Some weeks ago I had an email discussion with my TI Coach colleague Bernardo Blanco in Spain. We were discussing the asymmetry observed in certain elite swimmers, and whether we should imitate this asymmetry or practice a symmetrical stroke. Coach Bernardo was going so far as to take video clips of various swimmers and measure, in hundredths of seconds, the time difference between the left side stroke to the right side stroke. Some were fairly even and some were significantly longer on one side. Bernardo is an engineer after all, and I loved his style of examining the topic.
Here is an example of the Assymetrical Stroke Timing for Michael Phelps that Coach Bernardo made.
The natural question:
Is an asymmetric stroke a good thing to imitate or not?
First, let’s ask some critical-thinking questions about asymmetrical strokes:
- Does the swimmer have that asymmetry in all swimming distances or does it become more prevalent at certain distances or intensities (sprints versus long)?
- Are just some of the elites showing these prominent asymmetries or most of them?
- Among those who have asymmetry what are the common characteristics or patterns we see in them?
- Why are these asymmetries present in these particular elite swimmers and not in others? And why only in certain events? Or only at certain intensity levels?
- Are these asymmetries a sign of good technique or a compensation for some technique deficiency elsewhere in the stroke?
Is Asymmetry Beneficial?
Short answer: It might be for Phelps, but I highly doubt it is necessary or beneficial for you.
Before jumping on the bandwagon of imitating the new stroke fad from an elite, I suggest that we master solid fundamental skills first. Physics will permit no shortcuts to speed.
Bernardo wrote: Despite the fact that I heard Bob Bowman (Phelps’ trainer) saying that breathing more often allowed Michael stay in more streamlined position longer, in this video he seems to lengthen his non-breathing stroke and I think his non-breathing stroke, like the rest of humans, is gliding and more streamlined.
We can analyze features of Michael Phelps’ particular asymmetry but that does not tell us whether it is was actually productive for him or not. It is possible that an improvement in some other part of his stroke might eliminate the need for that asymmetry. We can only speculate about what Phelps is doing and why, in the races where that stroke is present.
It is possible that at the pace and tempo Phelps required in his winning sprints he must get in an extreme amount of air exchange within the constraints of his stroke tempo. The only way to get enough inhale time is to extend the stroke on that one side with a 2 stroke breathing pattern. But arguably he is working at a far higher intensity level and consuming far more oxygen than than everyday athletes. Imitating Phelps ‘technique’ under conditions unlike those he using it for could be a foolish thing to do.
Side note: Some time ago I made the argument that a swimmer should first learn to swim ‘slow’ like Phelps (how he swims when he swims at your speed) before trying to swim ‘fast’ like Phelps. I think there is a reason his stroke looks different at your speed than it does at his WR speed. I recommend that a swimmer discover that reason first and work his way up Phelps’ speed curve rather than try to jump to the top of it.
Should we work on a symmetrical stroke?
Bernardo: As TI swimmers do we have to work to equalize both side of the stroke and both kinds of strokes (breathing and non-breathing) despite the difficulty to achieve it? ( I think we do).
Short answer: Yes. I too think it is so clear that we should work on building a consistent symmetrical stroke. Our bodies will hold up the best, over intense efforts, and over many years when we load our bodies symmetrically. Breathing too can be mastered to where it is hardly any different from the non-breathing stroke.
Consider Sun Yang- the fastest human in the world at 1500 meters. He is stunningly fast, but there is obvious room to improve even more. (Is there any flawless champion?) He must breathe, and he does that to only one side, and his body contorts a great deal on that breathing stroke breaking the streamline he enjoys on the others. As with Phelps, the demand for oxygen within the stroke tempo constraints may force this 2 stroke breathing pattern – his breathing pattern is not being challenged in this article, the fact of so much difference between non-breathing and breathing stroke control is being challenged.
You should notice in the video clip that as he breathes only to one side, he tilts his head higher than necessary while breathing (only the lips need to touch the air, not the eyes!) and scoops the opposite hand upward while he does it, sometimes even scraping the surface with his fingers.
Those two small details cause excessive drag and could be corrected, freeing up a few more drops of energy per stroke, without touching his stroke length or tempo. Those improvements would require an increase in his awareness during training to improve precision without requiring an increase in his exertion. Those are obvious drag-inducers, but he gets away with it. Why? Probably because his opponents have even more costly flaws. No one is perfect – but that shouldn’t stop the best from striving for it. He can be sure one of his opponents will.
