Bilateral breathing drills

edited March 2015 in General Discussion
As a lifetime right breather I have finally decided that bilateral breathing would be a good skill to have for some upcoming swims. I have started doing some of my training focusing strictly on this skill and have added one arm drills to the left to help. However, if anyone has any other drills or ideas for improving on bilateral breathing please let me know.


  • SharkoSharko Tomales BayGuest
    If you are planning on any longer open water swims (at least an hour) might consider swimming a good portion of the swim on the opposite side to build muscle memory and get use to breathing...might gulp some water so it would be good to swim in an unpolluted body of water

    "I never met a shark I didn't like"

  • SharkoSharko Tomales BayGuest
    Also a couple of dryland things is used was "catspaw" google it to loosen up the neck and make sure the shoulders are flexible and loose using various rotational exercises....

    "I never met a shark I didn't like"

  • evmoevmo SydneyAdmin
    edited March 2015
    I do some stroke technique coaching, for both Masters swimmers and USA Swimming club swimmers, and this is one of the most common issues that comes up, at every skill level. Most swimmers naturally have a preferred (strong) side, but it's nonetheless highly beneficial to develop comfort (if not necessarily equal comfort) on both sides.

    And the only way to develop comfort on both sides is to practice on both sides. No shortcuts!

    Start small: practice kicking on your side (or about halfway on your side - similar to your typical body rotation while swimming freestyle) with one lead arm reaching forward. Then switch sides.

    Then make the side-switching more frequent.

    Then add three full strokes between each side-switch. i.e., three strokes, kick on side for three seconds, three strokes, kick on other side for three seconds, three strokes, etc.

    Use fins at first, then as you develop your bilateral comfort, take them off.

    Then once you've mastered these drills, try some sustained swims (say, 500m) where you breathe right for 2 laps, then breathe left for 2 laps, then right, then left, etc.

    The most common reason for lack of comfort breathing on one side is insufficient body rotation to the weak side (often along with over-rotation to the strong side). Practice over-exaggerating your rotation to the weak side. You should NOT be straining your neck to get a breath -- most of the rotation for breathing comes from the body, not the head.

    Practice single-arm freestyle -- 1 lap right-only, then 1 lap left-only. Make sure you are rotating evenly on both sides, even if you're only stroking with one arm.

    Rinse, repeat, over and over again until you master it. It may be difficult; you may feel like giving up. Keep trying! You can do it.
  • wendyv34wendyv34 Vashon, WASenior Member

    I learned bilateral breathing when I was a kid, but nobody made me practice it, so it's never felt 100% natural. I've been working on this for about a year and have considerably improved my left side breathing and stroke symmetry. My left shoulder hurts a lot less as a result and it really helped me feel better while swimming a 10K. I'm still faster breathing only to the right, which is fine for shorter distances.

    If you have the opportunity to have someone take video of you so you can compare breathing to each side, it will help you identify what you need to change in order to be more symmetrical. Symmetry will help you swim straighter in OW. If not, concentrate on how it feels breathing to each side and try to match the feeling (head position/water line, leading arm position, etc.) on your dominant side. If you don't use a 6 beat kick, make sure that your kicking pattern matches your breathing. Practice breathing to your weak side in and out of turns.

    I was lifting my head a bit more to the left and would feel completely disoriented in OW after breathing to the left. The disorientation is gone but my head position isn't as streamlined as I'd like, yet. It takes patience to break habits practiced for a lifetime.

    It's always a bad hair day when you work at a pool.

  • dpm50dpm50 PA, U.S.Senior Member
    I don't know how it happened exactly; when I first began masters swimming, the coach kept after me to breathe on both sides, and parts of his workouts included breathe on 3, 5, sometimes 7 (that 7 is still hard except when I'm just swimming easy, and then I enjoy swimming along looking at the bottom of the pool for some odd reason). But now I'm so comfortable breathing bilaterally that when this article showed up--

    --I have to admit I was disappointed. I've begun to rather like the breathe on three pattern. On my first 5 miler, it was especially helpful b/c I was feeling some strain in one hip, and had I not had the bilateral breathing, I think I'd have felt it a lot more (and that pull on the hip probably revealed some weakness there still).
  • IronMikeIronMike Northern VirginiaCharter Member
    @frnkdeb, good luck. I've been trying to do this for years. I even do entire workouts swimming bilaterally. Then when the big day comes, I race the distance swimming every two strokes, right-side only. No idea why.

    I've even tried simulating race conditions in the pool, and I swim bilaterally there, then when the big day comes, even after starting with a few minutes of bilateral, I always default to right side.

