Courtesy of swimming coach Jozsef Nagy
Studying and using the principles of physics the concept of wave-action breaststroke was birthed by swimming coach Jozef Nagy. Before him breaststroke was flat with swimmers riding low in the water–pushing a lot of water. By the mid 1980s Coach Nagy was working Mike Barrowman, innovating and developing Barrowman’s stroke into an undulating motion. Barrowman broke record after record and eventually won gold at the 1992 Olympic Games in the 200m breaststroke. Coach Nagy is a highly sought-after swimming expert who contributes to swimming media when he has new insights to share.
How To Achieve An Even More Continuous Breaststroke?
by Jozef Nagy
I began to doodle, to work out and design the Wave Breaststroke in 1977 (most readers probably hadn’t even been born at the time). The seed that sparked my mind into action was that I was a swimmer (breaststroker obviously) at the time and I noticed that there was a nearly ubiquitous inefficiency in the way most of my contemporaries were swimming breaststroke. That common feature was a visible drop in forward momentum – a stale point — in everyone’s stroke directly after the active phase of the pull and before the active phase of the kick. Part of the solution, I figured, was to initiate a forward motion with the shoulders and arms after the active phase of the pull and immediately prior to the kick. If this driving motion could be somewhat faster than the swimmer’s speed through the water, it would thus connect the active phases of the pull and kick.
When this motion is executed correctly, a side-on view of the swimmer’s shoulder movement will draw a smooth wave. If this wave deteriorates in any direction, it means that the speed of the swimmer is not even or consistent. But this original wave technique was developed and implemented over 40 years ago.
I have been thinking ever since about how the flow could be more constant within the stroke. Though I think we all must keep in mind that the mechanics of breaststroke prevent it from ever being perfectly continuous.
Initially, I approached the problem by measuring the speed of the breaststroker with the help of a vertical line superimposed over the swimmer on a computer monitor. The speed of the line can be adjusted to best track and measure velocity changes in the strokes after the start and the turns. The article about that was published on SwimSwam in 2017 “The Vertical Line”.
Later I measured the speed changes within a stroke by applying a plastic sheet over a monitor or tablet screen. As the swimmer transits across the vertical lines we glean a concise measurement. These vertical lines were drawn approximately 1-2cms apart on the sheet, and was a very easy thing to do for anyone, without the use of the computer’s digital enhancement. The article about that was published on 22. March 2021, on SwimSwam as well: “Measuring a Breastsroker’s Speed Within a Single Stroke: Made Simple & Precise”.
The measurements confirmed what my eyes were seeing: those ‘stale points’ in momentum were obvious and clearly detrimental. That left me with two questions:
What is the root cause of these speed changes?
where do they occur and what are their sizes
How can we eliminate the decreases in speed?
even on a something-for-something basis
Answering the first question — without being fully exhaustive — let’s focus on the most significant motion that slows down the breaststroker and the body part that causes it. This motion is the passive phase of the kick when the swimmer pulls up the legs. At this point the thighs create a large resistance that is defined by the angle between the thighs and the water surface. For some breaststrokers this is a highly-resistant 90 degree angle!
Based on my experiences and study, if someone pulls his/her knees up to 90 degrees while competing against someone whose angle is 120 degrees, the time difference between them – solely due to the less resistant angle – is a minimum of 3 seconds over 50m! This is only a theoretical illustration of the problem to visualize the difference between two breaststrokers who otherwise swim identically.
For many breaststrokers, pulling the knees up too high is energy-negative for another reason. Due to a lack of flexibility in the ankles and hips, the swimmer is unable to turn the feet out at the start of the kick. Thus the key angle of attack for the feet does not exist for a period of time, that for some, may consume over half the power phase of the kick.
It is futile to pull up the legs beyond the point where the swimmer is able to turn the feet out. A significant waste of effort and causes additional resistance for no positive gain. This is the exact reason why in some cases, a shorter kick is more effective than a longer one.
Since the thighs cause the greatest resistance – and so the biggest loss of speed within the stroke – it is imperative that the swimmer pull the thighs up as little as possible. Many coaches in my clinics comment that if the knees do not go deep enough, then the feet rise above the water.
It became clear to me that these coaches teach their swimmers to keep their knees/their kick narrow because they believe this will create less resistance during the up-sweep, than wider knees. This is a huge misunderstanding, because the width of the thighs and the knees – or how close they are together – do not cause any difference in the resulting resistance (this deserves a separate article). The true difference is a consequence of the previously mentioned angle. As a result of these facts, the knees should be opened at least as wide as the hips are.
I would highly recommend to every coach who works with breaststrokers to film them underwater from a side-on view. One stroke is enough with a still camera – the swimmer swims in and out of the picture. Then look at it in slow motion, observing the speed at the edge of the swimsuit (at the thighs), and any vertical movement at all relative to the lane rope.
It is worthy for both coaches and swimmers to spend time and focus on the inefficient motions that cause loss of speed within the stroke. It is not easy to correct it but when it is done it pays off!
This issue is significant for some and less significant for others but as it is part of the fundamental mechanics of the stroke, it IS present in all breaststroker’s techniques. Lets fix this!
Jozef Nagy’s wife Eva Feher translated, and Mike Barrowman helped with correcting, editing.