Breathing Bilaterally In Races - Harder Or Easier?

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Something that is commonly said by swimming and triathlon coaches is: Breathe bilaterally in training to keep your stroke balanced but in races just breathe to one side, you need the oxygen.

Certainly breathing bilaterally in training is a great idea to help keep your stroke technique symmetrical but will you be faster breathing to one side in races? Is it good advice or not?

Let's consider the most common scenario for open water swimmers and triathletes - racing in a wetsuit in open water:

How should you breathe here?

The irony is that swimming in a wetsuit actually reduces the oxygen demand for swimmers because the body is held higher (reducing drag) and the swimmer barely has to kick. This is true at all levels of effort, including race pace.

If you're not convinced by this, try bilateral breathing in the pool with and without a large pull buoy to simulate a wetsuit - how does it compare? Or even better, try swimming in the pool with your wetsuit on at your current race pace (no faster) - most swimmers are surprised to find they can breathe every three strokes pretty easily doing this, even at target race pace.

As well as reducing kicking effort, the extra speed from swimming in a suit lifts your stroke rate, meaning your breaths come around more frequently.

Breathing Every 3 Is Just The Right Length Of Time

It's interesting to take note that when you feel short of air it is not the lack of oxygen you are feeling but the build up of CO2. That's why it's key to exhale into the water whenever you swim to blow it out into the water - leaving you feeling much more relaxed with your breathing.

For most swimmers breathing every three is about the right length of time to get rid of the CO2 from their system, breathing every two just isn't long enough and causes an uncomfortable build-up in your lungs and bloodstream.

Breathing every three is breathing less frequently than when you cycle or run but the oxygen demands of distance swimming are lower than cycling or running because the you're using smaller muscle groups. Plus exhaling into air is easy, blowing out into water is harder and takes longer to achieve.

A group training session is a great time to practise
breathing patterns in open water.

Bilateral Breathing In Races

So it's surprising but true, once you get your head around it you will find it easier to breathe bilaterally in open water races than when training in the pool... and if you can you should because:

- Flaws appear in your stroke when breathing which reduces speed - so less breathing means more speed.

- Breathing regularly to both sides keeps your stroke symmetrical even within the duration of the race, helping you swim much straighter, as we have seen previously on the blog (here and here). In fact it's common for athletes to swim 10 or 20% too far by moving off course, losing them huge chunks of time.

- You can keep a strategic eye on what's happening to both sides of you, allowing you to pick up on more drafting opportunities or to spot break-aways.

Swim Smooth!


Anonymous said...

This is a really timely article for me. I swam at the World Age Group Triathlon Championships in Edmonton this year and during the swim I had to stop swimming for a moment because I was very close to fainting. When I thought about it later I think it was due to the very high stroke rate (interesting that you say it is higher with a wetsuit) and the fact I was breathing 2-2. I know that I don't breath out effectively in the water so I suspect I was hyperventilating. I am definately going to work on my breathing with a view to racing with a 3-3 rate, or at least for as long as I am able. Thanks for the top tips!

Anonymous said...

I'm curious...

"For most swimmers breathing every three is about the right length of time to get rid of the CO2 from their system"
OK, I get this. I think the point here is that the CO2 build up doesn't cause discomfort within this period.

"breathing every two just isn't long enough and causes an uncomfortable build-up in your lungs and bloodstream."
This bit I find unconvincing. Can you substantiate it (with evidence?). I could equally argue that the shorter time between breaths means there's less opportunity for CO2 to build up in the lungs.

Inflexible Ankles Chris said...

I feel like this posts is a little less evidence based than your usual ones. Surely as it's easier to swim in a wetsuit because of the extra buoyancy you end up just going faster for the same oxygen consumption? What you're suggesting is a bit like saying to a cyclist about to start a race, now you've got a better bike you can take it easy. I'm sure the point you're going to make is that the difference is you use your legs less in a wetsuit but surely again most triathletes/ distance swimmers continue to use a two beat kick as they do in the pool - rather than not kicking at all? They just end up being higher in the water and therefore having less drag and going faster.
I'd also be interested in seeing what the elites do in races? Generally breathe every 2 or every 3? Any stats?
Also is there any evidence that you go in more of a straight line breathing every 3?

Jonas said...

Fully agree. Only, maybe, for tactical reasons it may be good to breathe only to one side at some point in the race, to have an eye on some opponents for a specific time.

I am astonished that almost all swimmers in the pool breathe unilaterally during races (Phelps, etc.). Are they not bothered by the building up of CO2?

Mark P said...

Totally agree about how much easier it is to breathe bilaterally in a wetsuit than in a pool without.

I normally warm up single sided in the pool and open water to get breathing relaxed. However, today in the pool, I decided to just go for bilateral and push through. It felt uncomfortable on the 3rd and 4th length but when I pushed through and stopped worrying about, I felt really comfortable.

