Swimming Q&A: Bilateral Breathing and Training Volume

Q: My coach tells me that I "must" learn to bilateral breathe (breathe every three strokes) for triathlons. Is that true? Is bilateral breathing markedly better than breathing every two strokes?

A: I think it is good to practice bilateral breathing during workouts; but use the method that allows you to be the fastest, with the least energy cost, on race day. For some athletes that pattern is bilateral breathing, for others it is breathing on one side or every two strokes.
It's good to have the capability to breathe on either side so you can sight buoys, no matter the swim course direction (clockwise or counterclockwise). Additionally, sometimes the sun is in your eyes going one direction or the other, so being able to take a look on the other side can help keep you swimming on course.
Think about it this way: Do all of the world's fastest triathletes bilateral breathe on race day? Do any of the fastest triathletes breathe every two strokes?
In just over one minute of this video of the 2010 ITU World Championships, you can see that overall series winner Javier Gomez (racer number 2) breathes on only one side.  
In less than 30 seconds of this video of the women's race at the ITU World Championships, you can see racer number 15 (Sarah Haskins) not only bilateral breathing, but also breathing once per side. I suspect she did this to take a look at her competition.
When trying to decide if something is fad, fact or fiction, ask the following questions:

  1. Do all successful athletes use this method?
  2. Are there any athletes that are successful that do not use this method?

Q: What is the least amount of swimming that needs to be done to ensure success?

A: You can break world records if you swim only three times per week. I swim at the same masters swim group as Susan Von der Lippe, who recently broke two masters world records. I've asked her about her training in the past, including her last goal to qualify for the 2008 trials, to find out how many days per week she swims. Her answer was three. Only three.
My recommendation to swim only three times per week was tongue-in-cheek, however. When any website makes a bold recommendation about athletic success that seems too good to be true, take a hard look.
Ask yourself a fad, fact or fiction test question:
Do I have the athletic profile, goals, training time and history that allow me to succeed with the training recommendation?
Unless you have an athletic and genetic background similar to Susan's, along with her lifestyle and training regimen, I cannot tell you that you can break world records swimming only three times per week.

Gale Bernhardt was the USA Triathlon team coach at the 2003 Pan American Games and 2004 Athens Olympics. Her first Olympic experience was as a personal cycling coach at the 2000 Games in Sydney. She currently serves as one of the World Cup coaches for the International Triathlon Union's Sport Development Team. Thousands of athletes have had successful training and racing experiences using Gale's pre-built, easy-to-follow cycling and triathlon training plans. Let Gale and Active Trainer help you succeed.

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