Thursday, May 09, 2019

And Now The Case For Bilateral Breathing

Last week on the blog we took a detailed look at the "Classic Unilateral Breather Stroke" having the following faults:

- Over-rotation on the breathing side
- Leading to a crossover at the front of the stroke
- Leading to a scissor kick at the rear
- Very poor catch when breathing
- Under rotation to the never-breathing side

Here it is in action again:

This pattern of over-rotation when breathing and the consequential crossover, scissor kick and poor catch are incredibly common to see with single sided breathers in swimming pools around the world. This lack of symmetry in the stroke also means the swimmer will veer off course in open water losing them yet more time.

A big thanks to the 100+ of you who emailed/tweeted/commented to say this is a cycle that you're stuck in with your own swimming and that you don't know how to break out of it. Today's blog is dedicated to you and getting you out of that "rut" for good!

The Case For Bilateral Breathing

You could continue to only ever breathe to your favoured side and work on directly correcting that list of faults you have developed... That is tempting as it feels like the easier way but it actually isn't - without removing the fundamental cause of your stroke issues (unilateral breathing) these faults are going to be extremely hard to address and will keep coming back over time.

Instead our strong recommendation to you is that you work on developing your breathing pattern such that you regularly swap breathing sides. There are various breathing patterns you can use to achieve that but for most swimmers we suggest classical bilateral breathing (breathing every 3 strokes).

Of course, not every unilateral breather has these faults and if you are a talented swimmer who has come through a strong swimming program as a junior then you might well be swimming well despite only ever breathing to one side. We would still encourage you to make the change to bilateral in your training even if you choose to single-sided breathe when racing -  it will help you maintain and refine your stroke over your lifetime of swimming and that can only be a good thing.

What might a swimmer look like who has really mastered this in the swimming? Look no further than our very own Jono van Hazel with his mesmerising stroke:

The balance and symmetry in Jono's stroke is stunning! You can watch his full footage here: and see him underwater in the Guru (subscription required) :

What does Jono himself say about bilateral breathing? We had a quick chat with him about that right after filming:

Paul: How do you keep your stroke so smooth? We noticed you breathing bilaterally all the time. Is that something you regularly do in training?

Jono: Yes definitely I find that as long as you can keep both sides of the body as even as possible, sometimes you might breathe twice on one side and then take three strokes and then twice on the other. You keep that feeling of evenness in mind it tends to help smooth out the stroke.

That's awesome but to be honest we're not focusing on elite swimmers here, we are discussing normal adult swimmers like yourself that make up 99% of the swimming population. For you, only ever breathing to one side will be seriously holding you back.

Unlocking Bilateral Breathing

OK, we're through the pre-amble, let's get to central point here. You understand the potential benefits of bilateral breathing but you've tried it, found it too hard and given up. So how do you crack it?

Here's three key elements you need in place to unlock bilateral breathing:

1. Good Exhalation Technique Is Essential

Breathing in water is fundamentally different from breathing on land because you have to overcome the water pressure when you exhale. You'll hear it said "breathe every 2 strokes because you need the oxygen!" but the truth is that the hard thing isn't getting in oxygen but getting CO2 out.

If you breathe every two strokes then the period of time you have to exhale is small - by the time you've overcome the water and got your exhalation going you're out of time and are rotating to breathe in again. This means you never exhale properly and are always breathing on the top of your lungs, building up the CO2 levels in your system, which makes you feel short of air and even panicky.

The key is to give yourself time to exhale and for most swimmers breathing every 3 strokes is about the right amount of time. Learn to exhale continuously and smoothly into the water (it should feel like sighing) and your breathing becomes much more efficient. When you do inhale you'll get a decent breath in with plenty of oxygen to keep you swimming.

Blow them bubbles... it'll be the end of your troubles.

2. Avoid An Overly Long Slow Stroke

After poor exhalation, the second big reason why swimmers struggle to develop bilateral breathing is that their stroke rate is very slow and so it's a long time between 3 strokes to breathe. If your stroke rate is around 53 SPM or lower then this is likely to be an issue for you.

