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Swim Club Blog: Bilateral Breathing, Yes or No?

The Endurance Store Swim Club provides you with simple swim training plans throughout the winter months. The plan runs October to October and is completely free. We only ask that you pre-register so that your training plans can be emailed directly.

Registration is free and you may unsubscribe at any time from the Swim Club and stop receiving updates. Overview of the swim plan be seen below, but before you start you need to complete a test to set your swim paces, then register and download the sessions. GO HERE to register for swim club.

It's one of the oldest debates in triathlon coaching, do i need to learn how to bilaterally breathe? First of all, just to clarify the term, bilateral breathing means that you can breathe to both left and right sides when swimming. Most people have a preferred side when swimming and some people can only breathe to one specific side. It's fair to say that those who can breathe to the left and the right with equal level of efficiency are in the minority, this is particularly true for those people who came to swimming in their later years rather than swimming with a club/squad as a child.

What's the benefits of bilateral swimming?

The main benefit is that it helps to develop a balanced and symmetrical stroke. If you breathe to right side only and never to the left, the following is likely to happen:

1. You'll spend most time on your left side in the water and not roll effectively. In simple terms, as you're always turning to breathe to the right, this leads to you permanently on your left hand side with your left shoulder lower than your right.

2. Your left arm will reach further than the right. This is due to the fact that you're permanently on your left side, which limits how far you can reach with your right arm.

3. Your right arm will recover higher than your left. Again, this is due to the fact that you're on your left side and your right shoulder is higher, making right arm recovery much easier, but the left arm recovery will be flat and low.

4. You'll not use body roll effectively for propulsion on your right arm. Body roll is important to provide propulsion and as you don't roll onto your right hand side effectively, the power you generate with your right arm will be limited.

So I need to breathe bilateral right?

Well here's thing. Triathlon coaches in particular seem obsessed with teaching people to breathe bilateral. My personal view is that most people's stroke tends to completely break down as soon as they try it and they look like a complete 'car crash' in the water. They commonly 'over rotate' so their arms cross the centre line and their legs separate to try and balance the complete disruption to their normal stroke, resulting in a wide scissor kick and awful streamlining. In simple terms, when triathletes who CAN'T breathe bilaterally, TRY to breathe bilaterally, it ruins their stroke and their efficiency.

So here's some things to consider:

1. Bilateral doesn't have to be 'breathing every 3 strokes'. If you swim one length breathing every stroke to your right and then the next length every stroke to your left, that would have the same positive benefits of 'balancing' your stroke so it's symmetrical.

2. Don't try to breathe bilateral when you race, certainly not in open water when swimmers tend to be short of breath. Bilateral breathing is a training technique to balance your stroke, but when racing, don't limit your oxygen intake, breathe every stroke!!

3. If you can't breathe bilateral, as an alternative just breathe every 4-6 strokes. Take a breathe, put your face into the water and look directly down with your shoulders level/balanced. Hold your breath for 4-6 strokes, then breathe to your favourite/only and repeat.

4. Breathing every 4-6 strokes can leave you very short of breath, that's why swimmers use a front mounted snorkel. By using a snorkel (and nose clip), you can keep your face permanently in the water and look down. This means you can balance your shoulder so they are level / symmetrical and practice rolling to your right and your left. If you can't breathe to both sides, warming up with a snorkel and focusing on a balanced / symmetrical roll and reach is a great way to prevent an asymmetrical stroke.

In conclusion:

Swimming bilateral isn't a requirement so don't get over-obsessed with it, for many people it ruins their stroke and rhythm and is an unnecessary skill. During the warm up or mid way through your session, just swim without breathing for a few strokes and this will put you in a balanced position.

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The Endurance Store

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