At Swim Smooth we think quite differently. Breathing regularly to both sides is such a powerful way to develop and maintain good stroke technique, and offers such a strategic advantage in races, that it would be unwise to ignore it.
In fact, your breathing pattern is so important to your swimming that a huge number of common stroke flaws have a strong tendency to develop when you only breathe to one side. These include crossovers, scissor kicks, timing problems, poor catch technique and even possible shoulder injury!
Bilateral breathing is where you swap breathing sides regularly when you swim. The most common way to do this is to breathe every 3 strokes (or 5 or 7) which means you swap sides every time you breathe. However, breathing two or three times in a row to one side before swapping to the other is also bilateral breathing.
The key thing is that you regularly swap sides and you get practised breathing to both. For instance, many coaches consider that breathing left for a full length of the pool before swapping to the right for the next length is effectively bilateral breathing. By doing that you will certainly get most of the benefits as swapping more regularly.
Reason 1. Elite swimmers never bilaterally breathe - so neither should you.
Actually elite swimmers do frequently breathe bilaterally, especially during training to develop a symmetrical stroke. The great Ian Thorpe used bilateral breathing to great effect to win 'The Race Of The Century' - the 200m freestyle at the Athens Olympics. Thorpie swapped sides every lap to breathe towards his main rival Peter van den Hoogenband to always keep him in his sights.
|You see, bilateral breathing can make you happy!|
Other swimming legends have been quoted as blaming the fact that they didn't breathe bilaterally as the reason they didn't win an event, e.g. Grant Hackett in the final of the men’s 400m freestyle at the 2007 World Championships - Hackett breathed away from the competition in the final 50m and dropped from 1st to 3rd, reputably because he couldn't see what was happening in the race.
Reason 2. You will run out of oxygen, especially during a race.
Only if you're doing it wrong! Usually the reason people run low on oxygen is because they're not exhaling well enough underneath the water - improve this aspect of your swimming and you'll unlock the ability to breathe bilaterally. Plus when you have a side chop or swell in open water (or like Thorpie need to breathe to one side to keep an eye on a competitor) unilateral breathing will feel very easy.
The challenge with breathing in swimming isn't getting the air in - it's actually getting it out! Improve your exhalation technique and getting enough oxygen in becomes easy, even when breathing bilaterally.
Reason 3. If breathing to one side causes you to swim off course in open water, just sight forwards more frequently to compensate.
The problem with this argument is that the more you sight forwards, the more your legs will drop low and create drag, even in a wetsuit. This happens for any swimmer, even for elite open water swimmers and triathletes. Plus, constantly coming off course because your stroke is lopsided and then correcting your course is hard work all by itself.
Breathing bilaterally in training helps you develop a nice symmetrical stroke technique so you swim inherently straighter, meaning you have to sight less frequently to swim straight and make far fewer corrections. This is something we should all work towards (see this video clip for a great example of why).
Reason 4. Old dogs can’t learn new tricks.
Actually they can - but only if they're willing to try. Many swimmers have it so ingrained in their head that "I can't" quickly becomes "I won't"! If you are thinking "Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard it all before" then be very careful, could just breathing to one side be the one thing that’s always held you back with your swimming?
It's far too easy to give up on bilateral breathing before giving it a decent try and discovering the benefits. If you didn't see this blog post at the time, check out how professional triathlete Joel Jameson made some big strides forwards with his swimming by swapping breathing sides: www.feelforthewater.com/2013/03/joel-uses-his-bad-side-to-come-good.html
How about you decide to break through the "bilateral breathing hump" now? Not tomorrow, not next week, not in the off-season, but now. Here's a truly objective set to try which shows you the potential bilateral breathing can offer you:
Swim 3 sets of 5x 100m. Take 15 seconds rest between each 100m and 45 seconds rest between each set of 5. Swim the first set only breathing to your left (preferably every 4 strokes), the second set to your right (preferably every 4 strokes) and the third set bilaterally (every 3). Monitor your times through the set.
Are you faster than you thought to your least favourite side? Could this be due to the bad habits on your favoured side simply not existing on your 'bad' side. Could that be worth working on and improving yet further? Yes, it could!
Reason 5. Your neck will become sore if you try breathing to the other side.
