Bi-Lateral Breathing

Swimmer swimming in the open water
March 1, 2016

Mike Ricci


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Bi-lateral breathing (BLB) is a great tool to have in your bag of tricks. Many of you may moan and groan, but it’s a necessary evil and I wouldn’t be doing you justice if I didn’t mention how important it is! 

What is bi-lateral breathing?
Bi-lateral breathing requires the swimmer to change breathing sides after each stroke cycle. The cycle could be 3 strokes, 5 strokes or so on. This skill will help eliminate neck and shoulder fatigue and promotes better balance and body alignment. Bilateral breathing is also an essential navigational skill in open water.

Why bi-lateral breathe?
Bi-lateral breathing helps swimmers ‘balance out their stroke and teaches them to rotate their hips on both sides of their stroke. 

One of the most common faults in free style swimming is to under roll on the non-breathing side. It’s easy to roll on the side you breathe too, 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. Bi-lateral breathing helps you smooth out the stroke, keeps you balanced, and in some cases lets you swim in a straighter line. 

One of the most important benefits of bi-lateral breathing is that is helps you to limit the amount of stress that is put on your shoulders due to the constant strain of breathing to only one side. Another benefit of bi-lateral breathing is that you can watch your recovery (is your elbow high and are you fingertips dragging across the water?) and you can watch you hand entry (does your hand enter in the order of fingertips, wrist, elbow, and at a 45 degree angle?). Being aware of what happens on both sides of your stroke will allow you to see what is happening and let you make corrections as you progress. One last advantage of BLB is that in a race you can see what is going on both sides of you, not just one. If the waves are breaking over your right side, you can switch to breathing to your left or vice versa. Also, if you have a swimmer you want to keep up with, you can always see where he/she is if you can BLB.

How do I improve my bi-lateral breathing?The best advice I can give someone who is not proficient at BLB is to ‘just do it’ – start with breathing on your weaker side (the one you aren’t used to breathing on) – when I coached swimming there was always one set per day that had to be swum on the weak side (WS) – it was tough and most swimmers hated it, but it made their BLB swimming that much better. Back then my instructions were to jump in and swim 500 yards on your WS. Now that I am a more compassionate coach I would recommend swimming a 25 BLB, then 50 normal, then 25 BLB again. I like to see swimmers progress from 25 yards all the way up to 200 in a few sessions. Once you get to 200 yards then you can swim sets – like 5×200 on 10 second rest BLB. But wait! You are saying only 10 seconds rest after a 200 yard swim? Yes, that would be correct. The key is to swim the BLB sets easy enough that you not sucking wind (think ‘long and strong’ on your swim stroke). If you can do this then soon enough you will be swimming 1,000 yards or more pretty easily. 

BLB swim sets:
Warm-up: 200 yards alternating BLB every 3rd length.
Main set: 4×100 on 10” rest, with 1st and 4th length being BLB
4×100 on 10” rest with middle 50 being weak side breathing
3×200 on 15” rest. Swim 200 as follows: 50 blb, 50 ws, 50 blb, 50 ws
Cool down – same as warm up

More Advanced (simple but effective):
Warm-up: 200 yards alternating BLB every 3rd length.
Then 45 minutes of 200s blb on 10” rest. These are easy enough to not need much rest, but hard enough to make you focus on the BLB. Slow the stroke down and focus on all aspects of your breathing, hand entry, pull, finish, recovery. 

If you want to swim fast correctly, you need to learn to swim slowly correctly first!Good luck with developing your new breathing technique!

Coach Mike is available for a complimentary phone consultation to discuss your training!  Schedule an appointment below.

Coach Mike Ricci is the Founder and Head Coach for D3 Multisport.  His coaching style is ‘process-focused’ vs. ‘results-focused.’ When working with an athlete, their understanding of how and why they are improving is always going to take precedence over any race result. Yes, there is an end goal, but in over 2 decades of coaching, experience has shown him that if you do the right work, and for the right reasons, the results will follow.

Coach Mike is a USAT Level III Elite Certified Coach, Ironman University Certified Coach, and Training Peaks Level II Certified Coach. He was honored as the USAT Coach of the Year.

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