Q+A: Why do I swim faster when I breathe on my weaker side?

triathlon, swimming, breathing swimming, breathing front crawl, bilateral breathing

Q. I've tried to perfect bilateral breathing but I've discovered I seem to swim faster when I breathe only on my weaker side (left). Why?

A. This may seem initially puzzling but it can be explained by the fact that on your preferred breathing side you rely on your neck's ability to turn just as much as you rely on your roll. In short, you have become subconsciously lazy, so are rolling just enough to breathe. However on your non-preferred side you don't have the same neck flexibility.

You need to roll more, which means you'll be using your bigger back muscles, which provide greater power and stamina during the swim; your profile in the water will improve, leading to less resistance and hence increased speed; and in rough conditions, you'll be able to breathe above the chop.

Now you know why you are going faster, you can try to introduce this greater roll to both sides, by relying less on your neck flexibility and more on increasing your body roll, which needs to be powered from the hips.

 Not the be-all and end-all

Bilateral breathing has been a major issue in recent years, especially within the triathlete community. Several triathletes/swimmers I have met have focused solely on being able to swim bilaterally to the detriment of the rest of their stroke.

Effective bilateral breathing is great, but there are plenty of other stroke basics that should take priority, the first of which is good head position (breathing just above the water's surface) during the breathing phase.

Now I've got that off my chest, let's focus on bilateral breathing, which is alternating the side on which you breathe after every stroke cycle. The advantages of bilateral breathing are:

1 The stroke will become more symmetrical because breathing to both sides encourages you to roll equally to both sides.

2 The chance of shoulder injury is reduced because both arms are doing the same amount of work.

3 If you are changing from a pattern of breathing on just one side every two strokes to a bilateral pattern of breathing every three strokes, you are breathing less and therefore lifting your head out of the water less frequently. This results in a more streamlined and efficient stroke.

4 Both sides of your environment are now visible, so in a race you can see how your competitors are doing.

Bear in mind the main disadvantage of bilateral breathing, which is the reduction in oxygen supply - if you're taking more strokes per breath you may become tired more quickly.
Simon Murie

Simon Murie  is the founder of SwimTrek (swimtrek.com), which offers open-water swimming and coaching camps, and holidays, in the UK and overseas. He is a qualified swim coach and an experienced swimmer, with a solo crossing of the English Channel to his name. He is passionate about introducing open-water swimming to the uninitiated as well as finding new locations for experienced swimmers and triathletes.

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Another advantage of being able to breathe to either side is that when swimming across the wind in choppy conditions you can breathe to the "downwind" side, thus reducing the chance of a facefull of wave when you come up to breathe.  Obviously then you won't be breathing bilaterally, but at least you'll be breathing.
Posted: 11/08/2011 at 12:36

Interesting article- I have struggled with this for a while, and whilst I can breathe to either side, I notice that when I breathe every 3 strokes I am much more efficient and faster than when doing 2 stroke breathing. The main drawback of 3 stroke breathing for me is that I struggle cope with lower oxygen levels for the full 1500m.

Having set myself the challenge of just getting used to this (and fitter!), I noticed that many elites breathe every second stroke (to same side)- in fact I've rarely seen pro swimmers do olympic distance 3 stroke breathing? So which is faster and which breathjing pattern is recommended?


Posted: 17/08/2011 at 15:03

Most open water coaches say 2 is faster although why I'm not sure.  I've always been bi lateral, every 2nd stroke makes me feel dizzy but I do use it when there are serious waves to deal with or someone I need to keep an eye on.

 The advantage of bi- lateral is that it gives you an opportunity to look around you moer effectively when racing

Posted: 18/08/2011 at 13:19

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