Knowing Your A-Side and B-Side – Is bilateral breathing best for balance?

It’s a popular assumption that bilateral breathing in front crawl is a good thing, for ‘a balanced stroke’.  If we were all capable of perfect balance and symmetry, this would be true. But determination to breathe on both sides may cause unnecessary stress.

It isn’t always easy to tell what’s happening with the head, neck and back in your swim, or during any physical activity. Getting the knack of bilateral breathing, at least in some kind of fashion, is quite straightforward. But when you examine closely what’s actually happening, turning to breathe on your ‘B-side’ may be causing musculoskeletal distortion and, on a deeper level, turbulence in your nervous system. That’s if you have an ‘A side’ and a ‘B side’. And most people do.

Some people are more one-sided than others. But if you get someone to observe you practising a balanced breathing position – One arm extended/ back of your head resting in water/ crown of head pointing where you want to go/ body rotated/ shoulders open/ kicking towards the wall, not the floor (see video)  – it’s likely that the direction of your head will be significantly better on one side than the other. On your good side, your neck is more likely to be free and the crown of your head, pointing where you want to go. Your forward arm will be more relaxed.

Try breaking your stroke down and focus on maintaining a balanced breathing position for a few kicks. Do you find that one side is significantly different from the other? This is telling you something. Differences that you see now, between one side and the other, will definitely be happening when you swim lengths breathing bilaterally.

I sometimes think the insistence from teachers and coaches, that front crawl swimmers should breathe on both sides, comes from the same kind of reasoning that caused Victorian teachers to cane the palms of left-handed pupils.  Anyone can learn bilateral breathing. But you can’t bully yourself into symmetry.

The greater the extent of your one-sidedness, the more stressful bilateral breathing is likely to be.  You have to work out for yourself whether, and how strongly, you are one-sided. Then you can decide for yourself if you want to swim front crawl with bilateral breathing or not.   But if you’re one-sided, breathing bilaterally won’t make you more balanced. It won’t change the tendency. I’ve been working on this for 25 years, in and out of water, and my one-sided tendency hasn’t changed one bit. I can breathe bilaterally without any sense of difficulty at the time. But I might get a headache later in the day.  

So it’s worth establishing your A-side and B-side but bear in mind that if you have a preferred side, you probably always will. If you’re much happier breathing to one side, try breathing every 4 strokes as every 2 can feel like too often. But don’t feel you have to breathe bilaterally in the name of balance and symmetry. It doesn’t work like that.

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