I CAN Turn Left!

When I learned to swim six years I turned my head to the right to breathe. I have always turned to the right. Like Zoolander, I can’t turn left.

Breathing right has worked well for me so far. Occasionally I think it would be nice not to have to stare into the sun if only I could turn my head to the left, but it hasn’t been awful enough for me to worry about it.

Things have changed. I entered the lottery to compete in the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon, and I got picked! Everyone I’ve talked to has said that it’s an amazing race experience and that the swim is really difficult. So I turned to the interwebz for advice. There’s plenty out there, and the one that made the biggest impression on me noted that the wind pushes the water in San Francisco Bay to break over swimmers from the right.

I breathe to the right. The waves come from the right. I don’t like to inhale water. I now have a really good reason to get comfortable breathing bilaterally.

When I’ve tried this in the past, I’ve never liked it. Everything felt wrong. But I’m motivated now.

So two weeks ago, I just started. On November 2nd, I hopped in the pool without much of a plan except to swim. Okay, actually I knew that I would start with drills, just like six years ago when I learned to swim.

It was humbling. It didn’t feel quite as bad as when I first started swimming, but it was incredibly difficult. I felt breathless and stopped at the wall a lot. Going beyond 100 yards at a time was difficult. When I was swimming, I noticed all sorts of inefficiencies in my stroke. I had a poor catch, leading to a weak pull and little power. I weaved down the lane “like kids bowling with bumpers,” Sir Alex said. My legs dropped on every breath. I raised my head higher than normal, yet I still seemed to be inhaling a lot of water.

But I kept at it, progressively swimming longer and faster unstructured sets . . . which still felt difficult and included a lot of stopping. (Fortunately, I’m not building fitness for any specific event just yet.) At the end of the first week, Sir Alex said she admired how I was just going at it, only breathing to my left.

At first it was a conscious effort not to turn my head to the right, but by the start of the next week I knew it was time to restart the “Swim Cards Against Humanity.” I was a little intimidated, since the workouts are intense enough on their own, and my first two workouts were uninspired. I cut one short, but I kept going.

This morning after the first few strokes of my warmup, I had a revelation. My stroke felt really good on both the right and the left when I didn’t breathe, but when I started turning my head I wasn’t ready to inhale. Instead of “biting” for the air, I was exhaling and then trying to get a quick gulp. So I would end up either taking in water if I kept my regular rhythm, or I would raise my head too much and break my rhythm to get some air.

Basically, I was holding my breath.

So I gave myself permission to breathe on my right/happy side going down pool to see when I was exhaling. Turns out, it’s much earlier than when I breathe to the left. On the return trip back down the pool I started to exhale much earlier. I got a better mouthful of air, and I didn’t have to raise my head as much, which elevated my hips and gave me better extension. That in turn improved my hold on the water during the catch and pull. Once again, I felt like I was swimming downhill.

The main set of 3×400—each one descending in time and negative split, of course—would be the real test, since it would be the longest I’d swam continuously breathing to the left. How would it go?

Success! I’m still not as fast when breathing to my left as to the right, but I think it’s just a matter of time. Maybe I will even learn to breathe bilaterally, alternating sides as I swim. Wouldn’t that be crazy?

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5 Responses to I CAN Turn Left!

  1. StephenS says:

    Gotta say, it’s maybe the hardest thing I ever learned. And today, I still breathe to the right unless absolutely necessary.

  2. mary! says:

    It’s funny to read this, since in my mind you’re such a superstar. (I mean, you still are, bilateral or not!) I learned bilateral breathing during the first few weeks of swim class and have always swum that way.

  3. Jeff Mather says:

    The perils of being self-taught and impatient, I guess. “I just want to learn to swim!”

  4. Jeff Mather says:

    My brain has finally stopped asking my body for permission to breathe on the left side. Switching sides still is a very conscious activity, though.

  5. mary! says:

    True – you didn’t have a coach barking at you. Although that didn’t stop me from telling her I refused to continue doing flip-turns. No thanks!

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