I've always felt that Breaststroke was seen as the lazy cousin to the other three IM strokes within the swim community. Some believe it to be the easiest stroke and the slowest. Unfortunately, I can't argue with you on Breaststroke being the slowest. Just the natural movements of Breaststroke make it slower and less streamlined than its counterparts, but this doesn't mean that it's for the lazy or is easy to do.
I believe that when Breaststroke is done right, it is actually the hardest stroke. I often tell swimmers that if they can improve their Breaststroke, they can improve their entire IM race. So many swimmers should this lag of the race as an opportunity to slow down and recover before finishing with the Freestyle. If you can be efficient with your Breaststroke with proper timing and great technique you can use this as a time to pull ahead of your competitors.
When done right a 200 Breaststroke can be truly exhausting. In fact, I would choose a 200 Fly over a 200 Breaststroke any day (Full disclosure, 200 Breaststroke was one of my main events when I swam). Breaststroke gets a bad rap because it's the go-to stroke for old ladies who don't want to get their hair wet in the pool or just want to chat with their friends. I'm going to show you that by fixing your timing in Breaststroke, you will achieve a greater speed in your stroke while also proving the difficulty and overall athleticism you need to swim it properly. So how exactly do we do this.
I see a lot of swimmers try to fake the forward drive motion by bobbing their heads up and down as they take each stroke. Each time a swimmer bobs their head, they are changing the timing of their stroke. This can cause delays in the movement of the arms or the engagement of the kick with the rest of the stroke. Everything gets thrown off by this movement.
When it comes to having a streamlined Breaststroke, you want to keep your head steady at all times. That forward drive and over-under motion that you see in Olympic athletes come from their hips and arms, not their heads or cores. I recommend swimmers position their heads slightly down, looking at about a 45 degree angle. This keeps their airways open and has good alignment for the rest of your stroke. If you aren't exactly sure where 45 degrees is, use your hands as a guide. When your arms come together before going into the recovery phase of your stroke, this is where your chin and eyes should be angled towards. Always focusing on this point will help keep your body in a better streamline position and help your perform the other elements of the stroke with greater efficiency.
Snapping the Legs
What really transforms Breaststroke from being an old lady stroke to efficiently driving you across the pool is the kick. I call the slow and steady version of this kick frog legs. It isn't efficient, allows swimmers lower halves to sink and doesn't help push you across the pool. Having a smaller faster kick is a key component to all of the strokes and Breaststroke is no different. By not going as wide with your kick, you reduce the strain on your knees, but also allow less time for the water you are trying to push escape. Keep your hips high in the water will help you engage your core into your stroke. When finishing your kick, it is crucial that you snap your legs back together. At the end of your kick, there should be no space in-between your legs. If you don't fully snap your legs back together, you're losing out on critical propulsion.
Practice this snapping motion whenever possible. I see swimmers forget about this especially during kick sets. If you are doing this kick correctly with a board you should really feel your body accelerate forward with each kick. This will almost cause a lifting sensation. Try to maximize that distance each time. I had one swimmer who had an extremely efficient kick, only take 8 kicks across the pool (25 meters). They were averaging about 3 meters per kick cycle. That's not bad.
One of the biggest challenges for swimmers to get right is the need to get their hands away from their bodies quickly during the recovery portion of their stroke. It is easy to just slowly move your hands and arms back into a streamline and catch position. This is the lazy way. In Breaststroke, your arms should be increasing in speed. At the catch, you turn your hands out, grab the water and start pulling it towards your body. Make sure that your elbows never go past your chest. In fact, keep them slightly in front of your body. Pull down and towards your body in a sweeping motion that starts to create a heart shape. Once your elbows are just in front of your body and your hands have come back together shoot them quickly away from the body. Make sure that your head and upper body follow. If you do this quick enough and with proper efficiency, you'll create a bit of a Butterfly motion with your hips. This increase in speed away from your body will help with timing throughout your entire stroke. Breaststroke, unlike the other three strokes, is driven by this forward motion with your hands. Most strokes rely on the hips and kick to drive the body, but Breaststroke relies on that quick movement of your hands and arms.
Drills to focus on
There are a few different drills you can do to help learn how to move your arms away from your body quickly. The first is a drill I call "No arms Breaststroke". In this drill, you keep your arms and hands together in a streamline. Then you bend your elbows to the point your stroke would end and then immediately, drive your arms back out to the streamline position. Using this motion to thrust your body forward. Make sure that your head stays inline with your arms and your kick emphasizes that extra forward push. Really focus on driving your arms away from your body as quickly as you can.
The next drill is Breaststroke pull. Using a pull buoy can help you really focus on what your arms are doing in Breaststroke, plus work on increasing your feel of the water. If you are driving efficiently with your arms, this will cause a slight Fly kick to occur. This is good. Just don't use it to push yourself forward.
The final drill I like is similar to the Breaststroke pull. However for this one, you won't use a pull buoy. This drill is Breaststroke arms with a dolphin kick. A mistake a lot of swimmers make is that they try to do several kicks between each arm stroke. This throws off your propulsion and timing. As I mentioned above, your arms are what is driving your stroke so lead with your arms and as your hips come up use that time to get give a strong thrust. There should be one kick for each arm stroke.
By speeding up your arms in Breaststroke, you'll be one step closer to having perfect timing in your stroke. This will feel a bit strange at first and you will probably feel a greater level of fatigue in your arms until you are used to moving your arms so quickly away from your body. However, know that this will help improve your Breaststroke and remove that old lady type stroke from your race.