So hopefully you have read my articles on starts, turns and streamlining, and you’re working on improving yours. If you’ve done things right, you will be moving faster streamlining from the wall or the blocks than at any other time of your race. Unfortunately, physics means that you will start to slow down unless you do something. This usually means kicking or a pull-out and even those swimmers that are faster fly kicking underwater than swimming are limited by the 15m rule. This transition from your streamline to swimming is called the breakout and it’s where all your hard work can fall apart. Personally, I find this to be the trickiest part of my races, to go from a fast streamline to fast swimming without slowing down. There is nothing worse than getting the breakout wrong costing you a lot of valuable speed that you then must make up when you start swimming again. In worst case scenarios a bad breakout will leave you almost stopped.
There are a number of things that can go wrong and a number of things you need to remember, I’ve broken these down into timing, depth and then each of the four strokes. This is because timing and depth are two things that can go wrong with all four strokes.
When you leave the block or the wall you are at your maximum velocity, simple friction alone is going to start acting on you as a decelerating force. At some point you will need to start kicking to generate propulsion, and at some point, you will need to surface and start swimming. Timing for both of these is a skill that needs to be mastered and will be different for each person. Kick too early and you will kill some of that speed, kick too late and you have already lost speed that you will struggle to recover, kick for too long and you have lost speed. Kicking incorrectly will also slow you down, but that’s for another article.
It should be obvious, but your depth is going to make a big difference. You need to be able to control your depth and be able to work out how deep you are and how close the surface is.
If you’ve come up too early you have no choice, but to start swimming. I’ve only seen very novice swimmers make the mistake of trying to continue kicking when at the surface, so if you hit the surface you should be already swimming.
If you’ve gone too deep then you need to work hard to get up, this can be done in one of two ways. You can try and kick hard, taking an angle that isn’t too steep and will end up going farther than you planned. Alternatively, you can sacrifice forward momentum for vertical momentum, essentially trying to be a torpedo and go up at a very steep angle.
A common mistake I see is when swimmers lift the head on the first stroke, leaving them looking forward. See the picture for an example. I often use the term “putting on the handbrake” for streamlines and breakouts when a swimmer does something that seriously impedes their speed. Lifting the head for fly is definitely one of the ways to put on the handbrake. Keep that head tucked in and in its neutral position.
Ideally you should take the first stroke without a breath, but if you really do need to breath keep your head in its neutral position and push your chin forward as you would normally breathe. Trust that you have gotten the timing and depth right, and that your first pull will bring you up for a proper fly recovery.
Backcrawl shouldn’t experience the same issues with the head as other strokes, but just in case, don’t move your head out of its position. In backcrawl you need to keep your streamline into the swim. To do this keep one arm in its streamline position on the breakout and the head next to it (it should look like it is still tucked in). If you have timed it right, your face will just break the surface as your first arm stroke is exiting the water to recover. This is when the second arm starts its pull and you are off swimming.
Traditionally I would fly kick until just before I start that first arm stroke, but I have been told that top swimmers now are doing fly kick right up until their first arm recovery. Or at least some of them are trying to.
In breaststroke, as with butterfly, the mistake I see most often is a swimmier lifting their head so that they are looking forward as they start to make their first pull to the surface. Of course, looking forward while swimming breaststroke is an issue I see a lot of in young swimmers so I’m not too surprised when I see them do it. So the advice is the same as when swimming breaststroke, keep the head in its neutral position and use the scoop/shoulder lift to get your breath. As with butterfly, trust that you have the timing and depth right.
Breaking the streamline, and therefore putting on the handbrake, usually happens one or two ways in frontcrawl. The one I see young swimmers do most is lifting their head as they go to take their first stroke. I’m not sure why they do this, similar to looking forward when swimming, it might feel faster, but ultimately it isn’t.
The second way swimmers might break the streamline is by moving their head sideways for a breath and lifting the top of the head. This is the mistake I’m most likely to make, though mostly in training and hopefully not in my races. It usually happens if I’m on my side and breathing in the first stroke or stroke cycle. Now, I know a lot of coaches will say to not breath on the first stroke, I myself recommend not breathing on the first stroke. However, when watching footage of the Olympics and World Championships I have seen 800m and 1500m medallists breathing out of a turn, and I admit that I try to sneak in one too when racing 200m or more. My trick is to only take a small half breath, keeping the head low and snapping back quickly, of course if you can avoid it my basic advice is still avoid breathing on that first stroke.
The solution for both issues is the same, and it’s the same as the backcrawl advice. Keep your head tucked in with your arm in its streamline position as your other arm pulls the first stroke. You should break the surface as that first arm begins its recovery.
I hope all of this helps the next time you are swimming and that by bringing focus to it, I will help you to improve your breakouts. To sum everything up; don’t break the streamline, and don’t look for the surface, know where it is.