Should I breathe to both sides?

Once you begin regular bilateral breathing, you'll discover almost limitless ways to do it.  Credit: Photo: Dennis O' Clair
Many swimmers wonder whether they should use alternate-side, or bilateral, breathing. The answer is yes -- at least in practice. And on some occasions it can be an advantage while racing too.

The primary reason is that bilateral breathing promotes more symmetry in the stroke. On my very first day of coaching in September 1972, it seemed that virtually my entire team at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, NY, had lopsided strokes, rolling more and swinging wider to their breathing side.

So for warm up the next day, I instructed them to swim 800 yards breathing to the "wrong" side. Instantly, every stroke was more symmetrical -- the "blank slate effect." Lacking a history of practicing bad habits, each swimmer's less-natural breathing side was actually more efficient.

The problem with breathing to one side is that it tends to make your stroke lopsided and asymmetrical; in every hour of swimming, you'll roll to your breathing side about 1,000 times, meaning all your muscles pull more in that direction and less to the other side. Multiply that by hundreds of hours and a lopsided stroke can easily become permanent.

Making a conscious choice to practice bilateral breathing has two benefits:
  1. Using your more efficient, "blank slate" side more frequently will help your stroke overall -- including your regular breathing side.
  2. You'll gain a potential tactical racing advantage: In the pool you'll never have a "blind" side, and in open water you can check for landmarks wherever they may be, or avoid chop.
And once you begin regular bilateral breathing, you'll discover almost limitless ways to do it. Here are just a few options (assuming a swimmer who normally breathes to the left):
  1. Breathe to your right side on one length and to your left on the next.
  2. Breathe to your right side in all warm ups, cool downs, and slower swimming sets, and to your left on main sets.
  3. Breathe to your right side during the first few repeats of main sets, then shift gradually to your left side. Example: On a set of 5 x 100, breathe right on the first 100, 75 right/25 left on the second, 50/50 on the third, 25 right/75 left on the fourth, and breathe left on the fifth 100.
  4. Experiment with 3L/3R or 4L/4R until you find a comfortable pattern.
Your goal is to breathe about as often to one side as to the other in all your practice.

What about races?

Sprinters have traditionally skipped breaths on the notion that every one makes you a bit slower. Well, if you can't fit the breath seamlessly into your stroke, it does. But if you can learn to breathe with no loss of speed, you'll gain a big advantage late in the race over those who hold their breath in order to swim fast.

By breathing every cycle (except inside the flags) during the first 50 of a 100 Free, you might lose a tenth or two to someone who is breathing less often. But as they're suffering aerobic distress on the final 50, you may gain back four or five tenths -- a pretty good trade.

Following that theory, here are a couple of practice breathing patterns that can help prepare you for racing:

1. Swim 8 x 75. On each 75, breathe every 5 strokes on the first 25, every 3 strokes on the second length and every stroke (right-left-right-left) on the last length. Swim at a moderate pace. Focus on fitting in each breath smoothly and seamlessly.

This will be easy on the first two lengths, and more of a challenge on the third. But if you can stay smooth and fluid while breathing every stroke, then breathing every cycle with no interruption in your flow should be easy.

2. Swim 3 (or 4 or 5) x 200. On each 200, use the following breathing pattern.

  • First 50: Breathe every 3 strokes.
  • Second 50: Breathe twice on the right, 3 strokes, then twice on the left.
  • Third 50: Breathe 3 times on the right, 3 strokes, then 3 times on the left.
  • Fourth 50: 4 breaths on right, 3 strokes, then 4 on the left.
This set allows you to practice a pure bilateral (same number of breaths on either side) pattern, but gives you more oxygen to maintain or increase your pace the further you go into the set.


Terry Laughlin is the founder of Total Immersion Swimming and author of Triathlon Swimming Made Easy. Read more of his articles at www.totalimmersion.net.

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