    I can tell you that swim smooth (dot) com does have many good techniques for getting comfy on the left side. I've used them and I do really feel more comfy breathing to the left. I just can't do it in a race. ;)

    We're all just carbon, water, starlight, oxygen and dreams

  • Thanks to everyone for good advice but particularly Evmo. I will incorporate these drills into my training and started some today. I am clearly not rotating enough on my left side and will also concentrate on that. It is getting easier over time but still there is a lot of work to do.

    So far I have been lucky that every marathon swim I have done has allowed me to breath right but I know I cannot count on that luck to continue. It also would have been nice to see more of Manhattan at MIMS rather than Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and New Jersey.
  • mpfmarkmpfmark Teesside England Charter Member
    I used to swim exclusivley with right side breathing, all of my swims (one of which was over 13 hours) up til last summer were always right side only, having took almost a year out (2013) I returned with a different mindset regarding breathing and took the re start as an opportunity to imprint some new pathways in my brain...its difficult to change something you have been doing for over thirty years and it feels alien at first..I used an exaggerated catch up drill which in no time at all had me breathing bilateral and now it comes as standard after much practice, that said if I have to sprint (my definition of sprint will be different to yours!) I kind of default to right side. I am sure I have a video somewhere..standby whilst I search for it
  • mpfmarkmpfmark Teesside England Charter Member
    edited March 2015

    had to relocate on an external hard drive and upload. it's only about 20 seconds but you get the idea. breathing on each stroke then slowly dropping the catch up and introducing regular bilateral pattern using the hips and core for rotation not the neck and chest
    hope it helps a little

  • Thanks again for all the advice. I have been focusing on body rotation to the weak side and it has made a huge difference. I am feeling much more natural and getting full breaths in on the left. I have five months before I may need it but I am definitely more comfortable breathing left. Will try mpfmark's drill tonight. It is very helpful to see it on the video.

  • mpfmarkmpfmark Teesside England Charter Member

    remember to trickle breath out. ! sounds silly to remind you but hey

  • evmoevmo SydneyAdmin
    edited March 2015

    frnkdeb said:
    I have been focusing on body rotation to the weak side and it has made a huge difference. I am feeling much more natural and getting full breaths in on the left.

    Excellent, @frnkdeb! I have a fairly strong preference for my right side too, and my "bilaterality" requires constant maintenance. Sometimes I will literally talk to myself underwater, when breathing to my weak side (left). I concentrate on DRIVING my hips to the left, when I breathe left, and I will speak out loud underwater, "DRIVE" on every left breath. Sounds ridiculous, but I think it helps.

    If you want to reach truly NINJA levels of bilateral breathing, try doing this at anaerobic pace.... and then try open-water sighting with the opposite-side timing. That is the most challenging of all, I think.

    Keep it up!

  • IronMikeIronMike Northern VirginiaCharter Member

    evmo said:

    If you want to reach truly NINJA levels of bilateral breathing.... try open-water sighting with the opposite-side timing. That is the most challenging of all, I think.

    Unsure if anything more understated has been said in these forums.

    We're all just carbon, water, starlight, oxygen and dreams

  • mpfmarkmpfmark Teesside England Charter Member

    how's it going ?

    frnkdeb said:
    Thanks again for all the advice. I have been focusing on body rotation to the weak side and it has made a huge difference. I am feeling much more natural and getting full breaths in on the left. I have five months before I may need it but I am definitely more comfortable breathing left. Will try mpfmark's drill tonight. It is very helpful to see it on the video.

  • Better and better mpfmark. It is definitely feeling more natural and with Evmo's advice on the rotation I am getting fuller breaths. Going well in the pool but not quite at ninja level yet. Looking forward to trying in the open water with waves and such. Your trickle exhale advice has been helpful. Thanks to everyone for their input.

  • curlycurly Issaquah, WASenior Member

    Reviving this old thread because there are good tips here. It's winter for me and that's when I work on stroke technique exclusively for a month or two. Bilateral breathing is for people who want to swim for a long time, and I measure that time in years. I have found that the symmetry helps keep the wear and tear down to a minimum. (Or maybe both shoulders are getting worn down at the same rate.)

    I have used bilateral breathing for probably 20 years or so. As mentioned above, everyone seems to have a weak breathing side, as do I. So I decided that I'd really work on that aspect this year. The few things that I am thinking about are:

    Rotation. Trying to keep an even movement from side to side.
    The catch. When I breathe to the weak side, my arm position is not correct. I'm trying to feel like I'm almost reaching out side ways at the catch. When trying to correct arm position, it always feels like you have to over exaggerate to get the right motion.
    The pull. I am paying attention to my arm motion on my strong side and trying to duplicate that on my weak side. If I get the rotation and the catch right, it seems like the pull takes care of itself.
    I have not graduated to sighting on the weak-side stroke, but that is in the plan. I'm dreading it...

