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Resistance Training & Babylon 5

While on vacation a few weeks ago, I used the vacation club’s weight machine and free weights. I tried a variety of exercises, and found that using the cables seemed most suitable for training swimming muscles. (SwimmingWorld agrees.) Then last weekend I watered plants for a friend, and seeing his powerblock sets and barbells made me think again about adding to my one kettlebell.

I stopped by Dick’s to look at free weights, but after a while noticed the elastic resistance bands. These are a lot more portable than any sort of weight set, are said to be less likely to cause injury and are comparatively inexpensive. So I got two handles and a red 50 lb tube, all by Fitness Gear. I’ll go back for the door attachment next weekend. Not sure if it is a good idea to install a wall attachment in my apartment.

Bob and Brad, the most famous physical therapists on the internet (in their opinion, of course), have several youtubes on resistance training. I watched the one on training at home or while traveling. So I have added some of their resistance routines between the stretching and the kettlebell core training that I do while watching old episodes of Babylon 5 on Comet TV.

Bicep Curls (standing on band).
Crossover Curls (standing on band).
Tricep Curls (standing on band).
Push one leg sideways (standing on band).
Squats (standing on band).
Lunge Down (one foot on band).
Stretch Arm Sideways (holding band tight to elbow).
Stretch Arms Open (holding band short).
Behind Head Triceps Pull (holding band short).

One of my work friends used to rave about Bab5 when it was first broadcast, but my kids had control of the TV back then, so I had to do without. Thanks to Youtube TV, and Comet, I have watched the first four seasons in order, on my own schedule. I’ve read opinions that I shouldn’t watch Season 5, but I will.

It was initially hard to watch Capt Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner) give all his rah-rah speeches without recalling Capt Sherrypie of Star Wreck: In the Pirkinning, a very low budget Finnish parody of both Trek and Bab5 universes. But eventually I forgot about both that and his turn as the government spy Scarecrow. Now I wonder if I should cosplay as Londo Mollari. Peter Jurasik plays the politically-absorbed ambassador so consistently over-the-top it is hard not to like him.

Don’t Do That

In the old joke a patient says, “Doctor, it hurts when I do this.” The doctor replies, “So don’t do that.”

I’ve been swimming with a masters team for almost two months. I haven’t had a coach on deck since I swam in college, and it does make me try harder when I know she could be watching. But I still concentrate on technique. After I started practicing in April, I thought to reconnect with the Total Immersion website. When I used to follow in the late 1990s, I was strongly influenced by posts by their founder Terry Laughlin. His ideas about “slippery” swimming – modifying one’s swim posture and longitudinal balance to slip through the water more efficiently – made sense to me. I defended him online, and attended a TI swiminar at the Madeira School near DC one weekend.

I’m not sure I would have kept up with swimming without Terry. I used to have a difficult time getting back into any sort of practice after some sort of life break. Several years after college, I started swimming again because I wanted to do a triathlon. I was in pretty good shape from running and biking, but some voice in my head was always finding excuses to stop at the next wall. And this repeated itself, getting worse as I got older. It would take weeks to get in any sort of shape, and I would inwardly dread going back into the pool.

But since learning better form and particularly better breathing, I have found that I can get back in the pool and manage a thousand yards or meters of steady swimming without feeling like I’m desperate for air, or feeling like my arms were too heavy. So I was stunned to read on the TI website that Terry had succumbed to cancer two years earlier. I met with him once in New Paltz, and we used to read each other’s blogs, but even with social media we lost touch.

Only two of us showed up for a recent swimming practice, and coach had us swim an 1800 meter set of freestyle in a light rain: 3 x 200 build; 6 x 100 mixing fast and easy, and 12 x 50. As usual I tried to remember to hide my head, press my buoy, enter the water with patient hands. Our coach had suggested I try a four-beat kick instead of my TI-style two-beat, so I do a very light flutter kick between rolling to breathe on each side.

In the showers my lone teammate, a proficient and strong swimmer despite his big belly, complained, “After all this I should be losing weight, but now I’m going to go home and fill up on junk.” That, but for the influence of my wife and stepson, could have been me. I thought, “So, don’t do that,” but quickly realized just how long it took to get to where I wasn’t doing that any more.

