There were 43 world records set at this year's controversial World Swimming Championships in Rome. One of them came courtesy of Australian Christian Sprenger, who swam the men's 200m breaststroke semi-final in a staggering 2:07.31.
Swift it may have been, but it still leaves Sprenger more than 25 seconds slower than the world record for the men's 200m freestyle - or front crawl - set by Germany's Paul Biedermann at the same championships. He finished in 1:42 flat. That means front crawl is roughly 20 per cent faster than breaststroke and this difference becomes more pronounced
over longer distances.
What holds true for the world's greatest swimmers also holds true for amateurs: breaststroke is the slowest of all swim strokes. Jodi Cossor, the Lead Bio-mechanist for British Swimming, explains: "With breaststroke, there is lots of acceleration and deceleration. It covers a much wider area of water than other strokes. With front crawl you are in a much more streamlined position, which helps to overcome drag, a swimmer's worst enemy. There is also greater wave drag in breaststroke; with front crawl there is more air time, with one arm always out of the water, meaning you can move a lot faster."
Despite this, breaststroke remains the stroke of choice for many triathletes. Most likely, this is down to a greater feeling of safety offered by the stroke. Unlike front crawl, breaststroke offers plenty of surface vision and easier breathing opportunities. Many triathletes fear front crawl because it forces you to be face down in the water during the stroke, and this feeling of being submerged can lead to anxiety when you're new to the sport.
Morgan Williams is National Development Manager for the British Triathlon Federation and a level three triathlon coach. He stresses the importance of feeling at ease in the water before you tackle front crawl. "Water can be one of the most relaxed environments we experience," he says. "We all enjoy a soak in the bath, but increase the size to a pool, put in lane ropes, and it becomes far more intimidating, especially with an audience present."
Keep it simple
If you’re afraid of the water, Williams says some simple exercises will help you overcome the fear of being face down in the pool. You should be aiming for complete relaxation and a flat position in the water, which is essential for reducing drag once you start swimming.
1. Start by floating on your back in the pool by forming a star shape and looking directly up.
2. Step two is to float on your front – again in a star-shape position – with your face in the water until you need to come up for air. Once you’re comfortable having your face in the water, move on to the second phase of this exercise, which is to blow bubbles into the water to become used to exhaling underwater.
3. Of course, we’re all different shapes and sizes so some may find floating easier than others. If you’re struggling, use a leg float; most swimming pools have them.
4. Next, Williams suggests performing some push-and-glide exercises from the side of the pool. Place your hands and arms straight out in front of you, with your face in the water, and push out into the pool as far as possible until you need to breathe again.
5. Finally, try to supplement this push-and-glide exercise with four to six relaxed strokes, maintaining a flat position, again face down in the water.
Back to basics
6. Letting your arms slip through the easiest path in the water is a mistake many swimmers make, according to Williams. Instead you should “feel the water with your hand and arm and apply pressure to the water. This pressure should increase as you pull and then push the arm through to the end of the stroke at the hip.”
7. Steve Cox, Head Coach at Middlesbrough Swimming Club, suggests the following drill to practise arm stroking. “Place a leg float between your legs and practise single-arm strokes,” he says. “Extend one arm straight out and use the other to push through the water. Try to maintain only a slight bend in the arm as you swim. The arm and hand should be deep but should not cross the imaginary centre line of the body.”
8. Williams says that another common error is incorrect leg movement. “All too often, triathletes develop a ‘panic kick’, where they kick their legs rapidly, often bending the knee in a similar motion to cycling,” he says. “This results in an increase in drag and an increase in oxygen consumption by the leg muscles – the biggest muscles in the body – with the result that you’ll rapidly feel out of breath and fatigued.”
You can practise a more controlled kick by placing both your arms on a float and kicking slowly from the hip rather than the knee. “The kick should have minimal knee bend and your ankles should be relaxed,” says Williams. “Over time your leg strength will improve.”
The art of breathing when swimming front crawl is the area that holds most fear for newcomers. “Lots of people panic when their face is in the water; they forget you can breathe out in the water,” says Cox. “Many people try to breathe in and out when their head is out of the water, which means they don’t take in quality breaths.”
Swimmers performing the front crawl can breathe every second stroke on the same side or every third stroke on alternating sides. Purists might argue that breathing every third stroke creates a more balanced stroke, as it uses the left and right sides equally. But Williams says not to worry about this when you’re learning: “Triathletes can breathe to one side every other stroke to start with. It ensures a regular flow of oxygen and reduces the tension associated with breathing.”
9. Breathing needs to be in coordination with your arm stroke and body rotation. As you begin your stroke you should breathe out underwater, then rotate as part of your stroke and bring your mouth out to take in a nice relaxed breath. The non-breathing stroke should also include the body rotation.
By rotating, you will achieve a longer reach and become more streamlined.
(To appreciate the movement, imagine you were standing in front of a brick wall and reached out just with your arm, but couldn’t quite touch it. But if you rotated at the hip, you could reach it.) Streamlining helps you achieve a better shape in the water and create less drag. To demonstrate this, push yourself out in the pool flat in the water and see how far you glide, then repeat this but push and glide on your side (rotated). You should feel less resistance from the water and you will travel further with the same effort.
Raise your sights
Triathletes also need to perfect their sighting skills. Cox says that getting into the habit of raising the head every five or six strokes is good practice for racing, particularly in open-water races, where it is all too easy to lose your bearings.
“Raise the chin just above the surface to sight during one stroke. Sighting can be done during a breathing or a non-breathing stroke, depending on the swimmer. To maintain a healthy rhythm a swimmer might, for example, take three strokes, breathing on the third, takenanother three strokes, breathing, then taking a sight stroke and repeating the cycle.” Morgan Williams says: “For some it might be wiser to master basic front crawl before moving on to open-water skills such as sighting. In an open-water situation it is easier to sight on a large object or reference point beyond the buoys used for the race, for example a group of trees or an electricity pylon, as it will require less searching and can be spotted and remembered before the race.” Be sure to make your reference point an object that will not move.
These tips should equip breaststrokers with the confidence and ability to progress to front crawl. “After about 600 metres of breaststroke, tiredness can really kick in,” says Cox. “Once you’ve mastered front-crawl technique, you will find swimming so much easier. It’s better to learn sooner rather than later. It’s easier and significantly faster.”
As for increasing the distance when you feel comfortable with the basic techniques of front crawl, he says: “You can only become swim-fit by swimming. Swimming can help your running or cycling, but the only way to be a fitter swimmer is to swim. Build your skill gradually by increasing the time and distance you swim each session. Once you have become confident over 200m of front crawl, start thinking about trying an open-water session if you’re targeting a race that features an open-water swim.”
One of the best – and easiest – ways to improve your front crawl is to seek a second opinion. “It’s always good to get some advice from a trained eye,” says Williams. “Go along to your local triathlon club and ask the swimming coach to assess your technique.” You may find it tough in the beginning, but if you switch from breaststroke to front crawl, you should easily knock seconds from your swim time.
You can find your nearest tri club at www.britishtriathlon.org/clubs.