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Swimming: Bilateral Breathing

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Bilateral Breathing by Kevin Koskella

One of the most common wonders of the swimming world is, should you use alternate-side, or bilateral breathing?

Throughout my swimming career, I had always breathed to my right side only until a year ago. Why? Because breathing on my left side felt awkward and uncomfortable! This is the reason why most swimmers will breathe only on one side. Last year I had an experience that made me change my ways. I was getting a massage and my therapist noted that my left lat muscles (back) were much more developed than my right. Putting two and two together, I realized that years of right side only breathing in the pool had caused me to use these muscles on my left side far more than my right as I was balancing with my left arm while sucking air into my lungs!

The answer to the question is yes, you should use bilateral breathing, if you’re not already. The main reason is that it will balance out your stroke (as well as create symmetry in your back musculature!). The problem with breathing to one side only is that it can make your stroke lopsided. In a one-hour workout, you may roll to your breathing side 1,000 times. A lopsided stroke can become permanent in a hurry after practicing this for a while!

The benefits to breathing nearly as often to one side as the other are that using your ‘weak’ side more frequently will help your stroke overall, and you’ll lose your ‘blind’ side. If you are an open water swimmer, the later benefit will help you check for landmarks, avoid chop, or keep another rough swimmer from splashing water in your face (or punching you in the nose!) as you breathe.

The way to obtain these benefits is to practice bilateral breathing as much as possible. Often in my evening group I will have swimmers breathe every 3 or 5 strokes as part of a drill or warmdown. But by no means should this practice be limited to drill sets or long warmdowns! It will feel awkward at first, sure. But the awkwardness is easier to deal with than you may think. Regular practice of rolling to both sides to breathe will remedy this before you know it.
Some tips on how to practice bilateral breathing while keeping it interesting:

  1. Breathe to your right side on one length and to your left on the next. That way you get the oxygen you need but still develop a symmetrical stroke.
  2. Breathe to your weaker side on warm-ups, warmdowns, and slow swimming sets.
  3. Experiment with 3 left, 3 right or 4 left, 4 right until you find a comfortable pattern

Keep the goal in mind each week of breathing about the same amount to one side as the other over the course of any week of swimming. Most of all, enjoy your swim and don’t get too hung up on being exact!

Copyright 2005 Kevin Koskella. Kevin spent much of his life swimming competitively through high school and at the University of California - Davis, where he achieved All-American status. After college, he began training for triathlons, studying nutrition, and working on his personal training certifications. He started coaching a masters swim team in San Francisco in January, 2001. While the traditional coaching philosophy in swimming has been ‘no pain, no gain’ and ‘the more, the better,’ Kevin didn’t subscribe to this way of grinding out workouts, and sought out a better way of teaching his swimmers. He came across the Total Immersion method of swimming, and began incorporating some of the techniques and drills in workouts, as well as in clinics and private lessons. This allowed swimmers to get more out of their strokes, swim faster, and swim more fluidly, while keeping their heart rates down. In other words, getting more out of less! He is now coaching age-group and masters swimmers at the Solana Beach Boys and Girls Club in the San Diego, CA area. He has just completed a guide for triathletes titled The Complete Guide to Triathlon Swimming, available on his website. Kevin has competed in several triathlons and has been a top finisher at the Catfish Open Water swim in 2001 and 2002.

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