I think breathing bilaterally is more of a mental than a physical challenge and it's just about getting into the rhythm and not worrying about breathing.

They say in scuba diving that you breathe more air when you try to conserve air by controlling your breathing. I suspect it's the same in swimming and you end up breathing inefficiently when you think too much about it.

Anonymous said...

Although all said makes some sense, I can say for myself that I have much more powerful stroke breathing every 2 without any hyperventilating. Thus not so sure that breathing every 3 in a race environment is a good advice.

Hugo said...

Thanks Paul.
If bilateral breathing is better why do the pros breathe unilaterally? Most pro pool swimmers, triathletes, marathon swimmers mostly breathe unilaterally from what I've seen and they tend to swim with a regularly irregular rhythm.

Are amateur swimmers to accept this technique is too difficult? I've tried breathing unilaterally but it didn't work well at all - lop-sided stroke, swam off course etc. Is it only suitable for swimmers with exceptional fitness levels?

Unknown said...

Could this bilateral stroke in a race make me faster is what I would like to know? If so I will try it.

Thanks for the ongoing tips

Paul said...

Wow, this one has really stirred some debate here - excellent! I might simply point you all towards our more in-depth discussion about the Great Bilateral Breathing Controversy here: we say, the most important thing here is that you have the ability to breathe equally comfortably to both sides and know if and when you should switch to one side over another.

I love Mark P's comment about it being more mental than physical - judging by some of the comments above I'd have to say this is true ;-)



Inflexible Ankles Chris said...

A further comment. After reading your book and various blogs I switched to breathing bilaterally (every 3). Just as you predicted it took me about 6 sessions for it to feel completely normal. I then swam all my practise sessions breathing every 3.
About 8 weeks ago in response to another of your posts I started including the red mist set in my weekly routine. I have found that the only way I can maintain the pace required is to breathe every 2. It's fine on the first 4 or so 400m to breathe every 3 but after that I've just naturally found that I had needed the extra oxygen. It's the same in races in a wetsuit - though I might start off every 3 I end up every 2. The extra exertion has an oxygen cost. But now the great thing is that I can swap sides and breathe equally happily on either side.
I can see the argument that you might swim straighter if you breathe every 3 and that time gain might well outweigh the loss in speed but surely the answer is to learn to breathe every 2 and swim in a straight line and get the best of both worlds?
Or better still find someone to draft behind who swims in a straight line whilst you breathe every 2?

Steve Bright said...

Hi, if being more buoyant is good (eg with a wet suit, as it lift the swimmer up a bit and reduces drag (i've heard wet suits increase speed by about 10%), then if you take a deep breath you'll be more buoyant. Unfortunately you cant take one deep breath then swin 800 meters without breathing out then in. So if you are breathing every three strokes(ie bilaterally) then if you take a big breath and after three strokes breath in again you have to have breathed out. You could breath out evenly or could you hold that breath for one of even two strokes then forcefully breath out before the breath out. If you did the latter then on average over the course of teh swim you would have more air in your longs and be more buoyant. So if you take a breath hold then force out quick would you go faster than breathing in then evenly breathing out?

FMSX said...

Paul, I read your book, seen the videos, I have increased my rate of strokes and moved to bilateral ... in a competition and speed shots, I realized I was swimming was bilateral ... natural ... regarding the use of CO2, I noticed the difference too ... unilateral breathing, the lungs and fills several times faster, because it is every 2 laps and saw that there was not time to release all the CO2 and then breathe because we are now in + fast ... training gives time to release the CO2 and breathe when it is unilateral ... Thanks!

Paul said...

@Inflexible Ankles - yes, you're quite right - learning to breathe equally well to both sides is very important. For that very reason we do a lot of breathing purely to the least favourite side in our squads as well.

@Steve Bright - the advantage of the buoyancy created by the wetsuit and / or pull buoy is that these lift the legs and stop them dragging. For ~70% of swimmers this is a concern. Whilst holding your breath DOES add more buoyancy, it only adds it to the chest region and actually exacerbates low sinking legs at the back. For this reason alone, holding onto your breath is NOT a good idea.



Eugene said...

Thanks Paul for the tips. Certainly helps for open water swim. Manage to to pun in practice bilateral breathing in my first 6.5km open water swim early this yr. When condition turns around whereby waves hitting on your face, you will appreciate ability to breath on the other less favorable side.

I use 2-2-3-2-2 hopefully will be able to get used to 3-3 in future.

Neil Clark said...

Hi - what's your view on 2-3-2-3 breathing? Is this a good compromise or would you still suggest continuous bilaterally breathing? Great article (as always) :) cheers Neil

Paul said...

Hi Neil, Eugene

Yes perfectly "acceptable" (let's face it, any breathing pattern so long as you're progressing forwards is "acceptable"!) - it gives you a nice balance and is still allowing you to practice on your least favourite side for times that you need it.



