Swimming is all about technique. The more efficient you are in the water (i.e. the less drag you produce) the faster you’ll go.
I’m not a natural swimmer. My long legs and shorter torso aren’t the ideal body type for swimming either. Nonetheless, I’ve focused a lot over the past couple years on improving my swim stroke. In fact, I devote at least one, and sometimes two or three, sessions per week to drills and technique depending on the time of year.
But of all the drills I have in my toolbox, there’s one change I made to my stroke about a year ago that’s resulted in the greatest improvements in efficiency and speed.
I used to be a unilateral breather. I would only breathe to one side when I swam. It was the most comfortable for me. I struggled to hold my breath for two strokes, so I couldn’t fathom doing it for three.
Unilateral breathing does have it’s benefits. If you look at many elite swimmers, many are unilateral breathers. The masterful team at Swim Smooth wrote about the topic in what should be required reading for any swimmer or triathlete.
Last year I hit a bit of a plateau with swimming. No matter what I did, I was stuck. I went back to basics. I reassessed my breathing pattern. Why? Because the major stroke flaw from unilateral breathing is an imbalance with body rotation and/or crossing the mid-line. For me, my body rotation needed help. It wasn’t symmetrical. I would rotate well to my dominant breathing side, but not the other. This created drag and decreased efficiency.
Though uncomfortable at first, I dedicated a couple weeks to ONLY bilateral breathing. It felt awkward at first. But after a short period of focus, I got over the “two-week bilateral hump,” as its called in Swim Smooth: the complete coaching system for swimmers and triathletes.
After a few months, bilateral breathing felt more and more natural. Now, it’s second nature. Sure I can breathe to one side if I wanted to (and either side now). This will come in handy in races if the sun is on one side, waves, buoys, or something else that might alter breathing pattern.
But, beyond more versatility, I’m a faster swimmer because I’m more balanced in the water. After implementing this one change to my stroke, I’ve since chopped 10 seconds from my 100 meter time. Over the course of an Olympic distance triathlon, we’re talking two and half minutes. That’s huge! And all for dedicating a little time to technique.