I recently thought I had reached my goal of losing fifty pounds, but realized that my old Taylor scale had become inaccurate. Since getting a new EatSmart Precision CalPal scale, I have lost fifteen pounds more, though I am only ten pounds lighter than my previous goal. So I’ve lost at least sixty pounds. My wife thinks I am melting away, but I know that I am still thirty pounds heavier than my lightest adult weight. That, however, was when I was still under thirty years old, running three to six miles every day, and getting no upper body exercise except tennis. So being that light again isn’t a goal. I figure I will reach a balance point between diet and exercise.

I’m not sure what to call my diet. A few years ago I was trying to follow Dr Terry Wahl’s paleo diet, eating lots of greens and some meat. Then my stepson and my wife were trying to do a keto diet. Though I used to follow Nathan Pritikin, and am still suspicious of the word ‘ketosis’ I have inched closer to what they eat. I just watched a video by Joel Fuhrman, who calls his approach Nutritarian, and it sounds familiar, too. Fuhrman compares eating poorly to hitting your hand with a hammer, complaining about the swelling, but then doing it again day after day. “So, don’t do that.” [Note 2019.06.18: My stepson now describes himself as Nutritarian. Keto, he believes, is for big people trying to lose lots of weight and he is just trying to stay healthy.]

Essentially I eat the same three meals every day:

Breakfast:  Steel Cut, Non-GMO oatmeal. I have recently switched from the 365 Brand to the more expensive McCann’s steel cut oats, or maybe Bob’s Red Mill. I cook two cups of oats, and eat it all week with a small dollop of real maple syrup. I drink filtered water with a touch of RealLime added. On weekends I will make a four-egg omelette with farm-raised eggs, gouda cheese, tomatoes, finely chopped lettuce and sometimes ham.

Morning Snacks: Organic bananas

Lunch: Sandwich of Dave’s Bread, one slice of organic cheese, two slices of Applegate luncheon meat, a slice of organic tomato and some sort of green or reddish lettuce. A half-quart salad with slices of apples, that may also include asparagus, broccoli, carrots, cucumbers, lettuce, peapods, scallions, zucchini or the like depending on what I have. I add in some dried cranberries, too. I drink water from the office dispenser. Then I eat some fruit like, red grapes, navel oranges, peaches, nectarines or an apple.

Dinner: Sometimes a grass-fed ground beef or buffalo burger with cheese, tomato, pickles. Sometimes organic chicken thighs with steamed carrots or broccoli in Kerry butter. Sometimes I finish with fruit in vanilla Siggi’s or Brown Cow yogurt. For some reason it is getting harder to find vanilla yogurt. On cold days I will make whole wheat spaghetti with organic red sauce. I love alfredo, but it is too rich. On weekends I treat myself to a Red Oak beer or an Angry Orchard hard cider with dinner. Also sometimes on weekends I will snack on Boulder Canyon potato chips while watching millionaires play tennis.

I have stopped eating restaurant food unless it is an office or social event. I have stopped buying frozen pizzas, or any other prepared food, too. I have also switched from Whole Foods to a local coop called Deep Roots Market. Since Whole Foods was purchased by Amazon, it has become really difficult to tell what is and is not organic in the produce section. They simply post signs saying ‘grown in Chile’, or ‘imported from Canada’.

Swimming with Unreasonable Sharks

We are back from summer vacation, and boy do we have slides to show you.

As we did last year, we joined my wife’s daughter and her family in renting a beachside house. Oak Island NC is a barrier island – separated from the mainland by the Intracoastal Waterway – and is near Myrtle Beach SC. The ocean side shoreline runs East to West, and faces South, so you can sort of watch both the sunrise and the sunset. We drove in through lightly-flooded West Beach Drive just as the weakling Hurricane Bertha was passing far out to sea. Last year the air was hot and the water was chilly. This year the air was warm and the water was mild. So I was not surprised to read, New Study Sees Atlantic Warming Behind a Host of Recent Climate Shifts, in Dot Earth:

Using climate models and observations, a fascinating study in this week’s issue of Nature Climate Change points to a marked recent warming of the Atlantic Ocean as a powerful shaper of a host of notable changes in climate and ocean patterns in the last couple of decades — including Pacific wind, sea level and ocean patterns, the decade-plus hiatus in global warming and even California’s deepening drought.

