Bilateral Breathing

Balancing out your stroke is one of the benefits of bilateral breathing.
One of the most common questions in the swimming world is should you breathe on one side only or use bilateral breathing?

Throughout my swimming career, I had always breathed to my right side only. Why? Because breathing on my left side felt awkward and uncomfortable. Last year I had an experience that made me change my ways. I was getting a massage and my therapist noted that my left lat muscles (back) were much more developed than my right.

Putting two and two together, I realized that years of right side only breathing in the pool had caused me to use these muscles on my left side far more than my right as I was balancing with my left arm while sucking air into my lungs.

The answer to the opening question is yes, you should use bilateral (or alternate-side) breathing, if youre not already. The main reason is that it will balance out your stroke (as well as create symmetry in your back musculature!).

Equal Rights and Lefts

The problem with breathing to one side only is that it can make your stroke lopsided. In a one-hour workout, you may roll to your breathing side 1,000 times. A lopsided stroke can become permanent in a hurry after practicing this for a while.

The benefits to breathing nearly as often to one side as the other are that using your "weak" side more frequently will help your stroke overall, and you'll lose your "blind" side. If you're an open water swimmer, the later benefit will help you check for landmarks, avoid chop or keep another rough swimmer from splashing water in your face (or punching you in the nose!) as you breathe.

The way to obtain these benefits is to practice bilateral breathing as much as possible. Often in my evening group I will have swimmers breathe every three or five strokes as part of a drill or warm-down. But by no means should this practice be limited to drill sets or long warm-downs. It will feel awkward at first, sure, but that's easier to deal with than you may think. Regular practice of rolling to both sides to breathe will remedy this before you know it.

Some tips on how to practice bilateral breathing while keeping it interesting:

  • Breathe to your right side on one length and to your left on the next. That way you get the oxygen you need, but still develop a symmetrical stroke.

  • Breathe to your weaker side on warm-ups, warm-downs, and slow swimming sets.

  • Experiment with three left, three right or four left, four right until you find a comfortable pattern.

Keep in mind each week the goal of breathing about the same amount to one side as the other over the course of any week of swimming. Most of all enjoy your swim, and don't get too hung up on being exact!


Kevin operates the website www.TriSwimCoach.com, a resource for beginning through intermediate level triathletes looking for help with swimming. The site features a free email newsletter offering tips and articles on triathlon swimming. Kevin has also written an electronic book titled The Complete Guide to Triathlon Swimming which is sold on his website in downloadable form.

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