Bilateral Breathing, Why is This Debatable?

swim-chaosI’m not superstitious in any way, but when things happen in threes I start to take notice. A while back I read the first article I had ever seen that responded to an athlete’s question if it was necessary for them to learn to bilateral breathe, and the first response was NO. The author then went on to explain why it would be a benefit, but I wonder if people read past those two letters, N and O, and took the rest of the article in?

Next up was the start of the summer Thursday night swims here in Santa Barbara at East Beach, well known for small waves and wind chop in your face on the west bound leg towards the pier. The first few weeks have offered up tough conditions to the athletes, but as that’s kind of how the evening winds and conditions tend to me, foretold is forewarned.

Finally at Steve’s Tri this past weekend at Goleta Beach, the SB Tri Club’s annual training event triathlon where we remember our long lost friend Steve Isarris, the wind was unexpectedly present and accounted for from the east. As the swim is an out and back, on a day where we hope to give our local tri newbies a chance to literally get their feet wet in a non-competitive “event”, many swimmers were hoping we’d make it a very short swim to minimize their time spent getting slapped in the face by the waves. We opted to walk down the beach a ways and then swim out to the buoy line and back to the start, so we only had to deal with the chop on the first short leg. So, what does all this have to do with bilateral swimming, and the odd debate?

The ability to breathe equally well to both sides while you swim is a big advantage to anyone swimming under adverse conditions. On Saturday at Steve’s Tri, if you only breathed to your left, then for the first 100+ meters out to the buoy line you would have had the waves and wind chop right in your face, likely causing you to lift your head a lot more to breathe, with the subsequent sinking of the hips, with the associated drag, and yes, even in a wetsuit. This would have also been at the time when you were just getting in and trying to find your rhythm, using your breathing to pace your effort, while trying to sight the first buoy, while also trying to make your way past the other swimmers in the group.

The simple ability to breath to the opposite side while you navigated all this makes it much easier to get out there and not have to worry about catching your breath right at the start. The stress and discomfort that anyone that couldn’t do this is probably something they wish they could do without, so why doesn’t everyone bilateral breathe?

I have a theory and it involves the word DON’T, and the group of swimmers that use it a lot to describe their swimming and swim training. You’ll typically hear them say things like:

  • I have a terrible kick but I DON’T like to do kick drills because they’re hard. Besides when I swim in a triathlon I’m wearing a wetsuit and I barely kick, so I DON’T need to practice. (Well until you do a non-wetsuit legal race in warm water, or maybe decide to do a non-wetsuit legal open water swim…)
  • I DON’T have a very good stroke in the water and I DON’T do any drills when I go for my swims as I DON’T have the time to try and get faster while learning how to swim better. (Hum, this one is so wrong on so many levels, I won’t even bother to poke fun at it.)
  • People have told me that I should learn to breathe on both sides, you know, that bilateral breathing thing, but when I try to do that I just take in water and slow down, so I DON’T bother trying to do it anymore. (Uh yeah, that’s what happens at the start, but over time, with “practice”, you develop the knack for it and it becomes second nature.)

So are you part of this DON’T group? Have you heard yourself say any of those things? Are you a triathlete that would like to get better and faster? Can I suggest that you start by working on some swimming skills and seeing what you can do and not what you don’t want to do?

But seriously, the advantages to bilateral breathing are many:

  • It creates symmetry and balance in your stroke and in your musculature development. If you favor one side over the other you’re likely to develop slightly uneven muscles.
  • If your muscles are uneven side-to-side then how hard you’re pulling with each side will be uneven, and you’ll probably have problems swimming straight. If you don’t swim straight in an open water swim, with no lane lines and a black line on the bottom to follow, you’ll spend more time lifting your head to sight, creating more drag (again), and lose time each time you do.
  • The aforementioned waves and wind chop won’t always be opposite the side you breathe on, so on those days and nights you’ll have to fight your way through the water, chopping your swim stroke to get through it, while likely taking on a lot of water.
  • When you’re racing, in the pool or in open water, the ability to see the athletes on either side of you to keep track of them is a big advantage. In the pool you can see if your competitors are catching up to you, while in an open water swim you can follow them (assuming they’re swimming straight) and not have to lift your head to sight as much.

Get the picture?

I think this brings up an interesting question, should I always be bilateral breathing, i.e., every three strokes? And the answer to that is no, you should breath as often as you like, every 2, 3, 4, 5, etc. strokes, as often as you need to match the pace you’re swimming, especially when you race.

For instance, my step-daughter Erica swam for UCLA, and my wife and I went to many of her meets, including the PAC-10 Championship (which her team won twice with her help!), and to several NCAA National Collegiate Swimming Championships. While doing so I watched and studied all the top swimmers, particularly while doing the longer swims, 400, 800, and 1500 yards, counting strokes and seeing what their breathing patterns were.

Once the lead 3-4 swimmers separated themselves from the pack, I tried to find the common patterns in their strokes that I could emulate to become a faster swimmer. But you know what; there wasn’t one thing that they all did the same, well except for swim incredibly consistent and fast. I watched these young women click of 100’s that varied by less than half a second time and time again, until the end when they all would bring in their legs and really start kicking hard, breathing more often, and dropping their times. So, what did I learn?

That some of these women breathed every 2 strokes, occasionally switched sides to check out the competition, then switched back to the other side. Some breathed every 3 strokes for a while, then 2 for a while, then back to 3, repeatedly. A few breathed every 4 strokes on occasion, but pretty much it was every 2 or 3 strokes. I would say at their top speeds, at our top speeds, you need to breathe as much as you can to get oxygen to your muscles and flush out the junk. You might then ask If that’s the case and I can breathe every two strokes, then why should I learn to bilateral breathe? The answer is whether you use the skill in your racing or not, the balance it creates in your stroke in practice will translate into whatever breathing pattern you use when you race, so it’s still a valuable skill to learn.

How I would propose learning how to breathe on your “other “ side, would be to do it every time you start warming up in the pool, focusing specifically on it, while you’re going slow. I would also practice during drills sets and when you cool down. There will come a day, maybe during an easy set, where you just go ahead and try it, counting three strokes, and then breathing on the other side, keeping your head pointed down, rolling to breathe (not lifting your head to breathe), keeping one goggle below the water line, one above it, and breathing. Take a few strokes breathing on this side then switch back to the other side, and repeat. Before long you’ll get the hang of switching back and forth, and the rest will come into play as your body rebalances itself in the water.

Then the next time you’re racing a triathlon (or doing Nite Moves, or Reef & Run, or your own local 1k, 1 mile, 3 mile open water swim), under less than ideal conditions, and you switch over to breathe away from the wind, waves, and surf without skipping a beat, you’ll go damn, I’m glad I practiced that!

So, bilateral breathing, there is no real debate here. You should learn to do it if you don’t know how, it will serve you well in your next open water swim, create muscular balance, and probably help you swim straighter. Hum, I wonder if any of those things will help you swim faster; I’ll bet they will!

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