Silent Sports Column: Bilateral Breathing

I might be the last person qualified to give advice on swimming technique. In the winter of my freshman year in college I could hardly swim one length of the pool without hanging on the wall and gasping for breath. I taught myself how to swim and while I won’t denounce the drive and determination it took during those first few months, I could have been a little smarter in how I went about it.

My method was to swim as much as I could as frequently as possible. I found a stroke that was comfortable and ingrained those movements into my muscles. Unfortunately, with no credible instruction, I learned poor habits that are hard to break.

One of those is unilateral breathing.

I only breathe out of my right side while swimming. With more than four years of swimming, I got really good at that. The better I got at breathing out of my right side, the worse I got at breathing out of my left.

At my swimming skill level, and given that swimming is arguably the least important of the three legs in most triathlon races, this didn’t hurt my time very much. Even with this faulty technique, I was still coming out of the water just behind the lead group and I could usually make up that time in the bike and run. This fact made me even less inclined to work on this weakness.

It wasn’t until this year that the long-term consequences of this stroke style began surfacing. With this imbalanced stroke, my muscles developed to favor one side – my right.

This first revealed itself in the weight room. I could lift more weight with the muscles on my right side than on my left. Then it became noticeable in the mirror. Finally, it manifested in mild back pain, the explanation being that stronger muscles were pulling on the weak ones and causing them to be inflamed.

This long anecdote explains why I am spending the next several weeks working on breathing out of my left side. Bilateral breathing is important not only on an efficiency and technique level, but on ensuring that your body grows and adapts in a balanced way. Imbalances can pull your body in ways that, if undetected, can have irreversible effects in the long-term.

By developing your weaknesses, which winter is the perfect time for, you can ensure that you are not just a high performer, but also an all-around healthy person in sport and life.

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