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Breathe How Often?

Revised from a response to a 1998 Swim Magazine coaches poll asking whether we encouraged our swimmers to do bilateral breathing.

I want all my swimmers to be able to breathe on either side, effortlessly and without disrupting longitudinal balance or otherwise compromising technique. However, I do not encourage conventional bilateral breathing — breathing every third stroke. Swimmers should breathe as often as needed to keep CO2 concentration as low as possible while swimming. For the overwhelming majority of people this means breathing every other stroke on any distance over 100 yards and in sets of short-rest repeats of 100 yards or shorter.

Most people strive to breathe less often because they “know” that taking a breath slows them down a bit. But if you have honed your breathing skills such that there is no performance hit when you take a breath, why would you want to breathe less often? (Except, perhaps, in sprinting, where holding your breath to some extent may help you ride higher. This is not universal nor does it extend to longer distances.)

It is more important for the swimmer to learn to breathe to either side without disrupting his stroke efficiency, timing, power, speed etc. than to try to improve his ability to delay taking a breath that he knows will slow him down or that he'll have to struggle for.

For the swimmer striving to become more efficient in his technique (i.e. taking fewer and fewer strokes to complete each length), breathing every other stroke, rather than every third stroke, becomes even more important. I'm firmly convinced that at least some of the inefficiency I see in the average Joe's stroke is a result of the brain saying, “Breathe every third stroke cuz you slow down every time you breathe.” To which, of course, the neuromuscular system answers, “We're not getting enough oxygen down here so shorten up the strokes so we can get another breath or two each length.” Not the stuff of highly effective swimming, to say the least.

So, in training, while I do want swimmers practicing excellent breathing technique on both sides I encourage breathing on the left for this lap and on the right for the next lap, or perhaps breathing on the left for 200 and on the right for 200, and so on. The hoped-for result is that, over time, half their breaths are done on one side and half on the other side - without starving the swimmer for oxygen.

Just my opinion. I could be, and frequently am, wrong. v

© H2Ouston Swims, Inc. 2000

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Emmett Hines is Director and Head Coach of H2Ouston Swims. He has coached competitive Masters swimming in Houston since 1981, was a Senior Coach for Total Immersion Swim Camps for many years, holds an American Swim Coaches Association Level 5 Certification, was selected as United States Masters Swimming’s Coach of the Year in 1993 and received the Masters Aquatic Coaches Association Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002. He recently overhauled his popular book, Fitness Swimming (Human Kinetics, publishers) and the second edition was released mid-2008. Fitness Swimming has been published in French (entitled Natation, pub. by Vigot), Spanish (entitled Natacion, pub. by Hispano Europea), Chinese (entitled Jianshenyouyong), Portuguese (Natacao Para Condicionamento Fisico, pub. by Manole)  and, soon, in Turkish and Italian. Currently Coach Hines coaches the H2Ouston Swims Masters group in Houston, TX and works privately with many clients. He can be reached for questions or comments at 713-748-SWIM or via email.

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