Encouraging More Adults to Swim
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Technique and Training

Freestyle Demystified

Loping, galloping, and asymmetrical strokes: Is nontraditional freestyle for you?

Scott Bay | January 29, 2018

Coaches once taught that freestyle must be done with a high elbow on the recovery and a symmetrical stroke and that if you didn’t breathe bilaterally, you were, at best, below average and, at worst, morally suspect.

Then the outliers came. Janet Evans with her unorthodox straight arm freestyle. Grant Hackett with his breathing to one side. And recently several elite swimmers, including Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky, have asymmetrical strokes often referred to as loping or galloping.

Has freestyle evolved to a point where we should follow these examples?

Old School or New School?

In listening to the talks of many of the coaches of these great athletes, you’ll find that they stayed relatively silent on “correcting” something that seemed like it developed organically. Over the years, they allowed what was once considered a flaw to take root and let the results speak for themselves. Before you go out and change things to emulate these great swimmers, here are few things to consider.  

  • Was there a reason we taught that symmetry stuff so long ago? The answer is yes. The dominant thinking was that keeping everything balanced provided for the straightest path down the pool. The problem is that not everyone is built the same and one side may be more dominant and that some swimmers develop a different rhythm that works best for them.
  • Why did this develop? As humans and terrestrially-based creatures, we have what some coaches call an unreasonable need for oxygen. As such, the whole breathing more idea became breathing to one side and a bit of asymmetry translated into a lot.
  • Is there any danger in trying it out? Not inherently. One of the things that will happen over time is that you may develop a muscle imbalance.

Break Out or Stay in Your Lane

After some thought about how this happened and thinking about giving it a try, there are a few things to keep in mind on your next trip to the pool that will make you more confident in making a change or keeping things the way they are.

  • How far do you race or swim and at what level of intensity? We use different energy systems as the primary fuel at different intensity levels, so your oxygen demand will change based on this. Short sprint effort requires less, and longer efforts require more oxygen.
  • How often and to what side do you like to breathe? Everyone who grew up bilateral breathing will almost reflexively say both sides. Just because you can does not mean that is best for you. You will have a favored side and a weird side. If you cannot tell which one is which, pay attention to your opposite side when you breathe. Does your hand fall away or, worse, do you use it to lift your head out of the water for air? What’s going on with your kick? Does it stop or feel twisted at that point? Everyone has a weird side.
  • Is getting air your only thought? If you are a bilateral breather and want to keep it that way, you need to think about whether you gulp at the air or let it fall into your lungs. If you are a gulper, it may be good to switch up your breathing pattern. This may mean breathing to the same side each time. Your body will tell you how much oxygen it needs. You just have to listen.

No Harm in Trying?

There is no one-size-fits-all approach in swimming, which makes it difficult to coach at times or to learn technique (but also makes our sport amazing and diverse).

It should be noted, however, that there are differences between elite swimmers and the rest of us. They have access to strength trainers, nutritionists, massage therapists, doctors with specialization in sports medicine, and other professionals with a background in sports performance. Few of us get that kind of personal attention.

Still, you do not need a staff to help you give this a try but rather an attention to some to the cautions outlined above. Imbalances in the body can manifest themselves in many ways. Unfamiliar patterns of movement can also lead to strains, stresses, and injuries because you’re being too aggressive with something new. Change can be good, but only if it is right for you and done properly.

USMS Wave Seperator

About the Author—Scott Bay

Scott Bay is a USMS-certified Masters coach and an ASCA Level 5 coach and has been actively coaching and teaching swimming since 1986 to swimmers of all ages. The Masters swimmers he currently coaches include national champions, All Americans, and world record holders, who have swum to more than 300 Top 10 swims and 30 world records in just the past 5 years. Throughout his career Bay has taught thousands how to swim or how to swim better. He’s also written numerous articles on technique and coaching and contributed to USMS’s coach certification curriculum. Bay presents at clinics across the country and has written an instructional book, “Swimming Steps to Success.” (Human Kinetics, 2015). Bay is the past chair of the USMS Coaches Committee, and the Head Coach of YCF Masters.

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