My Thoughts on the New Breaststroke
by Nort Thornton
After coaching for fifty plus years as a head coach at the high school, country club, U.S. Swimming Club, Community College and NCAA division I levels, where I had sole responsibility of coaching the whole team on all of the four competitive strokes, I retired from the University of California at Berkeley where I have been for the last thirty-three years. I decided to volunteer to help out, and our present coach David Durden was kind enough to put me to work. It isn't really work when you love what you are doing. We decided that I could be the most helpful if I looked after the breaststrokers swimmers, so that is what I have been doing for the last two years.
When you only have one stroke to think about, I found that I could think about it in much more detail, and in different ways. There is an old saying that goes- "when you look at something differently, the thing you look at changes." I believe this to be true. Here is my thought process. I looked at a couple laws of nature. 1.) Water is 1000 times thicker than air. To move through water takes concerted effort. Hydrodynamic principles that affect our movement in water tell us that as our movement becomes more forceful, and speed increases, water's resistance to it increases by the effort squared. If you fight the water, slap at it and splash around, tangling with the water's surface tension, and creating counter productive waves, the resistance explodes by cubing your increase in effort. The water not only resists our effort to move through it, it has various forms of drag. Molecules of water in the form of sheets that must be pushed aside to open a 'momentary hole' through which the body can propel itself. You could spend the rest of your life in the weight room getting stronger, and not win this battle. 2.) The quickest and most dramatic way to improve your movement though water is to ensure that the swimmer understands proper technique. A 10% improvement in technique will usually result in a 10% better effort.
What we need to understand is that speed comes from our body position, our line between our arm pulls. If we can have a narrow streamlined body line, so as to not push much water, we can slide through the water faster and farther on each stroke cycle. So basically the best swimmers are the ones that don't over power the arm and leg actions, but have the best streamline position.
The second most important element in fast swimming, in my opinion, is the ability to move water quickly, which increases as the swimmer first gets stronger and then more powerful. Finally, increased conditioning (getting in better shape) plays the third most important part. It is critical to be able to hold speed for your whole race distance, while dealing with the increasing discomfort. But think about the fact that it would take about a 50% improvement in conditioning to produce the same 10% improvement in effort that better technique affords.
The third point is becoming comfortable with less air while spending more time underwater. Since the walls of the pool are where you can generate the most power! speed, we need to be able to take full advantage of them. If lack of air leads you to shorten up your underwater sequence of the dive or push off from your turns, then you are giving up you main advantage~ Remember that you can move through the water from a push off in a streamlined position faster than we can swim on the surface; you do not want to give this advantage away under any circumstances.
I believe that proper technique (the least amount of drag and resistance) requires that:
- A. Swimmers maximize the streamline off of every wall (which takes breath control) and training to do this in oxygen deprivation.
- B. Extending the body to maximum reaching streamline position appropriate for each stroke, especially while in oxygen debt. Developing the neuromuscular adaptations to perform under the combat of racing is key to success.
- C. Not rushing the stroke just to sneak in another breath. Holding our stroke length and tempo at all times.
- D. "Less is more." Too much effort inappropriately applied during a race will not necessarily make swimmers move faster, but it will assuredly make them tired faster. Since you can only get a certain level of physical fitness, and the water continues to square or cube it's resistance, it should be obvious by now the greatest opportunity for improvement comes in the area of eliminating resistance and drag, or better technique. (more speed between the arm pulls.)
My thinking is, and it became very obvious, that we cast a "body shadow," as if we were standing directly under a floodlight, which casts a shadow on the deck around our feet. We need to successfully find a way to squeeze that shadow down to the smallest possible circumference. This should be our racing streamline position. Anytime we move our feet, legs, hands, elbows or arm we need to find a way to have these movements inside our shadow, in other words, not increase the circumference of our drag shadow.
Since the high tech swim suits are no longer legal, at least as of this year. Actually the wording of the new rules, which allow knee length suits, is written in such a way that the swim suit companies may be able to produce suits that still can give you some assistance. We will see how much money is to be made from these suits, and of course this will determine the direction that the sport of swimming will head. Assuming that we will need to produce proper body position on our own~ it is very important to learn to create body tension throughout the core, so as to maintain the bodyline that will allow you to maximize your elimination of resistance and drag. To swim downhill, you must learn to press your chest down, which because of your lungs, is the most buoyant part of your body. The body laying out on the surface of the water (face down), is balanced somewhere near the navel. If you relax your body tension, your chest will float up and you lower body will sink. At his point you are swimming vertically, which will create the most possible drag and resistance. The top swimmers have learned to develop enough tension in their core to keep their chest slightly lower than their hips in a tight streamline. Please do not think that you need to try to swim higher in the water. Any energy that is devoted toward staying higher in the water, is energy that is taken away from forward propulsion. Speed can best be achieved by maintaining a straight line.
In the water, we want to manufacture velocity. There are two ways to get faster swimming: 1) through biochemistry (the operation of muscles and expenditure and resupply of energy) and 2) through biomechanics (the physical forces that govern propulsion and the generation and conservation of momentum).
Most swimmers and coaches devote the bulk of their time and attention to conditioning (the biochemistry half of the equation) and very little tine to technique (the biomechanics). Most are only concerned with producing horsepower. But what is most important? Shaping and positioning the body to reduce frontal resistance. (Eliminating and/or reducing the resistance of the water to the body's passage through it.) This will create and/or improve the force production properties of the stroke.
If you can be a good "eliminator" and just and average "force producer," you can be very successful competitive swimmer. The eliminating skills depend far less on pure talent than do abilities in force production. You can swim a great deal faster by staying out of your own way as you move through the water. (Boats, cars, planes, and swimmers are all designed for the same purpose).