Other climate scientists question whether the Atlantic is actually a mover and shaper, or just part of a complex system, but the article confirmed my sense that the ocean felt like bathwater this summer. Once Bertha moved away we had clear sunny days, but fewer and fewer strong waves to surf.

The house was ten lots away from the one we had last year, and far more comfortable. I would wake up, lurch into the surf and swim up and down while trying to forget all the media buzz about Jaws and sharks and gators. One doesn’t have to venture far out to feel terribly alone in the water. After breakfast I would surf the internet and read. After lunch we men would pile into the waves for body-surfing. Rinse and Repeat. Sometimes the women interrupted our swimming, eating, drinking (and my reading) to drive them places. The idea is supposed to be that everyone gets to relax, but in practice the women kept busy planning and preparing meals, dressing to hunt shells on the beach, dressing to go shopping for t-shirts, dressing to sit on the beach, dressing to go to the Food Lion, etc. And the boys dragged their poor grandmother out to the mall or the WalMart or the Surf Shop.

When they weren’t in the water, the boys played an online war game called Call of Duty almost constantly. I think we had a connection delay because our guys could run around a corner and empty a clip into an opponent – who, unbloodied, would then take them down with one shot. That game features a background voice that barks commands at the players as they coordinate an assault in an urban battlezone. I grew to hate that voice. “Domination!” “Secure the objective!” “We’re losing A!”  “We’re falling behind!” “We’re being dominated!” That insistent voice reminded me of Harlan Ellison’s Twilight Zone episode, Soldier, where Michael Ansara is a heat ray-wielding warrior from the future, wearing an earpiece that urges him, “Find your enemy. Attack, Kill. Attack, Kill.”

We didn’t see any loggerheads hatch this year. Around high tide, we watched brown pelicans diving for fish and flying in tight formations against the wind, and looser formations with the wind. The pelicans were frequently escorted by gulls. Around low tide, tiny Sanderlings and longer-legged and -beaked Willets would scour the beach for anything that might be edible. The women noted that there weren’t as many shells to pick from this year. Once while they looked for conch, whelk and scallops shells, I scored a Corona bottlecap, a rubber band, two rubber hairbands and a charred cigarette. One of the boys found an almost full plastic bottle of Mountain Dew. In the low tide surf there was also a lot of what appeared to be clear, decomposed plastic foam, much like you’d find in the Pacific and Gulf dead zones. My wife found an intact crab, and was wondering what killed it, but we didn’t see any live crabs in the surf.

Last year we went to Pelican Seafood, picked through all sorts of seafood and had a great dinner at the house. This year, Pelican said the boats only brought shrimp, scallops, one salmon and one snapper. It could have simply been a slow day, but it made me wonder what will be available next time. In The Bottleneck Years, HE Taylor’s speculative fiction novel (also posted on Science Blogs), the recently deceased author predicts that the fishermen will sink their boats complaining that the sea had become populated by nothing but jellyfish.

I first read the next chapter of Brown Dog,  a collection of James Harrison’s stories – tall tales really – about a simple soul who lives in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, passes himself off as Native American when it suits, works only when he must, drinks when he can and chases pussy when it wanders too close. Then I started Unreasonable Men, Michael Wolraich’s third person omniscient retelling of the rise of the Progressive Movement in the early 1900s. I met Michael and many other folk online several years ago at the defunct TalkingPointsMemo Cafe. Sometime later he invited me to join his political blog, dagblog, which I did for a few years. I eventually met him in person when he presented his first book, Blowing Smoke, at a Washington DC bookstore.

Unreasonable Men is well organized – each chapter has a clear date, and many omniscient assertions about the inner motivations of Speaker of the House Joe Cannon, Senate Leader Nelson Aldrich, House and Senate Gadfly “Fighting Bob” LaFollette, President Teddy Roosevelt and President William Howard Taft are supported with footnotes. Michael’s assertions may open him to challenges from conservatives who interpret history differently, but the active voice does make one feel in the moment and moves the story along. His descriptions, citing of facts and use of quotes bring life to figures that usually repose in the dust of the passive tense.

