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Transferring, or merging your speed from pushoff to swim is a skill that you can never work on enough.
Even in breaststroke, when you've already got so much to think about with the pushoff, pulldown, dolphin kick, recovery of the arms and legs, that first stroke can make or break races.
The rule is simple, but timing it just right is critical. The USA Swimming rule book states, "The head must break the surface of the water before the hands turn inward at the widest part of the second stroke." The most important part of this rule is that it says you can start the "second" pull (or "first" swimming pull) BEFORE your head breaks the surface. Many swimmers think that the head must break the surface before the hands separate at the start of the second pull. This leads them to lift the head during the recovery of the arms. Lifting the head and looking forward causes much resistance, and can slow you down during the actual breakout.
How to Do It:
1. First, let's exaggerate a BAD breakout, so you can feel what you're trying to AVOID. Perform your normal underwater pull, but as you reach into extension, lift your eyes and look directly forward. This will dramatically cut your momentum going into the breakout.
2. On your next underwater pull, simply initiate the second stroke (the first "swimming" stroke) prior to lifting the head.
3. Make sure that when you start the second stroke, you're close enough to the surface so that your head will break the surface BEFORE you start the insweep. You have to get the timing just right. If you lift your eyes too soon, you'll create resistance. But if you lift your head too late, you risk being disqualified.
4. This is a good time to work with a partner, or ask your coach to help you find just the specific timing of your breakout to guarantee maximum speed, and minimum chance of a DQ.
*How to Do It Really Well (the Fine Points): *
Yes, there is a lift of the head. While we have published drills that teach the eyes-down position, a slight lift -- or raising -- of the eyes and head during this first true "stroke" gives you a bit more power to draw the hips. It also makes you safer in the eyes of the officials. Timing is critical, and having the head break through the surface JUST as the hands are finishing their outsweep will give you a much better shot at maximizing your speed into your first true stroke.