There is a common myth amongst many swimmers that you are supposed to try and hold your breath and breathe every four strokes – you’re not doing it properly unless you can achieve this. Well, that’s false. By restricting your breathing you are not only unnecessarily tiring yourself, but most likely causing inefficiencies in your stroke.

 Bilateral breathing and restricted breathing (or ‘controlled’ breathing) sets are introduced into training to aid with stroke correction, not because this is the way you should breathe in a race or an entire session. When it comes to race day, you’ll know how to control your breathing as well as breathe on both sides if necessary.


When should you restrict your breathing?

By restricting your breathing in a sprint event, say 50m, you should hold your breath and breathe only a couple of times. In a 100 to 200m race the emphasis is placed on balance, body rotation and competition. So you would breathe to both sides to see what the competition is doing and you can afford to breathe every 2 to 4 strokes but restrict breathing in and out of the turns.  In an event longer than 200m, which is obviously more suited to triathlons, you should adopt more of a long distance breathing pattern. This incorporates both bilateral and alternate breathing. In general though you would breathe every 2 strokes, throwing in breathing every 3 strokes a couple of times each minute. This has the benefit of allowing you to see your competitors, conserves oxygen (especially if you have a bike and run to go) and allows you to get into an even rhythm of rotating on both axis.

In open water races you should restrict your breathing at the start of the race while sprinting to get into a good position – keep your head down and not breathe for at least 10 strokes and then get into a good rhythm. Obviously, you’ll need to hold your breath while diving under waves and porpoising.


Breathing technique

Breathing should be quick and timed just right. As your hand passes your thigh, turn your head to the same side and breathe. Do not lift your head – simply turn your head to the side so that your mouth clears the water with your chin facing your elbow. You should only exhale when your face is in the water and you should breathe out of both your mouth and nose – especially when sprinting, as exhaling just from your nose will not allow you to breathe out enough in the short amount of time before breathing back in. If you are lifting your head forward in the open water to do a buoy check, ensure your head gets quickly back in line with your spine to maximise the streamlined body position and so that you maintain your speed.

In a situation where you are not regularly breathing or there is some time where you have to hold your breath before being able to breathe (i.e. breathing freestyle every 5 or 7 strokes) there are a few breathing rules. Do not tense up and hold the air tight inside you. Relax and breathe the air out slowly, but in a constant stream. This will not only keep you neutrally buoyant for longer but will also keep you from panicking, rushing your stroke and most importantly from running out of breath faster.


What is bilateral breathing and why practice it?

Bilateral breathing requires you to change breathing sides after each stroke. The cycle could be 3 strokes, 5 strokes or so on.  It helps you smooth out your stroke, keeps you balanced and in some cases lets you swim in a straighter line.

The main reason you should practice bilateral breathing is that it will balance out your stroke and teach you to rotate your hips on both sides of the stroke. One of the most common faults in freestyle swimming is to under roll on the non-breathing side. It’s easy to roll on the side you breathe to but not so easy to roll on the side you don’t breathe to. This under rolling can lead to less power as you don’t finish your swim stroke as strongly as you could if you were on your breathing side. Plus you will help limit the amount of stress that is put on your shoulders due to the constant strain of breathing to only one side.

In a one hour training session you may roll to your breathing side 1,000 times! This can lead to a lopsided or inefficient stroke very fast, even though it may not be obvious to you. For example, when breathing to the right it is quite easy to start dropping your left elbow, or pushing down on the water too far at the start of the stroke. This generally means you’re not catching the water properly and then are not able to pull through with your forearm efficiently.  Swimming in the open water a lot will also promote this effect.

If you breathe as often to one side as the other you will use your “weak” side more frequently.  This will help your stroke overall. In addition you’ll use your “blind” side. In the open water, the latter benefit will help you check for landmarks, avoid chop, or keep another rough swimmer from splashing water into your face as you breathe.

Another benefit of bilateral breathing is that you can watch your recovery. Is your elbow high and does your hand enter the water in the order of fingertips, wrist, elbow and at a 45 degree angle? I hope so.


Bilateral and controlled breathing sets

The way to obtain these benefits and avoid bad habits is to practice bilateral breathing as much as possible. Breathe every 3 or 5 strokes as part of a warm-up, drill or cool down. But, by no means should this practice be limited to drill sets or long cool downs! You should also practice longer and faster sets restricting and bilaterally breathing as it will condition your body – your lungs can adjust just as your muscles do from training.

Breathe to your right side on one lap and then to your left on the next. That way you get the oxygen you need but still develop a symmetrical stroke. It will feel awkward at first but with regular practice of rolling to both sides it should just become natural.

Do repeats of 100 metres breathing in 25’s as 3 breaths / 5 breaths / 3 breaths / 7 breaths.  Build this breathing pattern up to 50’s and 200m repeats.  Make sure you keep your stroke long and don’t be tempted to speed your stroke rate up to get to your next breath faster. It will get easier with practice, I promise!

Remember, by restricting your breathing and trying to breathe every four strokes you will just get out of breath. This in turn will make you fatigue faster as you are oxygen deficient. Just as bad is that you are likely to speed up your stroke rate in order to get to the next breath, which will most likely be at the expense of the length of your stroke. So learn to bilaterally breathe and use it in training frequently, but when racing breathe when you feel the need.

Take home this message – If you want to swim fast correctly, then you’ll need to learn to swim slowly correctly!

About The Author

Naantali Marshall

Swim Expert

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