There are major advantages to maintaining symmetry of movement , to evenly loading and developing the body, and minimizing variations between the sides and the breathing/non-breathing strokes.
Let’s name a few:
- Evenly divided power generation in the body
- Even loading on the joints
- Straighter swimming
- Smoother acceleration/deceleration curve (less drag differentiation)
- More consistent balance and stability
- Smoother transfer of power through the body
There may be a case for asymmetry once a human tries to accomplish something that is above what the human body is normally designed to do. But these are not sustainable patterns. We may be forced into asymmetry under extreme, short term conditions, or because of structural deformation – but it is easy to understand that asymmetry movement patterns produce uneven loading, uneven wear and increased risk of injury over longer distance, or under more intense repetitive physical forces.
Symmetry of movement for humans is well supported by our observations in nature. We can easily make the case that humans are designed for long-distance endeavors (example: Born To Run) and symmetry is a friend of long-distance. Can you imagine running a marathon with a gallop, or asymmetric stride? We know that gravity will punish this runner. Water is punishing an asymmetrical stroke also, but we’re just not feeling the consequences in the same way.
Is there a time to use asymmetrical stroke then?
Short answer: ask that question once you’ve mastered the fundamentals and squeezed every benefit you can get out of them. That approach won’t let you down.
If the (young) swimmer is looking to win the Olympics (within his very short, and very intense training career) then he may feel compelled to push his body into an imbalanced movement pattern to get an edge in an extremely competitive arena. This is the zone of risk in elite competition where many athletes will impose all sorts of questionable patterns on their bodies to look for a competitive edge. And how many get injured doing it? Too many, but that is the risk these athletes choose to make. (This would lead us to discuss the responsibility coaches have for perpetuating an injurious culture in swimming).
I would like to say that only the elite of the elite wander into this zone of risk because they have absolutely tapped out all the benefits they can get from the fundamentals, and yet still need more to win the biggest races. But it is not so. It is easy to find fundamental flaws in the swimmers of an elite event; they could all find room for improvement in technique. Example: consider how many look forward out of habit, tradition, or ignorance, when a swimmer can prove in a 20 second test that looking forward adds considerable more drag to the body profile.
Those irregularities and asymmetries always catch our interest on the video clip but it is very very hard to prove (with rigorous testing instead of speculation) that they actually contribute to success rather than work against it. I argue that there is likely an overwhelming accumulation of advantages in that successful swimmer which compensate for the idiosyncratic liabilities we see in their stroke. We have to employ a bit more critical thinking to sort out which might be which when seen in a video clip. But swimming with a symmetrical stroke is a safe way to avoid the risks of those unaccountable techniques.
The swimmer seeking a ‘lifestyle of swimming’ will do well to avoid an asymmetrical stroke because of what it will do to his body over the course of a lifetime of repetition, or even over the course of a long, demanding swim. Too few people are lucky enough in their genetics to get away with asymmetry without injury. Not to mention a lop-sided swimmer is far more vulnerability in open water – he will suffer when wild water and weather does not respect the side he favors.
Symmetry is one of those universal characteristics – or principles, really – that we would be very wise to respect unless we have a very good, short-term reason to violate it. Phelps may have had a good reason to risk violating it at his level. I do not have a good reason to violate it, and none of my swimmers and athletes have a good reason to violate it either, until they have squeezed all the benefits possible out of the solid, universally-applicable fundamental swimming skills: balance, streamline, synchronized propulsion.
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And how do you explain that all OW elite swimmers 10k and 25k , ALL of them use asymetric strocke ?
The fact that a few or many or all swimmers use an asymmetric stroke is merely statistical fact, not a justification for using one. If there is a high percentage of swimmers using something generally called ‘asymmetrical’ then it would be proper to study those strokes to see what features (timing, breathing patterns, tempo, etc) were similar and what variance there is in that. I promote the critical study of the feature, not the blind acceptance of it just because a large number of people use it. That same culture of elite training produces a 60% or higher injury and burnout rate. So, popular methods will always be held with skepticism until that culture is healed.
