After spending some time helping some people with their stroke, I wanted to chime in on the importance of bilateral breathing. Most would agree that it’s an important thing to learn, although there are people out there that think it’s a waste of time and argue the restricted breathing that it creates. That’s what’s so fun about the internet. You can get someone who took a weekend clinic about swimming and come Monday they are experts in technique. It’s worth stopping by internet forums for this reason alone. I can always find something there to make me smile. But I digress…
For those new to swimming or unfamiliar with the term, bilateral breathing means to breathe to both the right and left side while you swim. Simple enough concept. Sorta like dribbling with your right and left hand when you play basketball. The problem is that quite a few new swimmers (and let’s face it, a lot of swimmers who’ve been at it for a while) shy away from it because it feels awkward and can take a while to adjust to. Added to that that, if you’re struggling with swimming to begin with, and then you must hold your breath for 2 strokes (if you’re breathing every 3) then you’re going to get winded in a hurry. But just because it’s difficult shouldn’t mean you gloss over the idea. The benefits associated with it are many. In fact, as you might have guessed, I’m going to go over a few of them here.
Sighting – For triathletes this is the most obvious argument that is made, and perhaps, one of the least important. In any given open water swim, you are bound to get the sun in your face at some point. So if you are breathing to your right side and the sun is in your face, then the ability to breathe to your left is a great help in navigating your way through the course. The reason I say that this might be the least important is that you can also just close your eyes when you breathe and lift your head to sight in front of you to get around this problem. Not a great solution, but it will do the trick.
Symmetrical Technique – This one’s a biggie. Almost without exception, swimmers will have a strong side and a weak side. Right handed? Then your right arm/pull is typically stronger than your left. To make matters worse, swimmers will cater to the strong side by breathing to the strong side. A the domino effect begins..In order to breathe just to one side (we’ll use the right for this discussion) they start swimming with the left shoulder lower in the water to make for an easier breath. This makes one arm pull deeper than the other. To compensate for that they begin to reach a little further with the right arm to get a bigger pull with the strong arm. This soon turns into an overreach, and now there is a slight wiggle in their stroke. In order to compensate for the wiggle, the swimmer adds one really large kick with his right foot to get the body to rotate back over. Now he has a scissor kick and can’t swim in a straight line. What started out as favoring one side of breathing a little has turned into a bit of a messy stroke. This isn’t an exaggeration either. I have corrected a stroke just like this on numerous occasions by simply forcing them to breathe every 3rd stroke to make the pull symmetrically. There are other examples I could give such as dropping the elbow and breaking form when you breathe, but this is a blog, not a book.
Notice the asymmetrical strokes in the following videos. Strong swimmers, but the uneven stroke is costing them efficiency.
Rotation – Good body rotation is a big focus in learning how to swim well. Grab any book on the subject of swimming and rotation is mentioned early and often. When you choose to breathe on just one side though, you only develop half of that rotation. Because you’re favoring (as I mentioned above) one side, you will not rotate fully back to the other side. This is also at trap when people breathe just to the right for a length and then just to the left for a length. It’s a typical workaround for those who just hate breathing every 3rd stroke. So by favoring one side you rotate well in one direction and then finish rotating on the other side completely flat on their stomach. By not continually alternating your breathing you don’t learn proper rotation, you just learn how to drop a shoulder.
Swimming Straight – This is also a play off of the technique issue (isn’t everything a play off of technique with swimming?). An imbalance in your stroke leads to swimming crooked. It’s quite simple really. If one arm has a bigger reach/stroke than another, even if by a tiny amount, then the stronger arm/bigger stroke will control the direction. Never an issue in the pool as you have a black line and your hands naturally adjust pitch to steer in a straight line. Get in open water however, and you you’ll find yourself swimming all over the place. Happens to everyone. When I breathe to my left I tend to steer right just a little. Still working on that.
Now, I know the first thing some of you are thinking. “Well I watched (Insert Name Here) race in the Olympics/Ironman/World Cup, and they breathed to the same side the whole race. If they don’t do it why should I think it’s important? Answer is pretty simple really. When you race, technique needs to almost be automatic and getting enough air needs to be the focus. In training, you are focusing on technique so that it becomes automatic, so that needs to be the focus. In other words, when the effort is big (training or racing) get your air, but the rest of the time dial in that stroke.
If nothing else, watch the best swimmers do it. If you think it’s tough and they make it look easy…maybe, just maybe, there’s something to it.
Now go breathe right…..and left.