Bilateral Breathing Works

BilateralBreathingTwo years ago I started an experiment to remake myself into a bilateral breathing swimmer. It worked. I am expanding the original article here on my own blog, adding some more opinions and my own experiences since then.

I’ve long admired the grace, efficiency and symmetry of swimmers that breathe to both sides at any pace and distance. Laure Manadou, Rebecca Adlington, Federica Pellegrini and many other elite female swimmers breathe bilaterally while competing, as do many excellent masters swimmers. But, many other women and almost all of the elite male swimmers in the world breathe to one side, their dominant side, in their races.

Welsh distance swimmer Dave Davies is one of the few male swimmers I have seen consistently breathing bilaterally, but with his high arm turnover and busy crossover kick, he’s hardly a model of the modern swimmer. World 1500m champion Sun Yang quickly breathes to both sides before and after turning, but mostly breathes to one side. Sprinters breathe infrequently, and can sneak a breath to either side to keep track of an opponent, but most distance swimmers opt for the additional air available when breathing every other stroke. Update 20140824: I just watched a youtube video of Ryan Cochrane winning the 800 Free at the 2014 Pan-Pacific Championships. Cochrane breathed to both sides for most of the race, but switched to same-side breathing to sprint the final 100 meters. 

Despite the prevalence of same-side breathing, most coaches recommend bilateral breathing to develop symmetrical body roll to each side and to avoid the lopsided stroke that often comes with same-side breathing. I swim at Meadowbrook, where Michael Phelps was coached to greatness by Bob Bowman. Phelps generally breathes to his dominant side, but in this youtube video, Bowman recommends that the novice swimmer learn bilateral breathing, and that the older swimmer at least breathe to different sides on alternate laps to reinforce body rotation.

USA Swimming endorses bilateral swimming as a tip of the week:

If you’re not breathing to both sides, it’s never too late to start. It helps balance your stroke, creates symmetry in back musculature, helps eliminate cramping and increases your oxygen intake, resulting in a more efficient, faster stroke.

I’m an alum of a Total Immersion swim workshop. One of the many TI goals I learned that day was to make my breathing technique so streamlined that it wouldn’t slow me down no matter how often I needed air. But even while teaching streamlined breathing, TI founder Terry Laughlin recommends bilateral swimming while training:

One of the most common questions I get from swimmers is whether they should use alternate-side, or bilateral, breathing. The quick answer is yes, you should breathe to both sides. At least in practice. And on some occasions it can be an advantage while racing too.

… The problem with single side breathing is that, over time. it tends 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.

On the now-closed CoachesInfo site, aquatics scientist and masters swimmer Ross Sanders advised that same side breathing can interfere with streamlining:

… ‘Twisting’ of the upper body during breathing is common and increases resistance. Observation of swimmers indicates that this twisting is more common among swimmers who have a preferred breathing side. I believe swimmers should learn and practice bilateral breathing. Coaches should establish symmetry of action to improve balancing of rotations and streamlining.

Badig Endurance Training describes the stroke flaws that come with same-side swimming:

Right handed? Then your right arm/pull is typically stronger than your left. To make matters worse, swimmers will cater to the strong side by breathing to the strong side. And the domino effect begins. In order to breathe just to one side (we’ll use the right for this discussion) they start swimming with the left shoulder lower in the water to make for an easier breath. This makes one arm pull deeper than the other. To compensate for that they begin to reach a little further with the right arm to get a bigger pull with the strong arm. This soon turns into an overreach, and now there is a slight wiggle in their stroke. In order to compensate for the wiggle, the swimmer adds one really large kick with his right foot to get the body to rotate back over. Now he has a scissor kick and can’t swim in a straight line. What started out as favoring one side of breathing a little has turned into a bit of a messy stroke. This isn’t an exaggeration either. I have corrected a stroke just like this on numerous occasions by simply forcing them to breathe every 3rd stroke to make the pull symmetrically.

iSport Swimming paints a even more dire picture of same-side swimming, one that reminds me of my high school stroke:

When breathing to your right, your left side tilts downward when you breathe. You balance on your left side as you take in air, causing the left lateral muscle to develop more. Also, you’re putting a ton of strain on your shoulder as you balance in that position. This repetitive motion can start to irritate your shoulder. Take some of the pressure off of your overused shoulder by breathing to both sides.

When solely breathing to your right side, your body rocks more to your left side as you swim — even when you’re not breathing. This habit can create a limp in your stroke. This means you’ll spend more time on your left side, and take a quicker stroke when rolling to your right. Not only do you put more strain on your lower shoulder when you have a limp, but you also don’t get the maximum force out of each pull. If you shorten the pull with your non-breathing arm, you’re slipping water.

Bilateral breathing will help even out your stroke, as well as put you into a nice rhythm. It will create symmetry in your stroke. This balanced, smooth feeling will make you feel stronger and more efficient in the water.

