Beginner’s Luck: The Swim Skill Every Triathlete Should Know

Beginner triathletes don’t need to learn how to bilateral breathe, right? Wrong, writes Meredith Atwood. 

Stubbornness is a quality that serves us well in the sport of triathlon. When we want to give up? We have that internal voice that says, “We don’t quit! Everrrrr!” Of course, sometimes we do, but as a whole, being a stubborn athlete and racer is actually quite the benefit to successful training, racing and completion of big goals.

I have seen a weird brand of stubbornness that comes from triathletes when it comes to their pre-race routines, training theories, and other nuances regarding the sport. You hear and see the panic from racers in Facebook groups when they start to see what “others” are doing for their training—arguments and debates heat up, which leave some of us shrugging our shoulders or fighting with people for bizarre reasons.

I am stubborn on my own methods of coaching and training, but I also recognize that others have their own reasons and rationales for the way they train, coach, and race. I accept that and move on.

However, there is one topic on which I have extreme stubbornness and correctness, and I wonder why people debate it at all.

That is bilateral breathing in swimming.

Basically, bilateral breathing (as I define it) is the ability and competency to swim and take breaths on either side of your body—left or right—so that you can choose which is most efficient, safe and fast on race day.

Now, if you are on the side that screams, “You do NOT need to bilateral breathe,” I would like you to take a moment and breathe (to the right or the left, doesn’t matter to me), and hear me out.

When a new triathlete begins to swim, they should one-hundred-thousand percent learn to be capable of bilateral breathing. If they are unable to breathe to one side, then they should learn how to breathe on both sides—in whatever way works best for them.

The common misconception for those against bilateral breathing is that those of us fighting in favor bilateral breathing demand that our athletes train constantly with bilateral breathing. Not true.

However, learning the skill of bilateral breathing (if you don’t have it) should be a key part of swim workouts on a regular basis.

Why? Because in a race, there is potential for many conditions that make breathing to only one side important. If a triathlete is a right breather only, and the race necessitates breathing to the left—then what?

“Well,” the anti-bilateral breather asks, “What in the world would happen that would require someone to breathe to one side?”

Blinding morning sun in your eyes on the day you forgot your tinted goggles. Massive waves splashing in your mouth every time you breathe. Annoying swimmers who are splashing you to death. A goggle that is leaking on one side. Water in one ear that is driving you crazy (switch breathing sides and empty that ear!).

In these circumstances, having the proficiency to switch breathing sides (not permanently, but just until the coast is clear) saves time, energy, nerves, and water in the ears, nose, and mouth.

In past training, I was a three-stroke bilateral breather (stroke-stroke-stroke / right / stroke-stroke-stroke / left). It’s how I learned to swim, so that’s what I do. In a race? I swim, breathing to the right mostly, but I switch sides when my neck feels tired or any of the above conditions start to occur. If you are comfortable switching up sides on race day only, then sure, why bilateral breathe. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.

In 2015, I was t-boned in a car accident which resulted in a neck injury. Also, now when I breathe to my right, I experience pain and numbness in my arm and hand for days. So, regular training with bilateral breathing is no longer what I do—but because I was a bilateral swimmer in training, I made the switch to being a left-side breather quite effortlessly.

The funny part? I found out that I swim faster breathing to the left than the right. Right had always been my default on race day. #whoknew

If you aren’t comfortable breathing to your “weak” side during simple training days, then you definitely won’t be able to pull it off on race day. The goal is to become proficient at switching up—that’s all.

In order to boost the bilateral proficiency, start with a few attempts at your non-dominant side every few workouts. Work up to swimming one length of the pool breathing left, and one length breathing right—rotate during the workout sets a few times. Then you can move up to three-stroke bilateral breathing for a portion of your workout (where it fits in your swim sets)—which is really a nice change of scenery in the pool.

Part of the battle for beginner triathletes is feeling confident going into a race with unknown conditions. Knowing you can handle any part of the swim conditions that could get crazy is a big confidence booster for beginners. Bilateral breathing is an additional layer of swim confidence.

So (absent injury, disability and the obvious reasons one might not be able to bilateral breathe), can we all agree at least that everyone who is capable of bilateral breathing should learn this simple skill in order to use it when needed?

[Now, we can all breathe again. ]

Meredith Atwood (@SwimBikeMom) is a recovering attorney, motivational speaker and author of Triathlon for the Every Woman. You can download a free copy of the book here. She is the host of the iTunes podcast, “The Same 24 Hours,” a show which interviews interesting people who make the best of the 24 hours in each day. Meredith lives in Atlanta with her husband and two children, and writes about all things at MeredithAtwood.com

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