If Something's Going To Go Wrong In Your Stroke, It'll Go Wrong When...

What do all these stroke flaws have in common? :

pushing down and wide
swimmer2 collapsing arm
swimmer3 scissor kick and crossover
swimmer4 scissor kick and over-rotation
swimmer5 straight arm push down
swimmer6 crossover

If you said "breathing", then you're correct. In fact most stroke flaws happen during or immediately following breathing because you're simply thinking "give me that air!" and not focusing on the rest of your stroke.

Breathing is such a distraction and interruption to the freestyle stroke that it even disrupts an elite swimmer's rhythm and efficiency. This is why 50m sprinters minimise the number of breaths they take - often only taking one or two during their 50m dash. As distance swimmers we have to breathe much more often than once or twice per lap but this highlights the significant challenge to our stroke technique when breathing.

What can we do to minimise this problem? Firstly, try and avoid always breathing to the same side every two strokes. If you do this then some very critical areas of your stroke never get any of your attention and are very likely to be major weak points in your technique. For instance, if you breathe only to your right every two strokes then your left hand catch never gets any attention because you're always breathing simultaneously with it. Such a swimmer will tend to develop bad habits on that side, such as pressing down on the water or dropping their elbow, greatly harming their speed and efficiency in the water.

Switching to breathing every three strokes (bilateral breathing) greatly helps you because two out of three left arm strokes are now non-breathing strokes and can get your full attention. When it comes to the one in three that are during a breath, your stroke will stand a very good chance of holding together nicely:

breathing and non breathing strokes
Bilateral breathing helps Mel Benson perfectly maintain her stroke when breathing

Breathing every three strokes is about the right interval for most swimmers when they've developed good exhalation into the water. Very tall swimmers who've tried to overly lengthen their stroke may find bilateral breathing a challenge because their stroke rate is simply too slow and the time between breaths too long. Conversely, shorter swimmers with naturally faster stroke rates often settle happily into a pattern of breathing every five strokes.

If you have worked on your exhalation into the water and still find bilateral breathing hard then consider your body roll at this point of the stroke. If you're flat in the water to your non-dominant side then that will make breathing very challenging. Think about extending and rotating to this off-side and breathing to it will start to feel much easier.

Coaches: have you noticed that a swimmer's breathing technique often looks much better to the non-dominant side? This is because bad habits such as lifting or over-rotating the head have never developed on that side. If you see this with a swimmer then feed that back to them to give them encouragement to get over the 'bilateral hump', which normally lasts about 6 sessions.

Next week on the blog we're going to look at tactical situations in races when breathing to one side is advantageous, explaining why we see many elite swimmers breathing just to one side on TV.

Swim Smooth!


LesleyvB said...

very useful. I am exactly the breather and its problems you describe above. Very comfortable to breath every 2nd stroke to my left, great rhythem. but in the back of my mind I know my right arm is weaker and needs help on that breathe.
I have my first long open water event of 4.5km coming up in 7wks, can I fiddle now with a change in my swimming style? I dont want to be out there giving myself a hard time about my stroke and breathing technique on that day.

Rudolf said...

I have a little suggestion right here on your latest newsletter about breathing - because that is exactly what i discovered on my swimming 2 days before your newsletter arrived in my mailbox.

Let's not call it "feel for the water", let's call it "feel the rhythm" (i know, sounds cheesy, but what can i do, it's horrifyingly accurate i think).

I recently communicated with one of your coaches about the discrepancy between my freestyle WITH a float between my legs and just regular.

So i started to pay extra attention to anything that might be different - and guess what, it's the horrible breathing moment!!

Yep, no matter if i tried 2 strokes, 3 or 4 strokes, every time i dip my head out of the water for air i notice, i somewhere somehow lose the RHYTHM, my legs sink in just a tad, my hand and arm won't realy catch as they do otherwise etc.
I do not have this problem as much when swimming with a float between my legs, so yes, to the contrary, i begin to notice what happens when i get into the RHYTHM. Once you are in it you zoom along, no matter at what stage of physical motion you are, half way into a stroke, catching air, left or right roll, your SPEED IS THE SAME because you've got the rhythm!

This is what's not working without any floats, in my case it seems to be worse on my left hand pull than on my right hand, when i catch some air i fall out of the rhythm and that kills my speed, somebody heeeeeeeeelp my along on this!

Adam Young said...

Thanks Lesley, well it depends a little on how easily you take to bilateral breathing. One big advantage is that bilateral will help you swim much straighter in open water - we often find people improve their times a lot with it in open water even if they are about the same in the pool.

I suggest you get bilateral a go for a week and see how it feels. If it's a struggle then it might be best to leave it until after the race. If it starts to feel OK then persevere with it - as I say it can be a big benefit in open water. Do you know how straight you swim?

Rudolf, I think that's a great observation - thanks for sharing! One thing about swimming with a pull buoy is that it forces you to keep your legs together and it could be without it you have a bit of a scissor kick. That would harm your rhythm and also introduce a lot of drag of course. Worth reading this tip: http://www.feelforthewater.com/2010/01/swim-faster-by-brushing-your-big-toes.html

Unknown said...

I have a long spinal fusion, from T3 to the pelvis - due to scoliosis - and it makes the body roll hard on the weak side, (opposite the curve of the spine). Do you have any suggestions for smoothing out the body roll for someone in this condition?

Sandra said...

I too have problems with my stroke when breathing. I do breath bilaterally but i am aware of myarm sinking on the right side more than the left and my arm is usually quite straight. What drill could I do to help me get the catch and bent elbow thanks

Dorothea said...

Well you know what's weird? I'm FASTER when I am breathing. Swimming in a clear fast-flowing stream in Bellingen, I found a spot where the stream speed was the same as my speed overall. But I could see that I'd lurched ahead relative to the bottom of the stream each time I came back from a breath, and then I lost that little bit again between breaths (I'm a bilateral breather). How weird is that?

Adam Young said...

Hi Betsy, I suffer from a bit of scoliosis myself and find the side kicking exercise with fins on useful, focusing on drawing the shoulder blades together and back to help develop better rotation in the stroke (which will in turn help breathing):


I also find that stretching of the upper back and shoulders really helps as often the restriction of movement is in this area.

Hi Sandra, try the 1-2-stretch mantra we talk about here: http://www.feelforthewater.com/2012/05/two-quick-tips-if-you-struggle-with.html

Hi Dorothea, that's quite unusual! One thing that does happen when breathing is that you tend to rotate more in your stroke, I wonder if you could be swimming a little flat in the water?


Anonymous said...

Are there eople who just can't do the bilateral thing, I have tried, swimming only bilateral for weeks at a time, and yes I can do it after a fashion but find swimming continuous laps out if the question so I always return to unilateral. Linda

Adam Young said...

Hi Linda, pretty much anyone can swim bilaterally with good technique. How's your exhalation under the water? If you hold your breath that will make bilateral breathing much much harder!

Subscribe to Feel For The Water
And receive the amazing Mr Smooth animation as your optional free gift.
Find out more: here

* required
I consent to receiving tips to improve my swimming and occasional information about our products and services from Swim Smooth. You can unsubscribe at any time. See our Privacy Policy
Powered by Blogger.


Blog Archive

Recent Posts