Unknown said...

I think this is one of the best tips, at least for me. I breathe bilaterally when I'm in the comfort zone, The bit that struck home most was about getting rid of CO2, I wasn't a club swimmer and get stressed when people are near me in open water, I start to gasp and don't breathe out fully, similarly from the cold shock when I'm just in cold water. I swam yesterday in a 12 degree 750m in with the pack for the first time. I only thought about breathing out nice and smoothly to full extent. Breathing was mostly bilateral with a bit of one sided either side to keep an eye on people (don't panic!)It worked really well, whenever I felt I was tightening up and a bit out of breathe I made sure I breathed out really hard and did a couple of 2,2 breathing and back to bilateral

Fiona said...

Excellent article highlighting how to overcome the 'bilateral hump' and become versatile as open water swimming and competition demands, totally different to pool swimming! Further to this and to help anyone stuck in their unilateral ways,
as a Pro triathlete racing Ironman distance I'd always opt for 3-2-3-2 breathing pattern initially and settle into bilateral 3 for the majority of the race distance.

Switching to unilateral noticeably decreases efficiency due to the amount of disruption head movement causes to the stroke. Breathing more frequently increases the swimmer's work rate, so training efficiently in bilateral patterns (3,5,7, 3-2-3 etc) really yields efficiency gains when you can be versatile and utilise a suitable breathing pattern relevant to the conditions on the day.

Occasionally for a short stretch of the swim, prevailing wind or breathing towards the swimmer you are drafting on the hip of may require breathing to one side (unilaterally). However it's worth observing an elite or Pro field over an entire race in order to see that they are versatile and can change it to whichever side or pattern as needed depending on sustainable effort, pace, conditions, tactics and strategy!

Thanks Paul, I will be forwarding this blog article onto the group of athletes I coached this morning, half of whom were transitioning from unilateral to bilateral breathing. Perfect timing!

Eugene said...

Thanks Paul for your reply.

Correction, I opt for 2-3-2-3 instead of 2-2-3-2-2. It helps for long distance swim.

ps:- I was struggling with terribly small phone keypad ;)

Greg said...

"the oxygen demands of distance swimming are lower than cycling or running because the you're using smaller muscle groups."

I don't understand the above quote from the article as if you swim properly you should be using large muscle groups and ont smaller ones as you tire out too quickly.

Paul said...

Indeed Greg, trying to make better use of the larger pectoral and "lat" muscles in the freestyle stroke over the relatively weak shoulder muscles (though of course these will always still be used!) is a good thing to aim for.

Relative to the larger muscles of the hips, thighs and lower limbs though, these muscles as a group would still be considered "small".

Hope that helps clarify.


Paul said...

@Hugo, you might like to see this clip of arguably one of the world's best and most versatile ever triathlon swimmers (now retired) Craig Walton, seamlessly swapping breathing sides as required and all at 88spm - for a big unit, that's really going for it!


Unknown said...

I must admit I really struggled with bilateral breathing every 3 strokes and would frequently have to grab another breath on one side. No matter how hard I tried to breathe out during the stroke I still struggled. And I really worked hard on it! I recently tried 2-3-2 bilateral breathing, just for something to do, and experienced somewhat of a revelation. It keeps me nice and straight and I'm never out of breath. As an aside I've actually found it's better for stroke development as well because you get to focus on exactly the same stroke cycle in secession before swapping to the other side i.e. when breathing every stroke you don't get a chance to fine tune, say, your right-breathing stroke until after you have breathed left (this probably makes no sense to anyone but me). Anyway, works for me!

Unknown said...

I also forgot to mention how good this blog and Swim Smooth are. If it wasn't for Paul and his alter ego Mr Smooth I'd still be swimming unilaterally in circles and about half as slow with a stroke rate of around 50!

Paul said...

*BLUSH* thanks Stu! Well done with cracking the bilateral code!!

Hugo - just seen that I didn't post that clip of Walton, sorry - here it is:

Cancun Runner said...

Thanks for this article! I have always asked my swimming Coach: Why do I have to breathe every 3 strokes?
I feel completely comfortable with bilateral breathing now, but on my last triathlon I found myself breathing to one side only and hyperventilating for the first 5 minutes of the race. Shortly after (when I realized I had a long way to go) I was able to relax, focus on my technique and breathe every 3 strokes for the rest of the course.
There are many situations that open water swimmers find in races: Tide (Sometimes you are trying to breathe and waves won't let you so you need to keep breathing on the same side (opposite to waves); or other swimmers might be splashing water on your face while you breathe, and anxiety (probably what happened to me on my last triathlon swim). I think that we need to use our own criteria depending on the situation, but definitely bilateral swimming is better for all the reasons you mention on your article.

Unknown said...

Thanks Cancun- couldn't agree more!

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