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Sidestroke - Swimming Outside the Paradigm

Posted by Barbara Hummel on Aug 30, 2003 10:45AM
Why would anyone give serious attention to the sidestroke? Itís neither powerful nor particularly graceful (or fast). Sidestroke is not a competitive stroke so it's not useful for racing. Some may see it as a remnant of an earlier age of swimming, a kind of evolutionary anomaly, an archaic remain of swimming strokes long surpassed on the evolutionary chain. So why do I, a serious recreational swimmer, take so much pleasure and devote so much time to perfecting my sidestroke?

I became curious about the stroke after reading a book called The Complete Guide to Navy SEAL Fitness, by Stew Smith. Smith explains that this is the basic stroke used by the SEALs in open-water operational swimming. This was confirmed by an acquaintance of mine who had served in the Israeli Naval Commandoes. I saw a video clip of the stroke on Stews' website and decided to give it a try.

Sidestroke, it turns out, has many advantages. First, it's easy to learn. To see the mechanics of the stroke go to: Second, it can be done for long distances with minimal exertion. Sidestroke can be swum with or without fins. Itís non-stressful to the shoulders, lower back, and knees. For the competitive swimmer, it could be a useful recovery or cool-down stroke. The major disadvantage is that you mostly see to the sides and rear and not in the direction in which youíre headed.

Why did I take to the sidestroke? I have a permanent injury in my right brachial plexus that prevents me from employing proper swimming mechanics. Essentially, I swim freestyle with one arm. I was very frustrated for a long time by the fact that I wasn't improving my speed in the freestyle. My main problem is that most (experts say at least 70%) of the propulsion in freestyle is generated by the upper body. Leg power accounts for a small amount of forward progress, particularly in longer distances. For a long time I tried to overcome my disadvantage by emphasizing core propulsion. No good. I know that core emphasis and hydro dynamics has been the big thing in swimming these last few years but I'm sorry to say that it really doesn't help if you are swimming the crawl with one arm. At least it didn't work for me.

Sidestroke has been the answer for me. When I swim it, I feel Iím getting continual forward motion with minimal exertion. I feel completely coordinated and fluid. I am now at the point where I swim sidestroke faster than freestyle. The main reason is that the sidestroke kick is very powerful. I believe that, in my case, the powerful scissors kick accounts for at least 50% of forward motion, probably more. I have also modified the stroke to suit my unique needs. For example, I have added a slight flutter kick to coordinate with my arm stroke. Also, I undulate after pushing off the wall and before taking the powerful underwater double-arm pull. These give me added forward propulsion.

A typical workout will look something like this (in meters):
300: warm-up
2x500: switch every 50 between right side, left side, and freestyle.
200: cool down with fins

200: warm-up
1000: sidestroke for time. Switch sides every 100m.

300 warm-up
2x(4x75): each set of 75s done this way: #1: 75 right sidestroke
#2: 50 right sidestroke,25 left sidestroke
#3: 25 right sidestroke, 50 left sidestroke
#4: 75 left sidestroke
30 seconds rest between 75s, 2 to 3 minutes rest between sets. Speed done at about 90%.

300 warm-up
200 sidestroke with fins
200 sidestroke with paddles
200 sidestroke with fins and paddles x2
3 minutes rest
200 sidestroke for time
200 cool-down

Two points of emphasis:
1. As in other strokes, swim long. Try to take as few strokes as possible, but not to the point that youíre sinking between strokes.
2. Make sure your torso and arms are in streamline position (one arm straight up and the other at your side) when you kick. Good timing between legs and arms is essential if you want to take full advantage of the glide after your kick.

The sidestroke encouraged me to look outside the paradigm of the four competitive strokes. In some cases, the four strokes may not provide the best answer for a particular individual. The sidestroke has greatly increased my swimming pleasure. I am now considering training for a 1.5km. open-water swim and Iím planning to use the sidestroke.

Archived Comments

Responded Jul 02, 2004 12:11PM

I wondered what happened to the side stroke. It's something I learned at the YWCA as a kid, but never saw anyone actually using it, except in life-saving courses. It's a favorite of mine because it's a good leg workout.

Responded Dec 27, 2011 10:46PM

I am an 80-year-old, competitive runner and cyclist. I do duathlons but would like to participate in triathlons. I am not a competitive swimmer, but I can do a fairly good sidestroke. I think maybe at my age, I can be competitive in triathlons in my age division, swimming sidestoke. I think I shall have an edge in the running and cycling legs. I would appreciate comments.

Responded Dec 28, 2011 04:27AM

I'm also a triathlete. Swimming is definitely a weaker area for me. I'm decent at cycling and a good runner. It is entirely possible to be competitive in your age group if you finish in the mid-pack of the swimmers but then have a strong bike and run. In fact, my favorite part of the triathlon race is passing up the other competitors during the run. ;) I'm not sure I would do a side-stroke, but since swimming isn't my specialty I'll let someone else comment on that. I would encourage you to work on all your strokes. It's good training. Also, consider attending practice with a Masters Team (don't let the term "Masters" intimidate doesn't indicate any particular level of accomplishment or just means you're old).

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