Is Bilateral Breathing Really That Important?

I remember back when I first started swimming, my coaches would always insist that I breathe bilaterally (alternate breathing to both sides when swimming freestyle). I would concentrate on it for a few practices, but I would almost always end up going back to breathing only to my right side. After a while I would get another friendly reminder to stop favoring that one side, but eventually I became so comfortable breathing to my right side that I gave up on the notion that I would ever breathe bilaterally.

The question I pose today is whether or not bilateral breathing is completely necessary, and should we still be teaching it to beginners? Let’s take a look at some of the advantages:

The first and most obvious advantage is that swimmers who consistently breathe to both sides will develop muscles that are equally proportionate.

As someone who has almost always favored his right side, I can tell you and literally show you the end result. My lats on the right side of my body are noticeable larger than on my left side, even after 7 years of being out of the water. Kind of crazy right? Also, once you fall into this pattern of favoring one side, it’s not that easy to just switch back. When I try to breathe to my left side, it just feels weird and uncomfortable, and so I tend not to do it for very long.

The second advantage of bilateral breathing is something Tony mentioned in an earlier post…breath control.

Bilateral breathing requires that you breathe every 3rd 5th or 7th stroke, rather than every stroke. Try breathing every 3rd or 5th stroke for at least a 200 or more next time you go to the pool. If you’re not already breathing this way the majority of the time, you’ll notice how out of breath and tired you become. So, if you are looking to do some breath control in one of your workouts, throw in a set that requires you to breath every 5th stroke. Not only are you bilateral breathing, but you are also really building your lung capacity if you stay consistent with it.

What about the disadvantages? Are there any? 

Not many, but the one that sticks out for me is the ability to develop a rhythm in your stroke. I find that when I breathe every stroke and primarily to one side only, I can really get into a rhythm much better than when I attempt breathing to both sides. This is especially true in longer swims. Also, when you breathe every stroke you are giving your body as much oxygen as possible, which can be very beneficial in longer swims as well.

So how can you get the best of both worlds? 

Check out this video from the 2004 Olympics with Michael Phelps, Ian Thorpe, and Peter Van Den Hoogenband in the 200 Freestyle. Phelps and Van Den Hoogenband breathe only to the right side (which also has its implications and disadvantages as far as seeing where your opponents are), but Thorpe breathes to the right side on the way out, then to his left side when he’s returning.

What an amazing race and great example of how some of the world’s elite swimmers breathe in competition. My advice if you are a beginner: try to focus on bilateral breathing, but also practice developing a rhythm in your stroke by breathing every stroke to one side only. The best way to accomplish both is by following what Thorpe does in this race, and always look to one side of the pool. If you are already well entrenched in the habit of breathing to one side only, try using bilateral breathing as a means of breath control in your swim workouts. Start with every 3rd stroke and work your way up to every 7th if possible. Another thing to do, which will certainly feel awkward and uncomfortable at first, is to do the majority of your workout breathing to the opposite side of the one you favor. This way you start to work that other side and you become more comfortable breathing to either side. I’m curious to hear what other people think of this, so if you have any thoughts or questions, don’t be shy!