Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Bilateral Swimming

The fastest way to improve your triathlon swimming is to learn how to swim with three-stroke breathing. many athletes strongly resist using this technique because it requires: an adaptation period; slowing down; learning new skills; and, most of all, change.

In the winter of 2000/2001 I had a single goal for my swimming... learn how to swim my race distance (2.4 miles) using continuous three-stroke breathing. Once achieved, this goal permanently improved my swimming.

More details follow...

First, let's talk about our overall goals for our Ironman, or 70.3, swim:

1. we want to exit the water feeling fresh, this goal is even more important than the time that we swim
2. we want to increase our ability to swim at a solid aerobic pace

#1 is about becoming relaxed, efficient swimmers.

#2 is about being able to swim our relaxed, efficient stroke for the entire swim leg.

Times for 50s and 100s are not a good indicator of our progress at #1 and #2. As well, when we swim "very hard" we will tend to not be relaxed and go back to our old habits.

I think that the best training to achieve these goals is main sets of 30-60 minutes duration. Swim at an effort where you are able to maintain your best possible stroke technique. Use short rest intervals -- 10-15s so your HR stays in your aerobic zone.

Benefits of Bilateral Swimming

My views on the benefits:

1. I spend considerable time advising people to swim their endurance sets slowly and work on technique. With b/l athletes are forced to slow down, this (eventually) gives them the ability to work on their stroke mechanics and build the capacity to swim aerobically. If you are unable to swim relaxed for an hour straight then you are not able to swim aerobically.

2. Nearly every athlete can improve their "away" arm when breathing, b/l helps an athlete even out their stroke.

3. Stroke and balance imbalances are very easy to detect when swimming b/l -- once the areas are discovered, it is far easier for an athlete to correct them.

4. B/l has a nice rhythm and helps an athlete develop relaxed breathing.

Many athletes worry about "slowing down" as a result of the transition period associated with learning new movement patterns. Technique sets the upper limit for how fast we can go. By improving our technique, we increase our potential in the water.

Ally added:

You can breathe away from the direction of the swell in open water swimming.

Kayla added:

I come from a swimming background where I was taught to breathe only on one side -- since learning b/l breathing (which I picked up fairly quickly -- maybe a couple of months), I've noticed a couple of things:

1. Very helpful in open water swimming -- able to keep the shore or buoys in sight which is crucial to maintaining calm and insures that I stay on course, also very helpful when the waves are breaking from the wrong direction - no need to gulp water.
2. My form is actually better when breathing on the new side (I guess its hard to break old habits)
3. I too, like the easy rhythm of b/l breathing and also makes flip turn timing easier when I can breathe to either side.

Wy added:

Well, I don't come from a swimming background so I can't really compare a before/after. When I started swimming for tri's someone told me early-on to swim bilaterally. I've been swimming b/l almost three years now and it feels the most natural way for me to swim.

The only thing I can add is the masters coaches say my balance, form, rotation and kick are good. I'd say the b/l has helped with all that.

Clive added:

Some great points here on the benefits of bilateral breathing. Opposite to Kayla, I come from a non-swimming background and I have found b/l breathing to be an important addition to my daily swimming repertoire.

Some points off the top of my head:

1. I believe there is an preconception that b/l3 breathing results in a stroke which is slower than that from "normal" breathing, or that it must be limited only to your slow swimming sets. I believe this to be incorrect. Unless you have perfect form that you can maintain while breathing "normally", I believe b/l3 is as fast if not faster than normal breathing. Of course, this opens a can of worms regarding "increased oxygen intake vs. form gains" but I still believe it to be true.

My point of view is derived from watching my local masters team and "fast" swimmers on TV. Simply put, sprinters take as few breaths as possible. This tells me that breathing as little as possible has an increased aerodynamic effect. The "fast" swimmers at my masters club also breathe b/l almost entirely, even on their "blast" sets. There must be some method to their madness :).

Oh yeah, and when I do break down and breathe every cycle, I can often hear my masters coach yelling from the deck - "Clive, this is not a triathlon! You don't need to breathe every cycle for 100m repeats!" It's just ingrained now.

2. I've found the main advantages of b/l breathing for me have been in terms of stroke refinement. I did swim a 1:07 IM swim last year, which I don't think is chump-change, but my stroke is far from perfect. I have found b/l to help me with the following:

* "other-side" rotation - The first thing my coach said looking at my "regular breathing" form was - "you rotate great to your breathing side, then flatten out without rotating at all to your other side." b/l3 has helped me with my off-side breathing ... i.e. it's evened out my stroke.