    Drills that I'm doing revolve around using the pull buoy to really focus on arm and body position, then lose the pull buoy and try to do the same feel and rhythm. I will do lengths of breathing every stroke, first on one side, then on the other. I also play with hesitation and catch-up type drills. Basically the focus is all on getting that symmetry right. I'm getting there and when I'm not tired, the stroke is pretty good. As I get tired, the old habits kick back in and so I stop.

    I think I get tired because I'm trying to do something that my body isn't quite used to. As a result I'm doing pretty short workouts with not too much yardage. But what I want to do is develop a good habit and if I wear out and slack off on my technique, I feel the good habit won't get ingrained properly. So for now, it's short and sweet with beautiful technique. Then we build on that. Nice!

  • One thing that I've found over the last few years that affects my breathing pattern is my eyesight.

    Particularly in the open water with a boat or kayak escort, being able to clearly and quickly see/discern the escort vessel and what people might be signaling to me is affected by my "misaligned" focal depths.

    Basically, I see better at a distance out of my right eye, so when I breathe to the right, that's the eye that is furthest out of the water. If I need to adjust my position, or notice a hand motion, I can pretty easily see it and act accordingly. My left eye, though, is my weaker eye, and even with distance-corrected contacts, when I need to visually track anything on the left side of me, it is more difficult.

    So, that means that I will prefer escorts to be on my right, even if that means I don't get sheltered. It means that if the sun is in my face, I'd prefer to have my vessel in a shadow (me looking into the light) rather than on my left, where I don't focus as well.

    BUT, all of this being said, knowing all of this, and being able to breathe to both sides for balance, and to escape wind-blown or swell-driven water in my mouth is a vital skill.

    Also, as an unrelated consequence of my funky eyesight....I find it very difficult when pool racing NOT to circle swim a little bit. A team mate and I did some testing out of various lane positions, and he identified that if I'm attempting to swim on top of the black line, as in a meet, I actually still circle. BUT, if I swim definitively to one side or the other of the black line (like splitting a lane during open swim), I swim pretty straight. So, over the years, when I enter meets, I stick to one side or the other for my distance also makes seeing the lap counter a bit's off to one side.

  • NeilNeil New Member

    I began teaching myself bilateral breathing last week and find that simply breathing both sides on all of my longer aerobic swims on each length is helping.

    I noticed my right arm dropping when breathing to the left and so losing that stability and so made that a focus to ensure that I kept that close to the surface. Also partly mobility and so correcting that in the gym. Will take time to develop the muscle memory but will eventually be efficient.

  • kejoycekejoyce New EnglandSenior Member

    Bilateral breathing significantly improved my experience swimming memphre back in September. I swam as a kid and I had bilateral breathing drilled into my soul, but a combination of laziness and an old shoulder sprain led to me mostly breathing to one side for several years. More recently I have been having neck issues off and on, where something just seizes up and makes it really uncomfortable or impossible to turn my head in either direction. I had been doing some extra work bilateral breathing in the pool to help even myself out. My neck wasn't in a terrible state when I did the memphre swim, but it also wasn't 100%. I was about 7-8 hours in to the swim when I was just feeling like trash. My neck was moderately uncomfortable, nothing that was going to acutely stop me, but also nothing I wanted to deal with for another 7-8 hours. I realized I was only breathing to one side and that wasn't great, so I made a very conscious decision to go from breathing every 4 to every 5. My life changed. My buoyancy felt better, my balance felt better, my stroke felt longer, and my neck calmed down. It was still a long way left, but it was slightly less achy!

  • curlycurly Issaquah, WASenior Member

    Update on my personal drills. I was doing some heads up drills today and I'm actually starting to get a little bit of symmetry when I do this. My earlier attempts were awful. I'm fairly convinced that many observers were wondering if I knew how to swim at all. But I'm starting to get where I can do a nice heads up with either arm and not disrupt my kicking rhythm. Progress is being made!

    Regarding the above comments about neck issues. @kejoyce Check to make sure you don't have disc issues in your neck. When things go south with your discs you can run into nerve impingement. If you ignore it, the damage is irreparable. Don't ask me why I know this. And don't ask me why using the standard manly approach of ignoring health issues until they are dire is probably regrettable in the long run.

  • kejoycekejoyce New EnglandSenior Member

    @curly sage advice, thanks. i'm 90% sure the neck issue actually originates in my shoulders and some really deep gnarly knots that reside in there, but I do plan to bring it up with my PCP next time I'm in as it has been worse recently (exacerbated by lugging around a 30lb toddler :D ).

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