The Importance of Bilateral Breathing

I often watch swimmers as I’m standing on the deck at the pool. I’m watching to see how fluid their stroke is depending on how they have been conditioned to breathe in the water. The decision as to whether to train swimmers using bilateral breathing or one side breathing is often debated. I happen to be in the camp that how you breathe during a stroke depends on what you’re training to accomplish.

There are three types of breathing:

Unilateral – every stroke on the same side
Bilateral – typically every 3rd or 5th stroke so that you alternate sides
Hybrid – breathing on the same side for a few strokes, breathing after a 3rd stroke and then breathing a few strokes on the opposite side, repeat continuing to alternate sides (2:3 ratio)

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I stand strongly on the side of bilateral breathing for a couple reasons. First, breathing on only one side of the body can cause you to develop the muscles on that side of the body more than the non-dominant side. The goal in any sport should always be to develop muscles evenly and bilateral breathing allows you to use the lats on both side of your body.

Second, when I see swimmers who don’t bilaterally breathe, I often observe an uneven stroke. They actually look lopsided in the pool. They favor one specific side of the body, so the stroke on the non-dominant side is not as strong. I will go so far as to say that some swimmers almost look like they are flailing on the weaker side.

Third, if a swimmer ever decides to swim somewhere other than a pool with lane lines, they won’t be able to observe 50% of their environment. As a triathlete, it’s imperative to bilateral breathe in open water. It becomes very inefficient if you have to stop every 3-4 strokes to figure out where you are and if you’ve gotten off course. This is especially true if you breathe only on your right side since the buoys are often on your left side.

All that said, the bottom line is that when you swim you need air. How much air is strongly correlated to your swimming fitness. You may require more air than the person in the lane beside you. So, while you may need to breathe unilaterally while you build your fitness, the person next to you may be able to sustain a longer swim using a bilateral approach. Each swimmer is different and what works for one may not work for the other.

If you’re already a bilateral breather, kudos! Keep up the great work. If you’re not, I strongly encourage you to practice some drills so that you have this skill set in your back pocket. It is especially helpful during an open water swim when the sun is in your face, the swimmer next to you is thrashing water into your breathing space and when you need to sight those buoys.

Add these drills into your regular workout for practice:

  • Using a pull buoy, practice swimming your warmup breathing only on your non-dominant side.
  • Do a set where you breathe on your right side for 25m then breathe only on your left side for 25m. Repeat for 200m.
  • Do catch up drills, alternating sides. Start by breathing with each stroke while alternating sides and work up to a cadence of three strokes on each before taking a breath.
  • Since bilateral breathing requires a count of odd numbers, try using a pull buoy and breathing every 3rd or 5th stroke until you find the pattern that works for you. Continue this drill for 100m and work your way up to drills of 200m until you can comfortably swim using bilateral breathing.

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I’d love to hear how your swimming improves or has improved using bilateral breathing techniques.

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Cassandra Burke is a Forensic Scientist by day, and a Group Fitness Instructor, Swim Team Coordinator and Travel Agent by night. A Breast Cancer Survivor since 2010, she writes about her journey as well as her struggles – training for triathlons and races, struggling to get back her health, and balancing family life all while building her brand and finding her purpose after cancer. Subscribe to Cassandra’s newsletter for updates and follow @poweredbybling on social media! For endurance sport race travel and custom family vacation travel, visit her at pbbtravel.com.

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