On Your Left

Last week a few people I know linked to “The Great Bilateral Breathing Controversy.” (Hi, Céline!) For those who don’t know, most swimmers have a preference for which way they turn their heads when they breathe while doing freestyle. I always breathe to the right, while Lisa always turned to the left. A few people I see at the pool switch sides. Sometimes they switch every three strokes. Sometimes it’s every five. For some people it’s just whenever they need a breath. Whatever the cadence, choosing to breathe from both sides is “bilateral breathing.”

My swimming hasn’t changed very much since I started swimming about four-and-a-half years ago. My technique has improved a bit and my confidence quite a lot. I have a better catch and pull, and I drop my legs less, but my overall swim mechanics are pretty similar to how they’ve been since I watched my first Total Immersion DVD all of those years ago. I’ve gotten faster mostly because my arms and core have grown stronger, but I know that there are big inefficiencies in my technique. Whenever I do anything just a bit different—a new drill or trying to breathe to my opposite side, for example—I notice that other parts of my stroke kinda fall apart. My neural pathways have been pretty strongly imprinted by the 600,000-ish strokes that I’ve done since 2009. Changing is hard.

Yesterday, as I was doing descending sets of pulling with a buoy, I decided the time was right to switch things up. [1]

I started by realizing that I didn’t need to breathe every time my right hand passed by my head. Breathing every four strokes wasn’t that difficult, although I did notice a lack of body roll when I wasn’t breathing. That indicates that I’m not putting as much power into my stroke as I could. (The body roll in freestyle is basically a result of loading tension into the core muscles used to pull the water. It also has the bonus of exposing less surface area to the water, but it’s mostly a power thing.) Okay, something to work on there.

After doing that for a few hundred yards, I decided it was time to try breathing to the left. I had noticed several times when I was skipping breaths that I still instinctively turned my head to breathe even though I didn’t actually open my mouth. (Neural pathways . . .) That gave me the idea to do the same thing consciously on the left before actually inhaling. Breathe right. Stroke. Tilt head to the left. Stroke. Breathe right. Stroke. Etc. A few hundred yards of that, and I was ready to try it altogether.

Breathe right. Stroke. Stroke. Stroke. Breathe left. Hey, I’m not drowning! Although I am dropping my legs. Swim. Swim. Swim. Breathe right. Ah! There’s the old familiar good feeling. Swim. Swim. Swim. Ready? Here we go again. Breathe left. Etc.

I have a ways to go before I’m really comfortable breathing bilaterally, but I’m excited by the prospect of a season’s worth of racing without being blinded by the sun. I’m also feeling better about swimming in choppier water, since I’ll now be able to turn my head to avoid some of it. And maybe (hopefully!) better technique and faster times, too.


1 — My workout:

Warm-up: 300 swim, 300 kick
Main set:
   8x150 pull with buoy on 3:00 (desc. 1-8, paddles on even)
   8x100 pull on 2:00 (descending, no paddles)
   8x50 pull on 1:00 (you guessed it . . . descending)
Cool-down: 100 swim

(Back . . .)

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One Response to On Your Left

  1. StephenS says:

    I can do bilateral breathing, but it really slows me down. I prefer breathing on the right side. Old habits die hard sometimes. Good for you for giving it a try.

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