Single sided or bilateral breathing?

I sometimes coach at a pool in Essex and coach while an adult swim lesson is in progress. Every week I have a chat with the swim teacher taking that session and one week the chat was about breathing. She was an old-school style teacher and possibly hadn’t undertaken any CPD or shadowing since taking her original qualification. One of her students was a man training for his first multisport event with an open water swim. He was breathing every two strokes (2/2 - so just to one side and always the same side). The teacher said that he wanted to learn bilateral breathing (3/3) but she had put him off because ‘he needed to master 2/2 breathing first before learning 3/3 and shouldn’t rush into it’. I was gobsmacked. With all my swim students I introduce the concept of 3/3 breathing straight away, it may be in small ways when we think about creating a rhythm or even when kicking only - counting during the breath out with head down and then up for a sharp breath in. The earlier you start to build the idea of 3/3 breathing the easier it is to grasp it.

Bilateral breathing is not just a good breathing pattern for successful breathing in front crawl but has lots of other positives too:

  1. You are rolling for the breath to both sides so you can see what’s happening on either side of you. This is very useful in open water swimming.

  2. It gives you the perfect length of out-breath to allow a trickle breath - much easier for the lungs to cope with than explosive 2/2 breathing.

  3. It’s much more relaxed than 2/2 breathing and therefore ideal for: distance swimmers, adults and all ages of leisure swimmer.

  4. Very importantly it helps create balance in your stroke. If you only ever breathe to one side you probably pull your non-breathing arm differently to your breathing arm or you may scissor keep to balance yourself.

  5. You WILL swim straighter if you breathe 3/3 rather than 2/2 - a very useful skill in Open water.

If you are in an argy bargy Tri or OW swim and someone is splashing you from one side, if you feel comfortable breathing to both sides you can just breathe left or right until you can pass the splashy swimmer.

You don’t need a coach to learn or practice bilateral breathing. Just start your normal swim training session with a gentle warm up. Then (focus on trickling the breath out through your nose) swim 2 lengths breathing only to your normal side. Have a short break. Then swim 2 lengths breathing only to your non-breathing side. Have a short break. Then try swimming 1 length breathing 3/3: set off from the wall with arms ahead of you in streamline position and kick, breathe out through your nose, when you want to breathe in pull your non-normal breathing-side arm back and roll your head with the arm for a breath in, then face back in for the breath out (bubble-bubble out), roll to your normal side for the breath in again and keep going. If yo find you lose the rhythm bring both arms ahead into the streamline kick position again and focus on the breath out. When you are ready to take the breath in again on your non-breathing side. Stop at each lane end to re-focus, relax and re-set before attempting again. Then repeat the whole block above a few times. Don’t get frustrated if it doesn’t go well first time, just keep calm and re-focus on the breath out. IT’s ALL ABOUT THE BREATH OUT!! You can take it further back to basics and use a kick board to build up from kicking with the breath to single-arm practice each side focusing on the breath out. Another great practice is sink downs - literally sink down in the pool and try to get to the pool floor by slowly emptying your lungs of air - bubble it out.

If you have a go and need help or have a great result by doing this practice please drop me a line to let me know.

Alice Barnes