If you're a triathlete or open water swimmer then you should be seriously concerned with the symmetry of your stroke. A lack of symmetry will tend to pull you to one side or the other as you swim and so lead you to continually track off course, adding many minutes to your swim split. Constantly moving off course will also harm you ability to draft behind or to the side of other swimmers, another key skill for success in open water swimming.
A lack of symmetry is never a good thing but in the pool you can instantly correct your path as you have the lane markings and black line on the bottom as a reference. This continual correction is normally subconscious and so you're probably not even aware you're doing it.
If you look around you in a public pool session you'll notice that many swimmer's strokes are very lop-sided with one arm recovering differently to the other or crossing over the centre line. You can even see poor symmetry in arm recovery when watching elite pool swimmers on TV or on Youtube. Why do swimmer's strokes become so uneven? Nine times out of ten it's because they breathe just to one side.
You will have already guessed what comes next: The easiest way you can develop and maintain the symmetry in your stroke is by breathing to both sides in training. In this way breathing bilaterally helps you swim much straighter, and so faster, in open water. This is important for any swimmer but if you don't have a coach watching you constantly then bilateral is even more critical as it corrects your stroke naturally in the absence of coaching feedback.
Even if your times are slightly slower when breathing bilaterally in the pool it's well worth persisting as you'll save this time back and much more besides by swimming straighter in your races. Deciding to simply sight forwards more often instead is not a sensible option as sighting drops the legs down and disrupts your stroke rhythm.
Introducing Bilateral Breathing
In an ideal world you would breathe bilaterally all the time but failing that, treat it as a drill you practise religiously during every session. Many swimmers do struggle to crack bilateral breathing, there's two common reasons why:
- You are holding your breath underwater and the CO2 build up in your lungs and bloodstream makes you desperate for air. To fix this develop your exhalation under the water, aiming to exhale in a constant stream of bubbles without forcing it, as if you are sighing into the water. Lose the CO2 while you swim by exhaling continuously and smoothly, and you'll find bilateral breathing much easier.
- You're trying to swim with too low a stroke rate, i.e. the gap between strokes and so breaths is too long. This is normally a problem for Overgliders who have tried to slow things down and overly lengthened their stroke. You probably already know that the deadspots in an Overglider's technique are a major disadvantage in open water. As we see here, this inability to breathe bilaterally is another disadvantage. Developing your catch technique will elevate your stroke rate without any extra effort and make bilateral breathing feel much easier.