* full pull through and relaxed recovering arm - Related to point (a). With more rotation to both sides, I can pull all the way through my stroke much easier and my recovering arm has more "space" to recover properly. When I wasn't rotating to one side properly, I had to really struggle to get my arm out of the water on that side after pulling. This resulted in me being more fatigued and expending a lot of energy to hold the arm up.

* balance to off-side - When I started b/l, I pretty well sunk when breathing on my off side and I had to use my opposite arm to balance me (VERY BAD). After a month of so of work, I didn't do this anymore and I now feel my balance is as good to this side as the other, if not better.

Laura added:

I guess I can echo most if not all of the positive aspects of b/l breathing. I am very new to that technique, and for the past 5 years, breathed exclusively on my left side, which is my dominant/stronger side.

I've been working on b/l since the end of November, every swim session now, up to 4200 yards, Gordo has me doing b/l. At first, I struggled, was exhausted just doing b/l for a 50 and felt panicky that I wasn't getting enough air, also was turning my head way back on the weaker side, to breathe, compromising my form and any intended improvements. It took me about 10 weeks to get the hang of it. I have plugged away at it and each session has now become more of an element of play and a sense of accomplishment when I complete it. I do not have a swim team background. I just started swimming in 1995 and have not had the benefit of quality masters' programs.

Ironically, it was just this past week that I e-mailed Gordo to tell him that I thought that I had a break through session with it. I started a G swim on Wednesday, and WITHOUT even thinking about it, naturally bilateral breathed! I just did! And, boy, was I surprised..:-) Now, it feels awkward to breathe just on my left side. I also noticed my 100yd time dropped 5 seconds w/o any effort on my part, other than b/l breathing.
It's tough for me (due to work schedule) to swim with masters on a regular basis. But, I am finding that by sticking with the b/l and now also working very hard on the front quadrant, not dropping the elbow, working the dryland stretch cords that I am feeling more relaxed in the water. All good.....

BK added:

I agree with Clive on almost all accounts. I'm a 1:03 IM swimmer newbie and thought going into this 2nd year of IM training that it would be maintenance training for my swim ability, with a focus on improvement for the bike and run....that was until I started b/l swimming.

Like Clive, it’s been tremendous for my balance and evening out my stroke on both sides.

Its been in the last 6 weeks where I've focused on full Endurance, Strength and Aerobic Power workouts that incorporate nearly all b/l 3 and 5.....what started out as feeling kind of funky now feels old stroke is now what feels kind of strange....very fast progression of comfort with it.

As far as swim speed goes...I swim Masters once per week and I have yet to really partake in these "harder" sessions with full b/l. My sense has been that I don't swim as fast b/l as I do with one sided breathing....However, after reading what Clive has to say, I will attempt to go full b/l next week and see if I can maintain the same splits our lane is usually swimming.

KP added:

Several benefits to b/l:

* I had to slow down.

* I stopped fighting the clock and could work on weaknesses.

* My right arm/hand was sculling all over the place when I breathed on the right. Not when I breathed to the left. Since I had a role model in the left hand I am able to correct this more quickly.

* Because of the sculling hand I would slow in the water and my legs would scissor kick as the brakes were put on to keep afloat. Two problems being corrected there.

* My right elbow also dropped. Again...the role model on the left makes it obvious when mechanics go haywire on the right.

Gordo wrapped up with...

1. Some athletes will get quite comfortable going slow. For this reason, I believe that it is import to swim (at least once a week) at an intensity where you must go to every cycle breathing. This is important to keep the muscular endurance and strength going. Rather than busting out 50s -- I prefer long continuous TTs.

2. The feeling that you get of breathlessness is not a lack of oxygen, rather it is a build up of carbon dioxide. Learning to live with this sensation is an important skill for swim starts, turns and pool swimming. Knowing that you can swim b/l 5 is a real confidence boost if you miss a breath at the start of a race. It will also help your threshold performance when swimming hard and breathing every cycle.

3. Those of you who watch my board will have noticed that when this thread came up, there was a discussion about whether b/l swimming improves lung capacity. My experience is that b/l does not improve lung capacity or lung function. However, it does increase an athletes CO2 tolerance and breath control. Both of these skills transfer across to other sports.

4. The breath control that you learn from b/l swimming will enable you to improve your flip turns. My turns are worth an extra 2 seconds per 100 compared to where I was a year ago. Why are turns important? Because they enable us to swim with stronger swimmers, maintain a solid momentum, draft faster swimmers in group TTs and improve our streamlining/balance. We can learn a lot from swimmers.

5. I always breathe every cycle in a race and on my TT sets. However, if you struggle to keep your heart rate down in your swims then doing the entire swim b/l 3 will instantly place an effort cap on you and help maximize your run!

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