Breaststroke Swim Rules In The Open Water

Breaststroke Swim Rules In The Open Water

With swimmers from Africa and Europe to the Americas, Oceania and Asia doing more and more non-freestyle swims in the open water, the issue of how to define butterfly, backstroke and breaststroke in the open water has been a topic in the open water community for some time.*

The World Open Water Swimming Association developed an initial set of rules to govern these butterfly, backstroke and breaststroke swims and crossings in order to provide some guidance and parameters to both swimmers, observers, and governing body officials.

While breaststrokers have frequented many open water swims from the Netherlands to South Africa to Japan, breaststrokers have a long history of channel swimming starting with Captain Matthew Webb in the English Channel, and among ice swimmers everywhere.

And his legacy continues in contemporary times when swimmers like Jason Lassen crossed the Catalina Channel doing only breaststroke. And in any large mass participation swim and some triathlons, there are always dozens of swimmers who cruise along using breaststroke. As the sport of open water swimming grows, there will undoubtedly be an increasingly larger number of swimmers participating with their heads looking forward using a double-arm pull and a breaststroke kick.

While the various channel governing bodies and other governing bodies from Europe to the Americas have their own rules and interpretations of what constitutes a butterfly open water swim, a backstroke open water swim, and a breaststroke open water swim, the World Open Water Swimming Association has announced its first draft of its proposed breaststroke regulations.

Comments and suggested modifications on the following rules are welcomed. Opinions on the following backstroke rules can be emailed to

WOWSA 12.1 – While open water swims are overwhelmingly completed doing freestyle, a small number of athletes attempt and complete open water swims, including marathon swims and channel swims, using breaststroke. In order for a swim to be considered a Breaststroke Swim, the entire distance must be swum breaststroke as defined by the following rules:

WOWSA 12.2 – From the beginning of the first arm stroke after the start (either from shore or in the water) to the finish of the swim (either onshore or in the water), the body must be kept on the stomach to qualify as a Breaststroke Swim. While the athlete is swimming, he is not permitted to roll onto his back at any time or take any freestyle arm strokes or leg kicks, or do sidestroke of any type. A swimmer is allowed to stop swimming in shallow water as he approaches the shoreline and walk up on shore to clear the water as an athlete swimming freestyle would do. However, if the finish is in the water, a swimmer must simultaneously touch the finish pontoon or pad with two hands although they can be in a different plane.

WOWSA 12.3 – From the start to the finish, the stroke cycle must be one arm stroke and one leg kick in that order. All movements of the arms must be simultaneous and on the same horizontal plane without alternating movement.

WOWSA 12.4 – The hands must be pushed forward together from the breast on, under, or over the water. The elbows must be under water and the hands must be brought back on or under the surface of the water. The hands must not be brought back beyond the hip line.

WOWSA 12.5 – During each complete stroke cycle, some part of the athlete’s head must break the surface of the water unless a wave or wake prevents this action.

WOWSA 12.6 – All movements of the legs must be simultaneous and on the same horizontal plane without alternating movement. The feet must be turned outwards during the propulsive part of the kick. A scissors, flutter or downward butterfly kick is not permitted.

WOWSA 12.7 – The athlete can stop swimming breaststroke only during voluntary stops or feeding stops. During stops of any kind, the athlete must stay in the same spot and can tread water to rest or take fuel (food) or hydration (drink). They can stretch their arms, body, back, neck or legs, but they must stay in the same location.

WOWSA 12.8 – If the above rules are not adhered to, the swim will be defined as a standard (i.e., freestyle) swim.

Footnote: The butterfly swim rules are posted here. The backstroke swim rules are posted here.

Recent discussions on the different stroke techniques in the open water are posted here at the Marathon Swimmers Forum.

Copyright © 2008 – 2013 by World Open Water Swimming Association

Steven Munatones