Learning to Breathe Bilaterally

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You may already have heard the most commonly asked question in the swimming world today. Which of the following techniques is superior: breathing to one side, or bilateral breathing?

Until just one year ago, I breathed to the right side every time I got in the pool. Why, do you ask? Simply because taking breaths on the opposite side didn’t feel right! Indeed, this is the primary reason that the majority of swimmers take breaths on just one side. About a year ago, however, I was getting a massage, and the therapist noticed that the muscles on the left side of my back were considerably more developed than those on the right. Thinking for a moment, I realized that thousands of laps of breathing only on the the right side had caused these muscles to balloon as I balanced on my left arm while sucking in air!

So, if you haven’t figured it out yet, the answer is bilateral breathing. The primary reason is that bilateral breathing will work to balance your stroke (not to mention leave your back looking normal!). If you continue to breath to one side, you risk having your stroke become lopsided. In just one hour in the pool, you’ll roll to your breathing side approximately one thousand times. A stroke that is lopsided can quickly become pernanent when you practice a lot!

There are other benefits to bilateral breathing, as well. Once you lose your “weak side”, you’ll no longer be blind in that direction. If you’re an open water swimmer, you’ll be able to avoid chop, check for landmarks, and keep pesky swimmers from splashing you in the face (or even punching you as they jockey for position!).

So how do you obtain these benefits? Simply by practicing bilateral breathing at every opportunity possible. In my evening session, I’ll have swimmers breathe each 3 or 5 strokes, as they warm up or down. Of course, in practice, this kind of drill shouldn’t be limited to workouts alone. To be sure, at first you will probably feel quite awkward. You’ll quickly find, however, that bilateral breathing becomes more natural as you practice. Before you know it, you’ll be breathing to both sides like a champ.

Here are some tips to get you breathing on both sides, while keeping your workouts interesting.

1. Breathe to alternate sides each length: once to the left, and once to the right. This way, you’ll get the oxygen you need, while developing the symmetrical stroke you’re after.

2. During warm-ups, warm-downs, and slow sets, breathe to your weaker side.

3. Experiment with different patterns such as three left, three right, or four left, four right, until you find what works for you.

Each week, keep your ultimate goal of bilateral breathing in mind. Perhaps most importantly, however, don’t get too hung up on getting the breaths exact. Have fun, and enjoy your swim, because breathing to both sides will eventually come naturally!