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Tips for Bilateral Breathing

Bilateral breathing in freestyle, though sometimes challenging, is pivotal in determining your stroke’s efficiency. Without breathing to both sides, you could be left sore – or just be left behind. While bilateral breathing might not seem like a huge deal, it plays a significant role in reducing the incidence of swimmer’s shoulder. Plus, heavily-favoring one side leads to a multitude of other consequences, including loss of flexibility, an unbalanced body roll, a shortened pull, and even sharp neck pain. If you’re ready to ditch the unilateral breath, soak up our helpful tips below.

Bilateral Breathing by Natalie Coughlin
Natalie Coughlin demonstrates body roll necessary for bilateral breathing.

One Arm Drill

Swimming with your weaker arm trains your body to roll to both sides easily. If you tend to favor your right side, use only your left arm to swim while keeping your right arm in a streamlined glide position. As your non-dominant side lengthens out and catches up, reduce one-armed sets and increase sets pulling with both arms.

2 Breaths, 1 Breath

You don’t need to jump ahead to breathing from your ‘bad’ side every other breath – especially if you’re uncomfortable, or feel uncoordinated doing so. Instead of turning to your weak side every other arm stroke, try turning every 3rd (or even 5th) breath. This is an easy way for newer freestylers to ease into bilateral breathing.

Exhale Underwater

Many swimmers who have a hard time mastering the bilateral breath fail to exhale completely while underwater. When you come up for a breath, you should have already expelled all the air from your lungs. This will prepare your lungs for a big air intake without wasting time exhaling above the surface the water. Plus, CO2 buildup in the lungs causes an out-of-breath feeling, which brings on fatigue.

Give It Time

Perfect bilateral breathing technique isn’t going to just happen. In fact, nothing can be expected to come that way. Instructors suggest that it takes about 2 weeks – or 6 training sessions – for a swimmer to become comfortable with bilateral breathing. If you know you’re going to be swimming in 2 weeks anyway, make the change in your next training session and begin breathing your way to a faster, more efficient freestyle.


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