The Overglider Swim Type exhibits such low stroke rates and is particularly prone to this. If you fall into this category then by developing your catch technique, not only will you gain better propulsion but your stroke rate will naturally lift making bilateral breathing possible again.

Swimming is a cyclical motion and should be conducted with a sense of rhythm and purpose - it turns out this helps your breathing too!

3. Rotating Better To Your Non-Dominant Side

As we discussed last week, if you only ever breathe to one side then rotation to that side becomes greater and greater, and rotation to your non-breathing side becomes less and less.

You should be rotating your shoulders and hips to 45-60 degrees on both sides on every stroke and when you do that you can simply turn your head into the bow wave to breathe:

However, if you under-rotate because you never normally breathe to that side then you have to twist your neck a long way to find that pocket of air. Imagine trying to twist your head from this position to the surface and how awkward that would feel:

To develop more rotation, as you rotate to your "bad" side to breathe, think about rotating your hips a little more. You could try repeating the mantra to yourself as you swim: one-two-roll-one-two-roll... stroking on the one and two and breathing on the roll.

Get this right and breathing to your "bad" side will feel much less awkward. Plus as your rotation starts to develop to that side, your recovering arm will come less round the side and more up and over the top, meaning its momentum is less likely to cause a crossover in front of your head. And no crossover means no corresponding scissor kick either - all without you having to think about it. That's the power of bilateral!

Getting Past Strange - The 6 Week Bilateral Breathing Hump

Any new movement pattern will take a while to learn and you have to recognise that and be a little persistent. If you swim 3 or 4 times per week this period of "strangeness" will last about 6 weeks, we call that the 6 Week Bilateral breathing Hump. Get past the hump and breathing to your bad side will start to feel much much more natural.

The good news is that although that feeling of strangeness can take a little while to get through, the gains you receive can be immediate. Last week on the blog we mentioned how pro triathlete Sam Warriner found she was 3-4 seconds per 100m quicker breathing to her bad side! Also check this blog with pro athlete Joel Jameson who found the exact same thing:

Be committed and persistent for 6 weeks (18 swims) and you'll get the gains.

Use The Power Of The Guru

Swim Smooth's amazing virtual coach is called The Guru - if you don't have access to a local Swim Smooth coach in your area then it's the perfect way to develop your swimming. You can use the Guru to correct any stroke fault and as you'd expect it contains our full process for developing bilateral breathing, including all the drills, visualisations and sessions you need to crack it:

Subscribers can jump right to the bilateral process here:

Fault fixers, training plans, learn-to-swim program and our famous individual approach - if you haven't tried the Guru yet, now is the time! For more information and to signup visit:

Beyond Classical Stroke Technique - Creating A Truly Versatile Swimmer

We came into this post promoting bilateral breathing to you as a way of improving your basic stroke mechanics. But the ability to breathe comfortably to both sides and being able to switch sides at will is much more than that, it's also about versatility.

A versatile breather can strategically:

- Switch breathing sides to keep an eye on a key competitor or to draft effectively to the side of them.
- Switch breathing sides to avoid looking into a blinding sun.
- Switch breathing sides to avoid breathing towards a side swell in open water.
- Breathe bilaterally to maintain perfect symmetry and swim arrow-straight in open water.

There's no better example of the importance of this versatility than the famous "Race Of The Century" at the 2004 Athens Olympics where Ian Thorpe defeated Pieter van den Hoogenband and and Michael Phelps in the 200m freestyle. Watch it here:

Thorpie celebrates - you see breathing to both sides can make you happy!

Throughout the race Thorpe swaps breathing sides, always breathing towards his arch rival van den Hoogenband to keep a close eye on him and judge his position to him. He judges his effort perfectly and over the last 50m he overtakes van den Hoogenband to win the race. There's absolutely no way that Thorpie could have done that without regularly practising breathing to both sides in training.

At Swim Smooth we believe that beyond having great basic stroke mechanics and being fast through the water, one of your goals as a swimmer should be to create versatility in your swimming such that whatever environment or strategic situation you are in, you are able to adapt and excel in it.

There will also be a time in your swimming life when that versatility will move you up the field, converting second pack to first pack, or even a silver medal to a gold.

Swim Smooth!

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