Bilateral Breathing

Posted: November 10, 2012 in Swim
Tags: ,

Yesterday morning marked my first real opportunity to return to the pool and train.  Where I have somewhat missed my swim training and have been eager to continue and build on the success I experienced last season, I have definitely enjoyed sleeping in three times a week.  Not smelling like a Ypres survivor has also definitely been a bonus.  But today – albeit reluctantly – I was back at ‘er.

Now I’d like to say that my triumphant return to the Niagara Falls YMCA pool went something like this:


But, alas, it was not to be.  I struggled.

However, it’s still early in my off-season training so there’s lots of time to restore the natural order and get myself back to my former glory.  To once again achieve that momentous prowess, the intent for my swim training this year will be to continue building on my over all distance and endurance ability, despite not racing Ironman again this year.  I am even looking to getting into more long distance open water swim competitions this year to keep the learning curve up and, as such, it’s time to begin executing the second phase of my personal swim development over last year’s plan.

The first goal this year is a continuation of last year’s effort to improve my kick.  I figure between January and July of this year I accomplished nearly 42k (10,500 laps) of kicking drills (i.e. no upper body assistance whatsoever).  Yeah.  It sucked.  But it was necessary if I wanted to develop the habit of unconsciously kicking in the water instead of letting my legs dangle behind me like limp noodles as they did before.  And I feel I was pretty successful with this and even this morning, I noticed I was still kicking while working through my drills and main set.  Boo-yah!  Mission accomplished!  However, now I want to add some power to that kick.  I learned last year at the Swim Clinic put on by the good people at the local Trysport Niagara that the kick should compromise approximately 20% of my actual swim power.  I realize my argument has been (and probably still is for many) that triathletes need to save their leg strength for the subsequent bike and run, but I’ve since dismissed this notion now as total horseshit.

So while I’m going to continue kicking on my side sans kickboard in my warm-ups, I’m also going to begin increasing the amount of opportunities to kick with a band around my ankles, forcing me to minimize my leg movements and instead focus on speed to generate some propulsion.  I remember doing these drills with wolf back in March and it was ‘Maximum Suckage’ for sure.  I can’t say I’m eagerly looking forward to doing more of them, but what can you do?

Another goal this year is to start breathing bilaterally.  ‘Bilateral’ is swimming jargon for breathing to both sides; left and right. Classically this is done every 3 strokes (counting both arms) so your breathing alternates from side to side. But equally it could be done every 5 or even 7 strokes, but that might be getting a bit ahead of myself.  Where I do have the ability to breathe on either side, I have typically preferred to breathe on my left side with every stroke.  It’s just the way that I learned as a child at the local community pool so it’s become my ‘comfort zone’.

In the past I have been a bit skeptical at of adopting this breathing strategy but, well, let’s just see that I’m trying to see the light.  My thinking now is that I’m looking to keep my stroke more symmetrical in the water and thereby reduce the amount of distance I might cover in any given distance as opposed to veering one way or the other all over the course like a drunken carp depending on which side I choose to breathe on.  So, to my mind, this decision is less technique and more strategic.

Likewise, I want to become an overall stronger swimmer and not just for triathlon’s sake either.  After years of breathing on my left, my right side has become my dominant stroke while swimming, where my left just kind of hangs there.  In other words, my muscles are more defined and developed on my right side so I want correct that imbalance.  Hopefully, this will translate to a more even and symmetrical swim style and, hopefully, improved times.

Now I know what some of you may be thinking and I thought exactly the same thing:  but elite swimmers I’ve seen don’t always breathe to the one side.  It’s true.  Not all of them do.  I first noticed this during broadcasts of the recent 2012 Summer Olympics and was, like, ‘what the fuck?’  However, when I challenged my swim coach with this observation he agreed and told me that when I race, I should do whatever feels most natural as they inevitably do.  However, when elite swimmers are doing it – apparently – they are doing it for tactical reasons.  To keep any eye on an opponent, or in open water to avoid looking into the sun, what have you, but they DO spend a lot of time breathing to both sides during training to ensure that symmetrical technique. And since I can’t profess to have ever been qualified to hand out towels at one of these elite workouts, I guess I’ll have to take his word for it.  So bilateral breathing it is.

The expectation is that it’s going to take approximately 2-3 weeks, or 6-8 different sessions before this bilateral breathing becomes less challenging and more comfortable.  Given that my Masters Class has moved to a time and place that I have to figure out how to fit into my weekly schedule, I am going to have to take this all on myself I suppose.  Oh joy.  I have Googled then some specific drills to work on during my main sets to help and reinforce this new swim habit:

3/6/3 Breathing

Start by taking three freestyle strokes.  Pause with your right arm extended overhead and continue to kick. Rotate your head and breathe one or two times to the left side. Take three more strokes and repeat on the other side.  Use fins to make this drill easier.

One Arm Freestyle with Arm at Your Side

Breathe every cycle to the side with your resting arm at your side, learning to rotate the body and using the downward force of the opposite arm to rotate the head backwards for the breath.

Catch-up Freestyle with Dolphin

Use the dolphin kick with or without fins and while holding the leading arm in front take a freestyle stroke with the left arm while breathing to the left, then a freestyle stroke with the right arm while breathing to the right. Leave the other hand in front until you initiate each pull (catch-up stroke).

  1. Jen says:

    I think adopting bilateral breathing during your training will also be helpful in keeping the muscles in your upper back an neck a little more balanced. I imagine that one side is probably a little tighter due to favoring your left while your swimming, but on the other hand, with everything else you do it’s probably a non-issue my athletic friend. 🙂

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