I would also be curious what you define ‘asymmetric’ as? If you are referring to breathing in 2 stroke pattern that is not what I call asymmetric. It’s the ‘gallop’ that makes the stroke asymmetric – the vertical lift which is a result of the swimmer applying downward pressure on that side stroke but not on the other.
If we could go back 100 years and study what ALL the elite swimmers were doing and we’d find that no one is imitating them any more. Statistics show us what people are doing, but they do not tell us why or whether it is a good/bad idea. I understand the cognitive bias we have to accept the authority of consensus if we see a group of notable people doing something. But that is the point – do you base your acceptance of a ‘fact’ because everyone else is doing it, or because there is real science to back it up? The world of swimming is full of speculative opinions (soft facts) that can’t easily be backed up by hard data. I place myself in that vulnerable position also. It still very tough to study swimmers in the water as well as we can with athletes on a treadmill or cyclists in a wind tunnel. But I don’t think the technology is too far away. It will really help us narrow down what is working and what is nonsense.
My core argument stands – humans are made for symmetry and we lower the risk of injury from repetitive movement when we stay symmetrical. A swimmer would do well to maximize their performance on the fundamentals before tapping into more risky patterns. THink of all the sports where asymmetrical loading leads to injury – football, baseball, basketball, volleyball, tennis, golf…… The observation that so many elites (as you say) use asymmetrical stroke does not diminish this argument in any way.
And I should clarify who I expect to be reading these articles. Who we are serving with this advice – I am guessing 90% of the people who are searching the internet or local pool for guidance are not podium contenders and not in position to do what is necessary to handle the training and conditions and risks that those elites prepare for. People are chasing the examples of the elites when those may not be the right role models for the citizen athlete – not appropriate for his body, nor his budget of time and money.
Would you like to point out a particular race, and particular names? A video clip link that you base you ALL OW elite swimmers’ comment on? I would be interested in studying what has given you that impression.
Hi. I have been trying (and failing) to adopt a bilateral stroke. I can do in indoor pools it but it feels awful (all the asymmetries in my stoke I guess), and can’t do it at all in the sea.
I also have a really stiff neck when I do bilateral, I guess as I am not able to rotate properly.
Another thing I have noticed is that when I go bilateral, my left hand catch if I dare call it that is really bad, and my good arm becomes poor as well, so I am slower doing bilateral, and take more strokes per length. Maybe that is an advantage in breathing every two strokes, rather than bilateral, especially as events come up and there isn’t the time to “get bilateral” ( I am a slow swimmer anyway, and the events I am in are amateur anyone can enter events).
However in training for a 10 mile swim (Lake Windermere in UK) I did lots of long swims in the pool and the sea, and my right shoulder/rotator cuff really suffered, which is making me think I should spend the winter “cracking bilateral”. How can I get over my wanting to be faster (with bilateral I will be slower for at least a few months, and persist despite really HATING breathing on the wrong side – it really spoils my swims.
Yes, what feel like inconsequential errors in the stroke while practicing on short repetitions in the pool (always interrupted at 25m) will be revealed to be major liabilities or worse in thousands of uninterrupted strokes. We feel like we are getting away with small irritations or poorly-synchronized pieces in our stroke, but in fact they are extracting a serious price from our energy and from our structural health. Open-water training (or a long swim) will reveal things we won’t notice in a pool.
RE: Stiff neck. Do you think that stiff neck is present outside the pool, or caused by your breathing movement?
If you are familiar with TI drills and the sequence of skills and focal points we use (in standard workshops and lessons) then one critical skill, taught immediately, is spine alignment. Then we learn how to turn to breathe on the spine axis. Done properly there should be no strain on the neck. Countless swimmers have come to TI with neck strain in breathing to discover that this alignment skill brings immediate relief, and breathing becomes so much easier – though it takes some time to get familiar with shaping and holding the body in that alignment. And since we breathe from an assymetrical base position (the base is called ‘Skate Position’) it requires the Skate Position on both sides, left and right, to be of similar quality in order for the breathing on each side to be at similar ease. If a swimmer points out a problem breathing on one particular side, then we first examine that base position (Skate) to see if it is a foundation problem, before looking at the breathing skills themselves.
You’ve already pointed out the foundation problem – you are pulling that lead arm way too soon, when it should be extending forward during your breath. You collapse the streamlined platform – breaking your balance and inducing a huge increase in drag at the same moment you turn to breathe – the precise moment you need the most balance and the least amount of drag.
