Bilateral “Valkyrie” breathing in freestyle swimming

I recently decided to go back to swimming laps after at least two decades of not doing it. I'm slowly getting a bit more in shape. I swim mostly freestyle (a.k.a. the crawl).

Along the way, I read about something I never considered before in the freestyle stroke: bilateral breathing. This is simply a way to develop a stroke rhythm in which you breath the same number of times on each side.

Note that in many other strokes (e.g., breast stroke, butterfly, backstroke), the issue doesn't arise because you breath in the center; in other strokes (e.g., sidestroke), it also doesn't arise because the entire body is in an asymmetric configuration. But in freestyle, the body is in a perfectly symmetric configuration, it's just that I had always been taught to breath on one side.

In my old stroke, I used three kicks per arm stroke, creating a cycle of six kicks/two arms/one breath. This is a very standard freestyle stroke.

In the new stroke, there are still three kicks per arm, but now there is a breath on every third arm stroke, resulting in a cycle of eighteen kicks/six arms/two breaths. I found this a little hard to visualize.

Something that helped me immensely in visualizing how this works is the animation on the main page of Swim Smooth, who sell an iOS app designed to help people do exactly that: visualize the bilateral breathing freestyle stroke.

As I observed this animation, I started thinking about it as a movement pattern, which made my background in choreography and music kick in. I realized that in fact, this was simply a pattern in 9/8 time, also known as “compound triple time”. The arm stroke rhythm would be represented by the main beats (one, two, three) while the kicks would be the three eighth notes per beat (one and uh, two and uh, three and uh). Breathing would occur on the down beat (beat one) of each measure; that is, it would take two 9/8 measures (six counts) for the entire pattern.

Well, when it comes to counting out a movement pattern, there is nothing better than music that fits the pattern. In this case, music in 9/8 time. This is a fairly unusual meter, but it certainly does exist.

The best example I could find was the famous theme to Wagner's The Ride of the Valkyries. Listen to it here (there is some introductory material before the theme is played by the horns). This famous melody conforms perfectly to the bilateral freestyle.

This morning, I tried it out at the pool. It worked perfectly. I was able to swim a fairly smooth, rhythmic bilateral crawl while “playing” the Valkyrie theme in my head, taking a breath on each downbeat (and therefore on every third arm stroke and every ninth kick).

I think this little trick could be used to good advantage by others to learn patterns of movement that have a regular rhythmic structure, and I certainly recommend that it be used by swimmers wanting to learn bilateral breathing. It also helps to see the movement while mentally playing the melody, and for this, the animation I mentioned above was very helpful (their app turns out to be even better, since it allows the stroke to be seen from different angles).

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