Updated: Mar 30
What is bilateral breathing - Over the years of swim coaching I regularly get asked the question “When swimming Front Crawl (Freestyle), should we breathe using bi-lateral breathing or not”. I hope to clarify my view on this with the following blog.
First and foremost, let me confirm that this is my view and one that I know not every swimmer or swim coach will necessarily agree with. The reason I know this is, is because I hear so many of them saying “swimming is not performed properly unless you use bi-lateral breathing”. So on that note you may have already guessed that I’m not going to be enforcing such a brash ‘one size fits all’ statement with what I’m about to write.
Let’s first look at the virtues of bi-lateral breathing:
1. If performed as a drill at the correct stage in your training schedule, it can be very effective in providing more balance and symmetry in the stroke. If you already have great balance and symmetry, it can still be used as a drill to help maintain this aspect of your Front Crawl.
2. It can encourage you to feel comfortable and efficient in breathing to both sides. This is an excellent swimming skill to have especially when swimming in open water (outside) where you have other swimmers and potentially choppy water to contend with. Should there be a problem breathing to one side, you can easily resort to the other.
3. Also when swimming outside, it is useful to be able to use land marks to help guide you. As you are often unable to see any guidance underwater, taking a sleek glance at landmarks to either side when you breathe makes for more effective tracking. Yes I suppose this does also mean you could look out for where your competitors are, but do we really want to be wasting energy and time doing this as well? Whenever I swam competitively, both in the pool and in open water races, I seemed to be able to sense where they were without having to disrupt my stroke to prove this. Have a quick look in the forthcoming Olympics to see if Michael Phelps or any other swimmer for that matter ever takes a look around at anyone else. I bet they don’t!
4. If susceptible to shoulder injury through repetition, spreading the breathing out equally across both sides may help to alleviate the severity of this or prevent it from occurring at all.
Equally, let’s take a quick look at some of the reasons as to why you may not wish to swim Front Crawl using bi-lateral breathing.
1. It begins inducing a hypoxic training technique. This is where you exercise without the abundance of oxygen being present. For example, you could only breathe every 6 or 9 strokes requiring yourself to hold your breath for longer before you can inhale again. It won’t be long before you feel extremely fatigued. As a training drill, this can work very well to improve lactate threshold and overall aerobic fitness ability, however in a long distance race scenario, you really want to be avoiding oxygen debt for as long as possible. Therefore breathing more frequently is likely to help you to achieve this.
2. Considering the above point, I often see swimmers using a very fast or too erratic arm pace to their Front Crawl. This is sometimes because they were told they must breathe every 3 or 5 strokes. The outcome is that strokes become rushed in order just to get their next breath in. Each stroke performed ends up losing strength and overall power output because the focus is more so on the breathing.
3. Some swimmers genuinely do not feel comfortable breathing to both sides. If they don’t have a competitive goal or necessary reason to have to breathe bi-laterally then the question should be asked “why do it?”. The answer is that you don’t have to. Breathing to one side only is not a bad thing and neither does it make you a bad swimmer. Most footballers kick a ball using one main leg and would not be anywhere near as effective on the other. Most of us write using one preferred hand etc, etc. Every single world champion from the previous swimming world championships breathed only to one side!
In summary, as a swim coach approaching all swimmers on their individual merit and goals, I will never take the single-minded, and in my opinion, naive approach to say that everyone either must or must not use bi-lateral breathing. It has to be used at the correct time, in the correct setting with the swimmer’s complete understanding as to why they are doing it and how it will benefit their stroke.
Swimmers – Always ask your coach to explain the reason behind why your coach is encouraging you to change any element of your stroke. It both further develops your understanding of swimming as well as justifies the energy you’ll be attributing toward developing that new skill.
For more guidance on how to perfect your Front Crawl technique and more download the series of swimming books by Mark Durnford.