Michael opens by describing a political landscape in 1904 that could easily be mistaken for 2014. Rich vs poor, dwindling resources, financial crashes, and congressional paralysis sound like topics on Meet the Press, The Daily Show or Democracy Now. But in telling about the past he leaves us to make our own comparisons with the present. I knew from high school that Roosevelt had fallen out with Taft, and had started the Bull Moose Party, and I knew that Taft eventually became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, but Michael fills in the back story. Learning about Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot’s breakneck assignation of 16 million acres of woodlands into the US Forest Service’s national reserve before an appropriations bill stripped them of that power was worth the whole book. Conservatives lost interest in conserving when it became clear that the land wasn’t being set aside for their future exploitation.

While reading about the tariff debates, I was reminded of a press conference at the Green Party Convention in 2012, which I covered for dagblog:

Each time, as [Dr Jill] Stein or [Cheri] Honkola was answering a question, [Ben] Manski was floating behind, waiting to add a few comments. I stopped trying to figure out the signals and simply raised my hand. Based on Manski’s comment about corporate money, I asked whether the Green Party had accepted or would consider accepting contributions from an environmentally-responsible corporation, if say, Patagonia wanted to support them. Stein hurriedly said that they accepted no corporate contributions or PAC money, and that even if money was found to be from a high ranking company official it would be returned. Manski chimed in that corporations had offered money in the past, but that Patagonia had not.

At the time I wondered which of us was being naive. In my opinion, government serving only business is a kind of fascism, but for government and business to be completely independent would be wasteful if not chaotic. Unless you favor anarchy, the trick seems to be a balancing act between corporate fascism and populist chaos. LaFollette and his brethren led a Progressive movement of the middle class against too much business interference, but one wonders if there is any sort of mechanism to do that today when every politician depends so heavily on corporate contributions to stay in office.

1500m repost

I wrote this in 2011, but I was thinking about how my swimming has changed in just a few years:

Wearing shorts and t-shirt over my jammers, and carrying my swim bag, I walk by the creek under the Jones Falls Expressway, past Whole Foods and Starbucks. (So far I’ve managed to avoid entering a Starbucks.) I continue past the stone veneer UM church and the brick post office. At about 5:25 AM, I arrive at Meadowbrook Aquatic & Fitness Center. Half a dozen cars are in the lot. A thin guy with a bike helmet is waiting by the door so I queue up behind him. People begin to line up behind me. My coworker Mark drives up. He’s the one that assured me that Meadowbrook was the best club for swimming in Baltimore. He was right and I ended up moving closer so I could swim here.

At 5:30, they pull back a curtain and unlock the doors. I key in my pass number and walk past the indoor pool to the outdoor pool. I dither between a 50 meter lane and a 25 meter lane. It is so easy to keep count in the 50 meter lanes because each lap is 100 meters, but the masters team practices at 6 AM and other swimmers are more likely to want to share a 100m lane. After years of swimming four to a lane, I relish any chance to have a lane to myself. I choose a 25m lane away from where the masters team usually sets up.

0 The water is colder this week. It shocks a bit when I drop in, but feels good after I push off. The first 50m always feel easy. I’m only breathing every fourth stroke, and remind myself to breathe more. Last week, when my Timex Ironman OVA still worked, the first lap took 56.65 seconds. OVA means optimum viewing angle – the watch sits on the edge of my wrist and the lap counter button is easy to reach while I’m turning. My wife gave it to me last year. I put in a new battery a few weeks ago, but when I got in the pool Tuesday morning the display was frozen. I was eventually able to reset the time, but the hours and minutes were stuck. Then the memory was full. Then the time displayed EE:EE with numeric seconds. So I’m just swimming.
50 Somewhere in the second lap is when the out-of-shape swimmer’s arms will start to feel heavy. My muscles are trained enough to run on oxygen, but the second lap still feels less euphoric. I run through a checklist: 1 – Rotate enough so that shoulders rise and recovering arms clear the water – check. In high school, I always breathed to the right, and sometimes my left arm would skim water as I recovered forward. That can only slow you down. 2 – Head down, legs high – check. Deep legs will only slow you down. 3 – Light kick timed at the end of each arm pull – check. A strong, propulsive kick is great if you own one. I don’t. 4 – Breathing out soon after taking a breath in – hmmm.

