In this post I am continuing to answer questions received about breathing problems. You may like to view Answers To Breathing Questions #1.

Breathing On The ‘Bad Side’

M from Netherlands was confessing how difficult it has been to use her weak side for breathing.

“For 7 years I have been mostly breathing only on my right side, being sure there is most definitely no oxygen on the left side… This year I am taking an other shot at trying to solve this.”

Why is breathing on that side so troubling, or even useless?

Obviously, I can’t tell what her problem is from here. But if we were working together we would systematically approach the search for it, rather than throw random suggestions at her.

First, let’s point out that the standard-equipped human body is structurally symmetrical, side to side (on each side of the sagital plane). We know, by this swimmer’s confession, that enough things are coming together to make breathing on the strong side work, and feel relatively comfortable. We can infer from this that something  that is present on the strong side is missing on the weak side.

Next, we want to catalog and organize all the features that go into that strong/easy breathing side, those things which make it work well.

Then we would work our way down that organized list, and observe each feature, one at a time, when she is breathing on the strong side, and then on her weak side. By looking at her breathing action on each side in a systematic way, comparing strong side to the weak side breathing, we stand a good chance of eventually finding something that is different between the two sides (there will likely be more than one). Then it is a matter of inserting or correcting that features on the weak side to make it function like it does on the strong side.

If you had that organized list of all the features, you could do this on your own. Yet, most people find it would go a lot faster with a coach holding the list and making the observations. I would likely be able to take a quick look and probably eliminate many things on the list right away, then zero in on a few features that are the most likely culprits.

Next, let’s look at the main areas where problem could be found:

  • in the foundation stroke skills, which must be present to support the easier breathing action
  • in the range of motion, stability and strength of each side of the body, and in the joints
  • in the positioning of certain body parts during the breathing action
  • in the timing of the breathing action
  • in the air management (how one performs the exhale and the inhale, tidal volume, rate, timing, location, breathing muscles involved, etc.)
  • in the refinement and strength of motor control *
  • in the psychology of breathing (both subconscious and conscious dimensions, in the psycho-somatic connection, etc.)

Side Dominance

I put a little * by the motor control one because I want to point out another obvious thing: most people have a dominant side and a non-dominant side. Try writing with your non-dominant hand, or throwing a ball. Try kicking a ball really far with your non-dominant foot. Some people can do many gross motor actions almost equally on both sides of the body, but very few can do fine motor actions equally on both sides. The breathing action in swimming is a precise balancing act with fine motor coordination of body parts, and both sides have to have the same level of control in order to feel equally comfortable. Even if the breathing action on both sides were indeed symmetrical and functioning the same, you would still probably feel like one side just feels easier than the other because one side of your body is dominant.

Persistence In Learning

There is more to be said on the developmental side. The earlier one starts using bi-lateral breathing in their swimming life, the easier it probably is to learn it before the brain develops a strong preference for one side. The later into one’s swimming life he starts, the more mentally difficult it may be to slow back down to into ‘new swimmer’ mode to map out those motor circuits on the weak side. Fortunately, humans have a choice in whether they are going to become the ‘old dog who can’t learn new tricks’ or not. One key to it is in the attitude and in the willingness to work on it persistently amidst the discomforts.

Some of the improvement in ease will simply come from making yourself breathe on that weak side more often, forcing your brain do what it subconsciously does to make difficult motor tasks easier. This will also make the discomfort of it more familiar, which in turn lowers that sense of discomfort. Right now, you might be using that weak side less than 5% of your time in the water. For the next month, you can set a goal of breathing on that weak side at least 10% of your practice distance. Then the next month aim for 20%. Then the next month 30%, and so on, up to 40 or 50%, until it is normal for you to use that side.  For example, you can work out the percentage by assigning every 4th length to be a weak side breathing length, or require yourself to take one or two weak side breaths on every lap.

Tissue Mobility

I have a swimmer (whom I described previously in One Stroke Technique For Everyone? Part 3, under the “Stiff Shoulder” section) who has been working to improve restriction in soft tissue mobility on one side of his body, in the shoulder and neck region. Though outwardly his execution of the breathing stroke and the breathing action was within range of what should result in ‘easy breathing’ he still was feeling tense, rushed, and inadequately refreshed when breathing on that side. Soft tissue mobility therapy has been one thing that has really helped make breathing on that side better for him.

Psycho-Somantic Resistance

There is also many things to explore in the psycho-somatic connection – it is possible that even though you have good technique on that weak side breathing, some part of the deep brain is still not confident that it’s going to find air on that side. If there is any long-held, negative emotional association to breathing on that weak side, it will more deeply imprint resistance to it. The anticipation of this danger can trigger a slight, or even a great mobilization (defensive) response in the body, with breathing shifting to thoracic, with muscles functioning stiffly all over the body, with motor control being distorted in subtle but detrimental ways. Outwardly, an observer might have a hard time noticing there was a difference in the two sides, but inwardly the swimmer can feel a huge difference in ease.

I sympathize with those of you who are frustrated by the breathing puzzle. It is truly a complex action – breathing action built upon stroke action – and we can’t do anything to change that reality. But a systematic approach to building up the underlying stroke skills, and then a systematic approach to learning the breathing action can break that complexity down into more manageable learning pieces. The people who figure this out on their own usually don’t come looking for help, or ask questions about it. But the rest do need help. If you are one of them then you may benefit from working with a more deeply skilled coach, and maybe even a therapist too, who can dig into these more internal areas where some of the roots to your breathing problems may be found and solved.

Please don’t give up hope! But if you’ve worked on this for a while and still haven’t cracked the code, know there is probably a lot more for you to explore in that puzzle than you realized at first.


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