Learning to Swim on Your Side

When we learned to swim freestyle as children, most of us swam flat in the water, with little or no hip rotation and our arms doing the majority of the work.

Many triathletes and open water swimmers have found it necessary to change their stroke and swim more on their sides in order to conserve energy, swim faster, and get through potential rough-water conditions with greater ease.

History of the Side Swim

Rotating from side to side as you swim is a method that has been around for over 30 years. When Mark Spitz was gaining national recognition in the early 70's, many critics said his only problem was that he employed a "strange" side-to-side swimming action!

Little did they realize just how revolutionary that stroke was. Science has now backed up this style of swimming, and great swim coaches like Howard Furby and Ernie Maglischo have popularized side swimming with many successful swimmers over the years.

Proper Side Swimming Technique

Good swimming is about using the core of your body—namely the hips, stomach, lower back and chest. Top swimmers rotate the core of their body from one side to the other, while keeping the head fixed. When you rotate in this way, you move through the water more like a fish, or a boat, reaching further forward on each stroke, and maximizing your efficiency.

Practicing the Side Swim

Here is a drill to begin practicing (you may use fins if you have them):

  • Kick on your side with your left hand extended out and your right hand by your side. Keep your head down and locked to your shoulder.
  • On the second length, switch sides and extend your right hand, with your left hand by your side.
  • When looking down, you should be at about a 90-degree angle in the water.
  • When you need air, roll all the way up into more of a 45-degree angle, take a few breaths, and repeat.
  • Continue to practice this kicking drill, and add in arm strokes as your side balance improves.

The Benefit of the Side Swim

Swimming freestyle on your side may seem like a foreign concept at first. But with consistent practice, you will be able to swim more efficiently, resulting in faster swim times and greater energy conservation.

Now that you've got your swimming down, sign up for a swim or triathlon.


Kevin coaches sessions for Masters swimming and triathletes in San Diego, and conducts a variety of clinics, private lessons and video-analysis of personal swim style with critique and correction. He has helped professional Ironman triathletes reach their goal, but his passion is to give the new triathlete the confidence to be successful in the swim portion of the race. He also runs the websites www.triswimcoachonline.com and www.triswimcoach.com, where you can find his products, including The Essential Triathlon Swimming DVD and The Complete Guide to Triathlon Swimming.

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