100 I focus on breathing out. I have to fight my natural instinct to hold the air inside my lungs until my face is back out of the water. I held air in my lungs all through high school, through masters, through triathlons and up until about 1999. I signed up for a local YMCA class on competitive swimming tips. The class was for kids, but they let me in by mistake. The first thing they taught was to put your head under the water and blow bubbles. Holding air has been my most difficult bad swimming habit to break.

150 Your lungs absorb the oxygen quickly, so there’s no reason to hold dead air in your lungs. Holding that air needlessly stresses the muscles surrounding your lungs, and tires them. When I used to swim longer than 250 yards, a voice inside me used to start inventing reasons to stop at the next wall. There were plausible reasons, “Your goggles are fogging/leaking,” and very persistent ones, “You really need to stop, Now!” I’d argue back, “Look, I did 1000 two days ago – there’s no reason I can’t do it again.” Sometimes I won – I built up to 3000 yards while training for a triathlon – and sometimes my lungs won – I would suddenly decide there was no room for a flip turn and stop. A few years ago the voice stopped, but I have to be vigilant about exhaling.

300 I’m slowing down a bit, but everything seems to be working well. I breathe to the right for one length, then to the left for the next. I do that to train both sides equally, and to avoid rolling more to one side, like I did in high school. I timed myself once and found that I was about 5% faster breathing to the right. I occasionally do 50s and 100s with alternate breathing – every third stroke instead of every second – and I swim even faster than when I breathe to the right. But I find that in longer swims, I want more air than I get from alternate breathing.

400 When it worked, the watch told me that this is where I usually settle into a pace that I hold for the rest of the swim. I’ve read all sorts of stories about distance swimmers doing negative splits – going faster in the second part of the swim. I should try that some day. In the early 1990s, I swam 3000 to 4000 yard workouts, at least twice a week, starting with 1000 yard warmup, then 5×200 Crawl, then 5 x 100 Crawl, 5 x 100 Breast, etc. all the way down to 25s. Those workouts were based on what I remembered from high school and college.

500 In the late 1990s, we had a baby at home, so I’d swim one 500 yard or one 1000 yard as fast as I could over lunch hour, every day, then short repeats, like 5×50 Breast or 10 x 25 Crawl, to sharpen my speed. That worked OK, too.

600 yards or meters is a common distance for warmups. In triathlon training, I always felt like getting to 600 definitely meant I was going to finish the whole 1000, or mile, or 3000. Even now, after 600 I feel like I’m ready for the long haul.

700 My mind wanders and I catch myself holding air. But not a lot. In high school I’d hum songs in time with my strokes, like Je-sus-Christ, breathe, Su-per-star, breathe. At some point I started reading The Science of Swimming by Doc Counsilman to try to improve my strokes, and I’d think more about what I was doing, but I still mostly daydreamed while swimming. In 1998 I learned aboutTotal Immersion, whose founder, Terry Laughlin, advocates mindful swimming. He gets very Zen about it. My version is: The Unexamined Stroke Is Not Worth Swimming. So I try to pay attention to each stroke, not fall into lazy habits. That’s not really my nature, but I try. From the next lane, Yoda reminds, “There is no try, only do.” Yoda looks a lot like Terry.

800 While my left arm used to skim the water low and wide, my right arm slapped the water like a tree branch. Recovering wide can make your legs start to fishtail, and slapping the water just wastes energy. Now I make sure that I am placing each hand and arm carefully through a small hole in the water ahead of me. Terry Laughlin calls that, “patient hands.” 

900 Mark Spitz once kicked 100 yards in less than a minute, but it takes me over two minutes – if my leg muscles don’t cramp. For a long time my legs mostly dangled behind me. In races I’d try to kick hard and they’d get crossed up. I realized later that I was trying to do the two-beat crossover kick, but instead of crossing over, my foot would catch on my other ankle. Now I use a light two-beat kick in long swims, and a moderate six-beat kick in sprints. My kick is not very propulsive, but it prevents the last sweep of my armstroke from sinking my hips and legs, and helps initiate body rotation. I often do various kick drills but I save them for the end of a workout in case I cramp.

