Bilateral Breathing


Bilateral Breathing


 Terry Laughlin, head coach of Total Immersion Swimming and coaching director of the Hawks Swimming Association in New Paltz, NY. Laughlin offers some advice on bilateral breathing.

Laughlin’s Tip:
My first practical coaching lesson came on my second day on the job. I started my coaching career at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at age 21 in September 1972. On Day 1, I noticed that virtually my entire team of 16 college men had lopsided freestyle strokes, rolling more to one side or the other, crossing under the body with one arm and swinging wider on recovery with the other. I pondered that for a while before the next day’s practice and came up with an experiment.

The next day for warm-up, I instructed them to swim 800 free breathing to the "wrong" side. Instantly, every stroke in the pool was more symmetrical and balanced – the "blank slate" effect. Lacking a history of practicing bad habits, each swimmer's less-natural breathing side was actually more efficient. Though I’d had only one day of coaching experience, I felt instinctively that any training adjustment that promoted more symmetry in their strokes couldn’t be a bad thing. Since then, I’ve had all my swimmers use bilateral breathing on freestyle sets and practiced it myself. I always told them they could breathe to any side in races, but we do 100% bilateral freestyle breathing in practice.

Virtually all swimmers favor one side in breathing and breathe to that side all the time because it feels better. Breathing to the other side feels awkward, and who needs that? The problem with breathing to only one side is that it tends, over time, to make your stroke lopsided and asymmetrical. And small wonder; in just an hour of swimming, you'll probably roll to your breathing side about 1,000 times, meaning all your torso muscles pull more in that direction and less to the other side. Multiply that by hundreds of hours of swimming, and you can see how a lopsided stroke can easily become permanent. 

Making a conscious decision in practice to breathe as often on one side as the other 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 have better command of 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, or keep a rough swimmer alongside from splashing water into your face as you breathe.

When I say bilateral (also called alternate sides), it doesn’t just mean breathing every 3 (or 5 or 7 or 9) strokes. It means that you take as many breaths to your right side as you do to your left over the entire practice. The number of ways you can achieve that goal are limited only by your imagination. 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. That way you still get plenty of air, but develop a balanced stroke. You also get more time to work out the awkward feeling on your “new” breathing side.
2. Breathe to your right side in 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 2 left, 2 right, 3L/3R or 4L/4R until you find a comfortable pattern.

In my next tip, I’ll talk about how to use bilateral breathing in races and other ways of working both sides of your brain when swimming freestyle.

Terry Laughlin is Head Coach of Total Immersion Swimming and coaching director of the Hawks Swimming Association in New Paltz, NY.