From the above authorities and testimonials, one would think that bilateral breathing should at least be attempted by any serious swimmer, but in an online interview with staunch bilateral breathing advocates at Swim Smooth, Swimming Fastest author and swim coach Ernest Maglischo cautions that teaching bilateral swimming might be a waste of time for some:

I believe bi-lateral breathing is a good way to teach beginners because they will tend to be more rhythmic. But, I am of the opinion that competitors should breathe to only one side when racing. Oxygen consumption should be greater when more breaths are taken during the race. Having said that, swimmers in races should resort to breathing to both sides on occasion in order to check their direction and the position of their competitors. As for using bi-lateral breathing in the training of experienced swimmers, I have found that it is a waste of time. They will swim more symmetrically in training when breathing to both sides, however, they will revert to the same somewhat lopsided stroke when they breathe regularly in competition.

One Step Beyond Multisport goes even further than Maglischo on more air, more speed:

For events lasting longer than 5 minutes, the predominant system is the aerobic system. And here is where breathing patterns become a lot more important. Since I coach primarily triathletes and open water swimmers, we are training for events that last at least 5 minutes and typically more in the 12 to 30 minute duration. Here oxygen intake becomes vastly more important if speed is a concern for the swimmer in any fashion.

Would you tell a race car driver to reduce his fuel consumption by 50%? He would say you are crazy. But that is essentially what coaches do when advocating a bilateral breathing pattern over a one-side breathing pattern to distance swimmers.

There are certainly some streamline and stroke mechanic issues that bilateral breathing can help address, but at some point we need to consider maximum achievable speed via fuel channels versus pure perfect stroke mechanics. …

Oxygen is not exactly fuel for the auto or the athlete, though both have to breathe more to work harder. Also, 1R/1L bilateral breathing drops breath-taking from 1:2 to 1:3, about 33% less – not 50%. 2R/2L bilateral breathing drops breath-taking from 1:2 to 2:5, only 20% less.

When I used to debate folks on, some posters claimed that asymmetrical stroking, or what they called loping, had less to do with getting lots of air than with arm dominance, aka motor laterality. One doesn’t see noticeable asymmetry in backstroke though, where one breathes facing up, or in breaststroke or butterfly, so I did not find such claims convincing. In 2005, Seifert, Chollet and Allard ran a study (PDF) that asked:

… does an asymmetric arm pattern emerge from internal properties (functional pathology, dominance of one arm) or in response to external constraints (breathing)? And what is the direction of causality: Is the asymmetric pattern determined by unilateral breathing? Or, conversely, does an asymmetry due to arm dominance lead to unilateral breathing?

But their conclusion to the chicken or egg question was … chicken and egg:

This confirmed the relationship between unilateral breathing and coordination asymmetry, and suggests that coordination symmetry relates to both motor laterality and breathing laterality.

I personally experienced different development of my torso muscles after a long stretch of same-side practicing. So my bilateral breathing strategy from 1999 to 2012 was to breath to the right and left on alternate lengths. I breathed right going out and left coming back. I found that I was a 5% faster swimmer breathing to the right, though, and even faster when I breathe bilaterally once every three strokes.

Despite some of the cautions, my experiment for the 2012 season was to incorporate one right, one left (1R/1L) bilateral breathing into my long practice swims and all my sprint sets. (Gary Hall, Sr calls that 1:3 breathing.) To retrain my body, I quit same-side breathing altogether. I started by alternating 50m crawl lengths with 50m easy breathing backstroke lengths. On the first few swims, I was desperate for air before and after the flip turns, and gasped as I surfaced in backstroke.

But a few swims later, I was not feeling so bad after the turn, and stroked hard on the backstroke. By about 600m, bilateral breathing was feeling like the right and proper way to swim. Moving to the outside 25m lanes one Sunday, I swam three lengths of crawl for every one of backstroke. Due to a sprained ankle I was doing open turns, which gave me an extra breath, of course, and I felt no air desperation at all. I knew that flip turns would be more challenging.

One day I swam a full 1500m of crawl and 500m of backstroke. I was able to manage flip turns with tentative pushoffs. I found that extra breathing just before the turn tended to mess up my flip timing, and I had to tuck a lot to make the rotation. For about the first half of the swim I stuck with bilateral breathing–one breath every three strokes–but gave myself extra breaths before and after the turns. I even tried breathing on successive strokes, like Sun Yang, but I don’t exhale fast enough to be ready for the next inhale. For a few lengths I tried breathing twice to the right and once to the left (2R/1L), and eventually settled into breathing twice to the right and twice to the left (2R/2L), which seemed to be enough air. Both 2R/1L and 2R/2L average four breaths per ten strokes, but the rhythm differs.

By May 2012, the 2R/2L (or 2:3) pattern was giving me enough air for longer swims. And during sets of shorter crawl swims, the 1R/1L pattern felt very smooth and natural. I swam 2R/2L in my long swims for about a year.

In July 2013, on one 1600m swim I started swimming 1R/1L and found that I had enough air. I chalked that up to being in better aerobic shape from cycling to and from work. In the 1600m I was swimming the same speed with less effort, and felt much smoother. My worst bad habit has always been holding in air, so exhaling fully requires a great deal of concentration. While thinking about exhaling I was doing a lighter two-beat kick, but at least it was a steady, well-timed kick.

In August 2013, while riding my bike home I was clipped by an MTA bus, breaking my hand and dislocating my shoulder. I cut down to two swims a month but aggravated the shoulder shoveling wet snow over the winter. Not being able to extend my right arm forward has taken a toll on my swimming, but I swam 500 yards today. The shoulder still hurts a bit, but the stroke still works.


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