When Not To Breathe Bilaterally

Last week on Feel For The Water we discussed how stroke problems normally occur when you go to breathe. As distance swimmers we need to breathe between every two and five strokes to get sufficient oxygen: if you can breathe bilaterally it really helps keep you stay symmetrical and iron-out those stroke flaws when breathing.

It's not always easy to switch to bilateral breathing but we know from the flood of feedback we had after last week's post that many of you have made the switch and are getting there nicely with it - well done to you! We call the process the 'Two Week Bilateral Hump' as it normally takes about 6 sessions - or two weeks - before bilateral starts to feel right. So give yourself a little time to adapt to breathing both ways.

If bilateral breathing is so good, how come many elite swimmers and professional triathletes only breathe to one side when racing? Here are three key reasons:

Conditions: Breathing away from chop, waves and blinding sunshine is very important in open water. This technique is well documented in triathlon magazines and makes perfect sense - no one wants a mouth full of water when they go to inhale!

Drafting: Drafting can save you between 15 and 38% of your energy expenditure (Delextrat et al. 2003) and there are two ways of doing it. The first is to sit directly behind your competitor, the second way is to place yourself tight in to their side:

This tight-alongside position can give you an even greater draft than sitting behind but you do have to be very close in. The key to getting so close is to only breathe towards the lead swimmer so you can judge the distance and follow their every move.

Tactically: Watch very carefully and many of the world's elite pool swimmers will breathe every two strokes but then swap sides every length to keep an eye on their main rival. They do this so they can instantly respond to accelerations and attacks.

What do these three points have in common? You need to be able to breathe to the left OR the right depending on the circumstances. If you can only breathe to one side then you're severely limiting yourself tactically in these race situations. Most elite swimmers practise bilateral breathing in training to develop a rhythmical symmetrical stroke. Some will treat bilateral breathing as a drill in itself and you could certainly look at it this way.

Aside from race tactics, being straight and symmetrical is a huge advantage in open water because it helps you swim straight - if you've read our classic blog post on this you'll know how important this is! Even if you don't breathe bilaterally when racing your stroke will hold together and be symmetrical provided you've swum the bulk of your training this way. Plus, by swimming straighter, you won't have to lift your head and sight forwards so often - which tends to sink your legs and so add drag.

To wrap up, the take-home points from this two-part blog are:

- Breathe bilaterally for most of your training and you naturally start to remove stroke flaws from your stroke and become much more symmetrical. Not only does this improve your stroke technique, it helps you swim straighter in open water.

- Being able to breathe to both sides opens up your tactical options when racing which will translate into faster times and better placings.

We asked our Smooth Swim Type "poster boy" Jono Van Hazel why he breathes bilaterally and he simply replied "because it keeps my stroke straight and symmetrical". If you've recently received our new Catch Masterclass DVD and seen Jono swim then you can't argue with how aligned and symmetrical this awesome technician is.

Swim Smooth!


camy said...

Every rule has its exception : Mr Phelps only breathes to the right.

Anonymous said...

I have seen videos of Grant Hackett racing. He breathes on every stroke, one length to the left and one length to the right.

So when training in open water (and because I cannot breathe 3-1 when going fast) I try to do the same: I swim 1500 meters out and back, breathing on my left half way and return breathing on my right side. I want to ask you if this is acceptable as bilateral breathing?


James said...

I saw a video where Phelps' coach says he often breathes right one length, and left the next. But not every three. I do the same. It may be poor breathing technique on my part, but I can't seem to maintain every 3rd unless I am going very slow. I wonder if the coaches at swimsmooth know of any top swimmers who actually compete breathing every three in a distance event? The vast majority of video I can find shows top pool and triathletes using one side every other breath.

Adam Young said...

Hi George and James,

Yes breathing to different sides on different laps will definitely help balance your stroke out - nearly as well as breathing 3s.

The secret really is good exhalation into the water and using your full lung range, not just the very top of the lungs as most people do. Take a look at the tips here: http://www.swimsmooth.com/exhalation

Off the top of my head, bilateral distance racers: David Davis (Oly Silver), Laure Manadou (Oly Gold), Katie Hoff (Oly Silver), Rebecca Adlington (2x Oly Gold), Federica Pellegrini (Oly Gold). As we said in the post, many elite swimmers breathe to one side for tactical reasons and may switch between 2 and 4 if it's too often every 2 and they wish to watch one side only.

Phelps generally doesn't have to watch the competition, his solution is just go quicker!

Simon said...

I spent a good part of last year trying to master bilateral breathing - and finally got there, sort of. Once I became comfortable with bilateral breathing in the pool I encountered an unforeseen problem outside. I find sighting fits naturally into my stroke when I follow it with a breath to my dominant side, but it all falls to pieces when I try to incorporate sighting with breathing to the other side. As with many things in swimming I guess the answer is to practise more, but it's something else to think about.
Simon Griffiths
Editor, H2Open Magazine

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