When it comes to triathlon training, it's easy to get preoccupied with cardiovascular and muscular strength and forget about technical skills. Strength is important, but poor technique can hinder performance and even lead to injuries.
For example, being able to breathe on only one side while swimming can limit an athlete in a number of ways.
"When you breathe to one side, you're lopsided and tend to drop the elbow on the non-breathing side and push down when getting a breath," says Michael Collins, a swimming and triathlon coach in Orange County, California. "The arm tends to move faster than the hips and that disconnect puts more stress on the shoulder."
The decreased rotation that often results from breathing on one side causes athletes to stroke across their body. This can lead to shoulder injuries, as well as reduced propulsion in the water.
Poor rotation affects swimming technique in both the upper and lower body, causing an athlete to expend a greater amount of effort for a more labored stroke. Similar to biking and running, symmetry is preferred and allows for better efficiency and reduced risk of injury.
In addition to the benefits of developing equal strength and flexibility on both sides of your body, bilateral breathing has many advantages.
Swimmers often breathe every 5 to 7 strokes, but for most, bilateral breathing—breathing on both the right and left sides—allows for a breath every three strokes. While this may come naturally to those with a swimming background, triathletes new to the sport often struggle to get comfortable with it.
"We all have favorite sides—very few people are naturally ambidextrous," says Collins.
In the same way you might work on your gait on the run or cadence in the saddle, learning to breathe efficiently while swimming can make a big difference.