1000 Getting to round numbers feels good. I had to stay out of the pool for the last three weeks with an earache. In the past I would have had a hard time “getting back into shape.” But I’ve found that since I’ve stopped fighting the water, my stroke is always there for me.

1300 I feel cross waves, so the masters team must be using the next lane. Only 200 to go, so I speed up a bit.

1500 I finish and several masters in the next lane look hungrily to see if I’m getting out yet. I used to be gasping for air after swimming a mile, but I feel relaxed. I swim an easy lap of breaststroke, then head to the ladder.

I see Mark is sharing a 50m lane with another guy. He’s been doing 1900m lately. The 102 degree water in the hot tub feels scalding compared to the 70ish pool water, but the jets are good for my lower back.

Shouldering On

I swam competitively in high school and college and sporadically throughout my adult life, and never suffered serious shoulder pain. But since an MTA bus knocked me off my bike last fall, breaking my right hand and jamming my my right shoulder, I know what it feels like to fail Neer’s test every day. Swimmers Daily led me to this article, Swimmers and shoulders: Who’s watching out for them?

A recent study looked at 80 elite swimmers aged 13-26 and found that 91 percent had shoulder pain. The mean age of these swimmers was 15.9 year old – kids! The majority of these swimmers competed at state to international level so they were the best of the best.

The study examined whether shoulder pain was related to swimming stroke, laxity (tissue looseness) or training. …

This condition was found in 54 percent of swimmers aged between 13 and 14 years, 77 percent between 15 and 16 years, 100 percent between 17 and 18 years and 71 percent between 19 and 22 years of age — as I said, kids! The study found swimmers averaging 15 hours or more than 35 miles per week, demonstrated overuse changes in the rotator cuff tendons.There was not a relationship between tendonopathy and either the type of stroke or laxity. …

The most dramatic finding was that 18.6 to 22.6 percent of competitive swimmers in each age group experienced shoulder pain and difficulty with functional activities. The high school age swimmers had the greatest amount of pain. Her study found the difference between those swimmers with and without symptoms was related to greater exposure to swimming (years and hours per year/week of swimming).

91%! I never trained more than ten hours a week while on teams, and no more than six hours a week on my own, which may well explain my intact shoulders. I also learned not to overpronate during any part of the stroke.

As far as my injury, spring swimming is making my shoulder feel better. Being careful not to overpronate, I swam a difficult 500 meters of crawl and breaststroke last week, then a not-so-bad 1000m crawl a few days later. Moving outdoors, on Tuesday I swam a very relaxed 45 minute 1600m. I couldn’t extend as far as I’d like with my right arm, so I took a ridiculous 60 strokes per 50m, but otherwise it wasn’t bad. On Thursday, I swam another relaxed 1600m in 42 minutes, still very slow. I could extend my arm, but wasn’t pushing hard.

And the shoulder is feeling better and better.

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.

Bowman Talks About Lowenthal’s Drowning

Based on a talk by Bob Bowman – pleading with coaches to discourage long distance underwater swimming – Swim Vortex offers a great deal of information on the Louis Lowenthal drowning. I have read a great many accusations and speculation to the effect that the boy had drowned in an essentially empty, unsupervised pool, and had spent a lot of time underwater before being discovered. According to Bowman’s statement, the pool was occupied by at least one other swimmer, and Lowenthal was pulled out by lifeguards within one minute of her seeing him alive:

Bowman & Baltimore Plea for Safety’s Sake

A masters swimmer who takes about a minute to get down the 50m lap, saw Louis kicking his way underwater in the opposite direction somewhere along the way of her own swim. When she got to the edge of the pool, she turned, fiddled with her goggles a little and looked up: Louis [was] already on deck and CPR being administered.

There are up to five 50m lanes adjacent to the lane along the edge of the pool in which the body was found, but the water is clear and you can easily see swimmers all the way across to the 25 yard lanes. Louis was swimming in the longest straight lane in the pool, which goes past an island and ends at the shallow end ramp. It would have been about 60 meters or so – more if he had turned at the ramp.