What went right with the wave style breaststroke?


As a follow up to my article What went wrong with the wave style breaststroke?” there were three world records set in the USA Olympic Trials, two by Brendan Hansen and one by Amanda Beard. In each prelim and final there were many variations of the wave style of breaststroke. Most obvious was the high stroke rate of the slower swimmers and the greater distance per stroke by the two winners.


The big question was and still is what part of the wave style contributes the most to the improvement in forward velocity and the least amount of drop off between pull and kick? Is it the upper most, above water component of the wave, or the bottom under water component?


I think to most people at the trials, this question was answered by Brendan and Amanda. Both spent more time with their heads underwater in streamline than their competitors, and both were able to swim faster longer than those competitors fighting the waters resistance. During Amanda’s semi-final she had three great laps where you could count one thousand with her head and body underwater for that long. The last lap she shortened her stroke up and it looked much harder. But in finals she kept the same one thousand count for all four lengths, and shattered the world record. She was the only lady to literally pull, kick and glide. Next to Amanda I liked the stroke of Caroline Bruce. She has a very short scull way out in front, then a kick and short glide underwater. I was disappointed in most of the other ladies stroke style as they seemed to be in perpetual motion. This is because they are not getting their heads far enough underwater to incorporate a glide after the kick.


Drag components

Wave drag or surface drag is many times greater than underwater drag, which is why submarines are faster underwater. All four strokes are spending more time off the start and turns to take advantage of this difference in drag force. What can be seen by underwater cameras during breaststroke races is the reflection of the waters surface when the body and head are underwater. Looking at Domenico Fioravanti 200 meters breaststroke during the 2000 Olympics, he came real high out of the water looking forwards. Do we want to emulate this? Looking at his stroke every tenth of a second, he only spent 0.1 to 0.2 seconds in this high position. Where he excelled was the excellent amount of time spent with his head completely underwater, and the total amount of time spent in the streamline position. You can clearly see his entire body’s reflection in the smooth water above his body. You could count one thousand during the time he was underwater and in a streamlined position. And no we do not recommend his high head position,

Fioravanti could have been even faster if he kept the head lower and looked down instead of forwards.


Stacianna Stitts swam the fastest women’s time in the 100 breaststroke in her first prelim race, a 1:07.20. During this race she was very long and swimming with great streamline and her head was going under water each stroke. With each additional race her stroke became shorter and rushed, with less time with her head underwater. She ended up fighting the water rather than trying to streamline through it. She should be commended in her stroke, reducing the amplitude and having her eyes looking down. I tell my women breaststrokers it is “swimming like a man”. But the real secret to the wave is how much time you spend in the underwater component of the wave style. There is not very much of a glide in the 100 breaststroke, but every tenth of a second spent with the head underwater lowers the total race time. This is most evident in the swimming of Domenico Fioravanti, Kosuke Kitakima and Ed Moses. Unfortunately Ed Moses had problems with his asthma and was never a factor in the breaststroke races.


Time with head underwater

Taking a theoretical 200 breaststroke style whose stroke is 1.8 seconds, with 0.5 for pull, 0.5 for kick, and a total of 0.8 seconds in streamline. By shortening the pull to 0.4 seconds, and by not coming high out of the water this can shorten the transition to 0.1, the streamline can be lengthened to 0.9 to 1.0 seconds. Because the head is closer to the waters surface, the time with the head underwater can be increased from 0.2 to as much as 0.4 seconds per stroke. This style is truly a pull, kick and glide. It is much easier to swim than the traditional overlap style where the hands and feet never really come to a glide. I look for the swimmers head to drop two to four inches underwater, and the hips to rise near or above the waters surface. Like in butterfly it is much easier to swim “down hill” rather than swim up hill.



Using sports science to evaluate changes to the wave style breaststroke, the above water portion of the stroke has become less stylish in favor of spending more time per stroke in the streamlined position. Very small changes to head position and pull patterns are increasing the time in this streamlined position. In the 200 stroke distance per stroke is increased by decreasing drag in this streamlined position by being underwater. This decrease in drag and increase in distance per stroke make continued lower times breaststroke easier to obtain. By the 2004 Olympics men’s times may be 58+ in the 100 and 2:08 in the 200. Women’s times could be as low at 1:04+ and 2:20.


Wayne McCauley

ASCA Level 5 Masters

Masters All-American

Masters National Champion