How to Master a Balanced Freestyle Stroke
By Chuck Scott
Most folks who participate in sports have a dominant hand, arm or side. It’s perfectly natural, but it’s not always preferable, especially when it comes to swimming.
An imbalanced freestyle stroke — which occurs when a dominant side takes over — can pull you off course, cause imbalanced muscle development, and lead to injuries.
“Unbalanced freestyle is probably one of the most common things I see,” says Rachel Wills, a swim instructor with Triathlon Lifestyle Coaching and a former NCAA All-American swimmer at the University of North Dakota. She estimates that it occurs in as many as 70 percent of the beginner triathletes she sees.
Wills says it’s primarily caused by breathing on only one side, which people tend to do when learning how to swim.
“They get comfortable on that one side and stay on that one side and that’s where the problem starts,” Wills says. “Muscle imbalances can develop throughout your body, particularly your arms, your back and your shoulder.
“You’re basically using half of your body to swim and half of your body to breathe.”
Wills says the easiest way to balance your freestyle stroke is to retrain yourself to breathe bilaterally.
Critical Bilateral Breathing Elements
Wills says some people who struggle with bilateral breathing want to give up on it right away. She outlines three key points important to conquering the technique.
Exhaling: “Most people hold their breath while underwater, which is incorrect,” Wills says. “When your face is in the water you should be exhaling, forcefully at all times.”
“There should be a constant exhale for the two strokes your head is in the water, and then when you turn your body to breathe you’ll be able to get a quick full breath.”
Body rotation: “The body position and the roll is going to help you to add in that ‘bad side’ of breathing — a lot of people call it their ‘bad side’ and ‘good side,’” Wills says.
The goal is to become so balanced you can’t even remember which side is good or bad.
“People who do that one-sided breath rotate to their good side to breathe, and then they follow with flat hips on their non-breathing side, which makes attempting to breathe on the other side difficult,” Wills says.
When to breathe: Most people tend to breathe too late in their swim stroke.
“The breath should start when the breathing-side arm is pointing toward the bottom of the pool, and the opposite hand should be extended through the entire breath,” Wills says. “Once the breath is done then the opposite arm can start to pull.”
Don’t use that arm to lift your body and head out of the water to breathe or you’ll end up swimming up and down rather than forward through the plane of water.
“Not only is that using more energy,” Wills says, “but you’re actually swimming slower by doing that.”
Bilateral Breathing Drills
Wills typically suggests focusing on your bad side during an easier swim set or when you warm up or cool down.
“Then when doing your main set during practice incorporate it in, but you don’t have to do it the entire time,” Wills says.
You don’t have to alternate sides in any specific pattern, though she says the most common method is to alternate by breathing every three strokes. Or you can swim one length of the pool breathing to the right; then swim one length breathing to the left.
She also suggests two drills:
“Your arms are at your side and your body is rotating, so it’s all about rotation,” Wills says. “Your head is looking down and is not going through your rotation.” She recommends trying to take four rotations before taking a breath.
“You take that breathe and then you pull your head back in and you keep rotating your entire body from one side all the way to the other side,” Wills says.
In this over-rotation drill you’re going a full 180 degrees from one side to the other, where as a normal swim stroke probably only goes from 30 to 45 degrees to each side. The drill is difficult and requires perfect posture and a strong core.
“This basically is the same as the core drill but you’re adding in one arm,” Wills says. “The other arm that is not stroking is at your side. You’re going to breathe to the side of the arm that is stroking.”
She says the most important part of the drill is the rotation after the breath.
“Everyone opens up enough to breathe, but it’s right after the breath that people usually only close up halfway,” Wills says. “You have to make sure that the hip that’s on the breathing side actually finishes, actually goes all the way down. It’s important to keep that balance in your stroke so you’re actually making the full rotation and you’re not doing only half of it because you only have one arm.”
Finally, Wills recommends working with a coach or getting a friend to videotape a swim session to spot any imbalance in your stroke and learn how to fix it.