder.

One more thing to think about, the TAPER. Freestylers and fliers and backstrokers can use Zoomers to exceed race pace speed to work on race pace streamlining, breakouts etc. But there is nothing available to breaststrokers except assisted pulling devices. Not everyone has access to them and they do not work properly for breaststrokes anyways. Eliminate the timing between the sculls and the kick and you are not swimming the same stroke. The hardest thing for a sprinter to master is the feeling of the water after shaving down. Every thing feels strange, out of control. Try having them shave down a week before the big meet, at the point of the taper when things are starting to feel good again. This accomplishes two things, allowing them to train at race speed and allows them to adjust to the faster speed in the turns and underwater stroke. The race day shave down will still produce the desired results; just your swimmer will swim under control.

Breaststroke has always been a thinking mans stroke, so how about swimmers and coaches rethinking breaststroke?

Other Ideas:

  1. Little or no underwater stroke- my brother in the late 60ís got the great coach Urho Saari to allow him to swim with no underwater stroke; although he would not let him try what is now called the track start. Too Radical!
  2. Instead of an outscull, the swimmers hands shoot forwards to the catch point, using only the inwards scull. I have coached masters who were very successful with this. There is little forwards velocity derived by the outscull, why not eliminate it and go right to the powerful inwards scull. Of course streamlining is affected.

If you have any other ideas, e-mail them to me. I will add them to the Ideas list, so we can develop a forum for breaststroke innovators.

Send e-mail to Wayne A. McCauley