Joel Uses His Bad Side To Come Good

Joel Jameson is a professional Ironman athlete with a fantastic bike and run pedigree, including running a 2:42 marathon off the bike at Challenge Henley last year. But until recently his swimming hasn't been where he'd like it to be.

Joel's been training with Swim Smooth in our elite squad in Perth under Paul Newsome's tutelage and has been making some large strides forward with his swimming. Over the last couple of months we've reduced his 3.8km open water time from 58 minutes down to 52:15 and he's rapidly closing in on his goal of a sub 50 minute Ironman swim.

L-R: Cat Jameson, Joel & Tom Lowe enjoying training with us in sunny Perth
What have we done with Joel to make the difference? One of the key things we've worked on is to change the side he breathes to:

Faster On His Bad Side

Joel has a strong preference to breathe to his left when he swims and normally would perform all his training and racing breathing to the left. Generally his stroke was pretty good technically but unfortunately some bad stroke habits have developed whilst breathing to the left which are really holding him back with his swimming:

In the shot above taken from his first video analysis with us, we can see how Joel's right arm tends to push down on the water whilst locked out straight and it's also pushing out wide. This action gave Joel a poor catch and caused him to bob up and down as he swam. He should have a bent elbow at this point in the stroke with his hand under his shoulder, as shown below by double Olympic Gold Medalist Rebecca Adlington:

Despite Paul's encouragement, Joel resisted getting used to breathing to his right side as in his own words it "felt awful and also it felt super slow".

It was only during a CSS session when Paul asked him to swim alternate repetitions breathing to his left and to his right that Joel discovered he was in fact two seconds quicker per 100m breathing to his right - even though it felt awkward to do so. In Joel's own words:

"It's starting to feel a lot more natural the more I use the right side (my wrong side)... The biggest change is that it has been proven to me that it is faster! That changes your mental ability to make the changes and it breeds positive progress. I have tried many times to change the side I breathe to but until coming to Perth I had never put a clock to it.

Any athlete, pro or amateur, is looking for quick gains in performance. Buying a nice piece of kit is the quickest gain but often the most minimal. This change in my swimming although it seems an obvious one is a revelation of just how much quicker I can go. It has all happened over a relatively short time period too. 3 months of consistent work and it has proven to be fruitful. To swim 50 sec quicker in 1 week over the same distance and same conditions just because I was bold and tried swapping sides in a time-trial... Well worth the focus and persistence!"

Find out more about Joel and what he's up to at and @joeljameson1

Working From A Blank Canvas

In an ideal world everyone would be able to breathe equally well to both sides and to encourage this we recommend bilateral breathing to most swimmers. In some instances though the best route for a swimmer may be to switch sides completely, as we have seen with Joel here.

For tactical reasons Joel can now swap sides whenever he needs to. If there's waves, chop or bright sunlight to one side he can swap to the other. Or if he needs to keep an eye on another competitor and draft to the side of them, he can breathe to that side to judge his distance accurately.

If you have a strong preference to breathe to one side it's likely you will have flaws in your stroke that are related to doing so, these might include lifting your head to breathe, pressing down on the water during the catch (like Joel) or crossing over in front of the head. Even though breathing to your 'bad side' feels awkward, your stroke technique to that side is probably much better than you think - in a sense it's a "blank canvas" without any bad habits that you can work from.

See our related post: If Something's Going To Go Wrong In Your Stroke, It'll Go Wrong When Breathing

Swim Smooth!


camy said...

Thnak you for this post.
Eager to pace myself breathing to my wrong side !
The story doesn't tell if Joel still feels awful to breathe on his bad side. Does he ?
Are 3 months of practice enough to get a "good" feeling ?

Unknown said...

I have the same problem I can only breath with my right side.
If you want Mr.joel give me your left neck and I will give you my right :-)

Anonymous said...

"Trabajar en un lienzo en blanco permite realizar la t├ęcnica correctamente" ¡buena idea esa! comenzare la practica!

Gregg Seltzer said...

As a swim coach myself, I include bi-lateral breathing in all of my swimmer's training sets. Myself, I can attest that I am faster breathing to my weak side, and although it is not as natural a feel as breathing to my strong side, I am more comfortable with it having practiced it so often.

Improving at anything is about trying new things- getting out of your comfort zone.

Anonymous said...

Isn't Rebecca Adlington and for that matter Joel unusual to form the catch during the point of breath?, I thought it more natural for the catch to form as the head rotates back down, this is what Mr. Smooth seems to do, e.g. from frame 127, Is there a recommendation for where the recovery arm is when the catch is formed, or is it about preference?


Anonymous said...

Despite months of work breathing to my wrong side I'm still at 5-10% slower on my bad side at any given level of effort.

Sometimes the bad side really is the bad side, it feels wrong, it's slower, and over long distances it hurts my neck.

I know I can breathe to that side if I have to now, but I feel like I've flogged this horse enough and am switching back to mainly breathing on my good side.

Unknown said...

I just returned from a session and tested my speed across a variety of distances in random order and trying my best to be consistent...the results showed undoubtedly I am fast when breathing on my "bad" side compared to my "good" side...every single test! Brilliant advice and the biggest eye opener I have ever had in swimming. Thank you!

Adam Young said...

Hi Camy,

It still feels a little odd I believe but it's getting easier.

Hi Ain,

I'm not quite sure what you mean to be honest? Mr Smooth's catch is underway by frame 140 when he's breathing? Yes you should initiate the catch whilst breathing but the point is that the arm hasn't collapsed down, it's still giving you support whilst catching the water.

Great stuff Michael!


lee brownell said...

I too have tried to switch from the good to the bad. I now have bilateral impingement and struggle getting my mileage in each week. I am back to the good side breathing and am happy with my swim times.. rock on..

lee brownell said...

something about old dogs and new tricks

Camy said...

Unlucky me ! Breathing on my bad side really feels awful, like I can't really get some "good" air and suffocate.
A LOT of pain and NO gain.
I've tried 50s ans 100s. I can't make it longer, as I feel breathless, though turning my head every two stroke !
I can't help my front hand keeping moving down.

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