And your shoulder pain can make sense in this context too – if you are turning to breathe to the right, that means your head and your torso should be turning together in the same direction. However, if you are pulling with your left arm, that arm pull needs to be connected to the torso rotation in the exact opposite direction, otherwise you have to do all of that pulling from the shoulder (not only without the assistance of the torso rotation, but actually working directly against it!) and that is deadly to your shoulder joint. So, if I am picturing your situation correctly in my head, you’ve got the synchronization (the timing) of the pieces confused, and your aching joints are warning you about it.
I would give some further recommendation for correction but without seeing you I am not sure how far back in the skill sequence you need to go. I would aim to ‘strip’ you down to the base position and then build the breathing stroke back up, piece by piece in order to reconnect those skills in proper relationship to each other. This way breathing on either side would come a lot easier, and without strain.
Hi Matt, Thank you for replying. I have been so inspired to “crack it” i.e. symmetry, not just bilateral, that I have ordered Terry’s Perpetual Motion video and today swam for an hour (with breaks) all bilateral either every three or every two for a few on one side and then on the other or one armed, also slowly to see what is going on. I agree that symmetry is best to a point – beautiful people are symmetrical apparently, but it is interesting that most people (and other apes) are usually right or left handed. I agree with you also that asymmetry in swimming isn’t ideal – it means there is a weaker side to work on, and there is uneven movement going on, which doesn’t help the fluid flow needed to work with water. At least it is “out of season” so there are a few months to work on it. I was so shocked at the pain I experienced when training for the long swim ,by swimming for three and four hours at a time, as I was convinced that as I could swim for two hours, that I could continue indefinitely with no problems. Your comments are really helpful so thank you so much from here in the UK. I will print off what you have said. Best wishes.
Something from the TI Coach perspective – there is an important logic to the path we lead a student down: the skill development steps follow the human developmental path – we are first building ‘gross motor’ skills (head, spine alignment and balance from the core of the body), and working our way out to the ‘fine motor’ skills (like the kick and the catch) at the ends of the appendages. You bring up right/left dominance in humans. Just about everyone we see in the water has a ‘strong’ side and a ‘weak’ side which is exposed in the arms and in the breathing – and there are all sorts of reason for the dominance or for the weakness on a particular side. The more firmly established the gross motor skills the more easily the swimmer can concentrate, control and improve the fine motor skills. But if the swimmer is not balanced and stable the brain will forcefully recruit the arms and legs to deal with that instability foremost, and very little attention, control and energy is left for effective propulsion.
I cheer you on as you take advantage of this off-season to do the patient and persistent work needed to crack this.
Hi Matt, Just to let you know how my bilateral swimming as a way to symmetry is going. I have been swimming bilaterally every day , since my original post on 15th October. This Wednesday (29th Oct i.e. two weeks on) I swam bilaterally for one hour without stopping – a mix of breathing every three, with some lengths only on my bad side (breathing to the right). Today I managed 55 minutes , but the pool session was finishing so I didn’t quite manage the hour. I am so encouraged by this!
It seems to me that whether symmetry or asymmetry is best (I go with symmetry), to be able to make the choice is important. If the stroke is asymmetrical because someone can’t help it, that doesn’t seem as good as choosing it.
I am still not where I want to be as I don’t feel as sleek and smooth breathing to my right, as when I breathe to my left, but it is helping me identify little things I can do to improve it, and when I have swum the occasional length to my “good” side, that feels better as well.
Also my neck is now feeling better than when I was breathing just to one side, which is an unexpected bonus.
Thank you! Best wishes.
I am glad to hear your neck is doing better. It’s amazing the aches and pains we tolerate for lack of some little technical insight or detail. Glad we can help one another make swimming feel much better.
Virtually everyone notes a favorable side, especially for breathing. The outside observer may not notice a difference in my two sides, but I do notice the left is not quite as easy as the right and even after a year of examining fine details I have found the precise correction for this. I think I would need some slow-motion video for comparison and see if anything shows up outside that I cannot feel from the inside.
You can also play breathing pattern games. Example – dedicate a practice to breathing always toward one particular wall of the pool.
Enjoy the new breathing ease!