Now that I'm pursuing open-water swimming as a sport, I find my single-sided approach to breathing has become a liability. I've been doing it in my open water swims because it comes naturally and also because it's easier for me to swim in a straight line that way. When I breathe on my left, my weak side, I actually start to turn in that direction. Swimming in circles is an excellent ability if you're stuck in a round pool, but it won't help me get from point A to point B in open water.
Thus, I've accepted swimming slower for however-long-it-takes, and forced myself to breathe on the left during many of my swim sets. Although it's beginning to feel more natural, I will know I've conquered it when I do it without thinking. I have moments of encouragement when I start a set of hard 50s automatically breathing on the left. After the first one or two, it becomes a chore, and I go back to automatic right-breathing, but a little progress is better than none at all.
The real significance of being able to breathe bilaterally became perfectly obvious to me yesterday, when, after a stressful morning, I decided what I really needed was a swim workout with NO stress.. no walls, no flip-turns, no lane-lines, no boundaries. As they say: be careful what you wish for.
I checked Lake Erie conditions (Ohio Nowcast) then drove up to the lake, and without a second thought, jumped in with my swim buoy in tow. There were other people swimming and conditions looked perfect (i.e., calm) to me. See?
Perfect, that is, until I actually got "out there." It was choppy -- not bad enough to make me stop swimming, but bad enough to make me wonder about how bad it was. People here always talk about Lake Erie and its changing conditions. "It doesn't take much to whip up the lake," they say. "It's the shallowest of the Great Lakes," they say. This all means something, but I've never been sure what.
All I know is I've raced in some very bad open water conditions, some so bad that races were cancelled mid-swim and swimmers drowned. And, Lake Erie yesterday was nothing like those conditions. But a little chop in Lake Erie is bad - for other reasons - reasons that make bilateral breathing so important.
Lake Erie chop follows no rules. There is no rhyme or reason (or more importantly, rhythm) to it.
I was reminded of a passage in one of my favorite books, The Outermost House by Henry Beston, that describes a unique wave pattern on the Atlantic coast of Cape Cod. Anyone (including me) who's ever watched or swam in those waters knows it. It's easier to catch waves or swim in waves when they have patterns like this. Lake Erie chop has no pattern which makes it nearly impossible to settle into any sort of breathing rhythm, especially swimming parallel to the shoreline. And the shoreline itself changes drastically from sandy beaches to sheer rock cliffs and back every few hundred yards, which also creates all sorts of conflicting wave patterns.
The whole time I was swimming parallel to the shoreline, all I could think about was the last time I swam in short chop - in Ironman Coeur d'Alene 2011. Even then, although I had to fight the waves, I was able to get my breathing in rhythm with the swells. In Lake Erie, I had no such luck. But I did discover that breathing toward the north (into the waves) was much more beneficial and I swallowed less water (contrary to what's described here even thought it's a very good article overall). When I tried to breathe toward the shoreline, facing south, waves would break over my head and engulf me and I couldn't get air, but when I breathed on the low end of the swell, facing north, I had no problem.
I stuck it out for 1.5 hours and managed a dismal 2.5 miles, but I was exhausted from the fight. And I learned, first-hand, that in addition to training in rough conditions, I need to keep training myself to bilateral breathe because no one knows what will happen during extended open-water swimming. Even if everything looks calm on the beach that day.
The video below is what it looked like when I got out. I've been told the rule-of-thumb is don't swim if you see white-caps off-shore.