Swim Coach Jozsef Nagy And The Search For The Perfect Breaststroke

by SwimSwam 9

November 09th, 2023 Canada, Europe, International, News, Training

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.

The Search For The “Perfect” Breaststroke

by Jozef Nagy

I raised the following thoughts back in 2010 or even a couple years earlier to a number of biomechanists in Canada. I asked them whether they wanted to leave a mark in the sport of swimming. Then I suggested a research topic for biomechanists that would definitely make the author world famous and leave a mark in the world of swimming. I haven’t abandoned this idea, though I have serious doubts about it ever being completed.

Here is the idea: a biomechanist or rather multiple biomechanists should write a paper, or probably a book, about what the biomechanically “perfect” breaststroke would look like. Obviously the same idea could be applied to the other strokes as well but due to the complex rules and stroke mechanics regarding breaststroke, this particular quest would be the most interesting.

The idea is to describe and define the most efficient breaststroke for an average-build swimmer (say 180cm tall, that is tall for girls and a little below average for boys) who swims at a speed of about 1.5m per sec (this equates to a 1.06,66 over 100m which is a good enough time for girls, and is a good second 100m in a 200m breaststroke).

Whether the researcher of this problem knows how to swim or not is not even an issue. In fact, it may be advantageous if she or he was not a swimmer (though chances for that are really small), because in that case, the researcher would be left exclusively to focus upon the technical opportunities given by the rules of the stroke and the biomechanics therein. Knowing nothing about breaststroke would have zero effect on the outcome of the research.

The details of the research would originate with the starting point of breaststroke. This initial position, where the fully stretched out, streamlined body – making the least amount of resistance – is gliding in and on the water. For our scientists, this would generate the first data set to be extracted, namely how close specific body parts should be to the surface of the water, followed closely by our second data set, which is to understand the precise angle the entire body should move forward if the swimmer is moving at the pre-established 1.5/sec.

The first “move” in breaststroke is catching water with the hands, and consequently, our next point of interest. Say the hands\arms open in 10 degree angles, then in how should the palms, fingers wrists move – relative to each other? Which direction, depth and what speed? This chorus of complexity alone is a mathematician’s puzzle, and begs for concentrated study.

Following that very first motion, what should all the other body parts do? Should they stay in streamline or should they already start to prepare the next move? The timing of these motions become additional parameters into the equations.

Then, all the way through the active phase of the pull – going by 10 degree angles – the position e.g. direction, depth, speed – of each and every body part should be measured. All facets of the stroke should be analyzed and determined in the same way. Taking into consideration the options given by the rules, each and every move of every body part should be measured, calculated, and defined. Along with the movement’s precise speed as well as their optimal position in the water.

I am well aware that this is a very serious and daunting task for even the best biomecahnists.

Just think about how many different details should be measured, calculated, and defined when the swimmer starts the passive phase of the pull and the hands and arms begin their motion forward. At what height should these motions occur relative to the surface of the water to escape the penalizing grasp of resistance? Unlocking the data regarding the remainder of the stroke continues along this path of high complexity.

Further study on to the shoulders would certainly reveal details that could continue to evolve the stroke. For example, what direction, speed, and timing of the shoulder movements are best suited to continue at our pre-determined pace with the least effort from the swimmer? Same questions apply to the motion of the head. Then, how steep should the upper body be, and at what timing and effort level? What angle of the upper body would be the most optimal, and what factors make this so? As this is calculated, our scientists may turn their focus toward the legs, (the depth of the feet and knees, the distance between the two legs) and how much they move relative to the initial position of the stroke (streamline)?

And this is just the analysis of one moment of breaststroke! The rest of the stroke’s motions and timings are equally as challenging as they are data-rich!

Eventually, each and every movement should be analyzed in every fraction of time throughout the stroke. Each and every movement should be defined in 3D along with the movement and speed of each body part. Following upon robust data collection and study, the output from this extensive report will be certain to greatly improve our understanding of what is biomechanically the most optimal movement across a range of the stroke’s motion and timings!

If someone does this work, it would have an immense impact on the development of breaststroke and the researcher would leave an historic mark on how breaststroke will be swum going forward! A very positive mark and very well deserved one as well!

*Mike Barrowman finalized the translation of this editorial contribution.

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1 month ago

Part of this problem could be solved using unsupervised machine learning. If at least the top 10,000 or more breaststroke swimmers could be compiled into a data set with height, weight, reach, stroke rate, strokes per length, time, etc… swimmers with the fastest times could be clustered based on their attributes. The analysis could significantly narrow down how much about breaststroke needs to be analyzed

1 month ago

Seems like Gary Hall, on an ongoing basis with various swimmers, is trying to address this very question.

Former Big10
1 month ago

Has he consulted swimming’s Lord and Saviour, Steven Friederang?

Reply to  Former Big10
1 month ago

He’s too busy filming Ahmed under water.

1 month ago

For over 30 years Jozsef has stayed at the forefront of this single stroke. His knowledge and quest to expand the scope of breaststroke is unparalleled. I had a chance to work beside him for a number of years and he definitely has a mad scientist element. Unquestionably any swimmer that can commit and survive his regime will have success.

Coach Steve
1 month ago

This article reads like my crazy uncle ranting about an idea he had that will “change the world” but nobody believes in him. Why would we study the optimal breaststroke for a 180 cm swimmer swimming at a 1:06 pace? Won’t arm, leg, torso length etc. change the optimal breaststroke? Isn’t there a different “optimal” breaststroke for someone swimming a 50 and someone swimming a 200?

Free Thinker
Reply to  Coach Steve
1 month ago

I swear I remember an article that SwimSwam posted about years ago that was discussing the “optimal glide length on breast stroke.” I really want to believe my memory is correct, but the researchers found that the glide length was directly related to the strength of the kick and the answer they came up with to “how long should a swimmer glide” was basically “Just enough to not slow down.” My point is, I agree with you, everyone is different and the best swimmers typically figure out how to swim in an optimal fashion for their body.

Three Over Three Under
Reply to  Coach Steve
1 month ago

Your crazy uncle who reinvented breaststroke and coached multiple athletes to a WR in the 200?

Brett Kelley
Reply to  Coach Steve
5 days ago

6min abs Coach Steve. I’m joking and agree with you. Hard to find one solution that applies to all. I can only think of one, and yet so many reject the thought.