When you breathe, your body needs to rotate along the long axis of your spine. You do this quite naturally to your favourite breathing side but probably less so to your least favourite side.
|To improve your rotation to your poor breathing side, think about rotating your|
hip out of the way as your hand completes the push phase as the back of the stroke.
Trying to breathe to your least favourite side without adequate rotation (aim for 45-60º and now more) will see you twisting your neck and lifting your head, and yes this will soon make your neck sore. Develop better rotation (and timing) to that least favourite side and this will no longer be an issue.
Reason 6. There’s no way you'll ever be as good breathing to your least favourite side as to your good side, so don't even bother.
We've performed many thousands of stroke correction sessions at Swim Smooth and we can tell you for a fact that most swimmers actually breathe with better technique on their least favourite side when they are encouraged to try it. It may feel awkward because you're not used to it but it's very likely your timing is better and you keep your head in a much better position when you breathe because you don't have any bad habits on that side.
Reason 7. You’ll fish-tail down the pool if you try to breath bilaterally.
Actually, exactly the opposite is true. If you develop your body rotation equally to both sides you will develop a much more symmetrical stroke and be well on your way to eradicating cross-overs and asymmetries which cause fish-tailing. It is actually unilateral breathers that suffer much more from fish-tailing than bilateral breathers.
|Snaking through the water wastes a lot of energy.|
Reason 8. You haven’t got time to learn yet another skill.
Learning to breath bilaterally doesn't need to occupy your every waking moment, really it shouldn't take any additional training time to learn. At first you can just include it in your warm-up and cool-down before progressively adding it into other parts of your sessions.
Your ability to breathe equally well to both sides will pay huge dividends in open water as there are many occasions when you need to breathe to one side strategically. This could be breathing away from side waves or chop, or breathing towards a competitor to draft them effectively to their side and match their stroke rate.
|The ability to swap breathing sides is a huge advantage when arrow head drafting.|
The successful open water swimmer and triathlete is one who is adaptable enough to "roll with the punches" (or waves) when required - sometimes literally!
Reason 9. You’ll never get comfortable with it and will always feel under stress when doing it.
First and foremost the secret to breathing bilaterally is all about a smooth, constant exhalation in the water. In some parts of the world swimmers are taught to hold onto their breath to improve buoyancy - but the only place this will add buoyancy is in the chest region and so sink the legs even further.
You'd never hold onto your breath when you cycle or run, so why do it when you swim? Doing so only turns an aerobic activity into a much more anaerobic activity and that's bound to make anyone fatigued and stressed regardless of which side they breathe.
From statistics we've collected on our clinics, if we took a group of swimmers at random over 80% will be holding onto their breath for at least a second under the water. A second might not sound like a lot, but if you are only breathing every 2 strokes that's almost the entire time your face is under the water. Learn to "let it go" and your transition to bilateral breathing will become much easier.
Reason 10. If you already find breathing every 2 hard, imagine how hard breathing every 3 will be!
As well as holding your breath underwater, another classic reason for finding breathing every 3 strokes hard is when swimmers have tried to over-lengthen their strokes and added a pause-and-glide into their timing. This makes your stroke turnover (stroke rate) very slow and dramatically increases the time between breaths.
If you recognise yourself as a bit of an Overglider then working on the rhythm of your stroke will also make bilateral breathing much easier as the time between breaths reduces. In fact it's very rare to see classic Overgliders being able to continuously breathe bilaterally for this reason. This is a shame because generally Overgliders understand the benefits of bilateral breathing, it is just that their stroke style will not allow them to do it.
So in fact the argument to breathe regularly to both sides is a very strong one. In a nutshell:
- Bilateral breathing helps to improve your symmetry and balance in the water, reducing your drag, having you swim straighter and reducing the chances of shoulder injury.
- Bilateral breathing lets you keep your options open when swimming in open water, specifically breathing away from side swell and chop, and drafting close to other swimmers to the side.
- Bilateral breathing gives you a tactical advantage in pool races as you are able to monitor your competitors and respond to any moves they make.
It's so easy to say that bilateral breathing is too hard and give up on it but are you truly doing your swimming any favours with this outlook? Take on the "Bilateral Breathing Challenge" and see if you can crack it once and for all... today!