5 Tips for Breathing Every Two Effectively and the Breathing Patterns of 5 Olympians

Contributor Josh Davis is a 5-time Olympic medalist and the Manager Partner the Mutual of Omaha BREAKout Swim Clinics. 

What’s the most important ingredient to an athlete’s success? Endurance, Strength, Mental Toughness, Nutrition, Experience? Surely it’s technique, right?


It’s none of those things. The most important ingredient is air!

In every event, other than the 50 free, the most critical ingredient to finishing well is breathing air! Even the demi-gods descended from Poseidon like Phelps, Ledecky, Adrian, Franklin, Yang and Lezak, have to breath air.

I find it interesting that a lot of swimmers do breathing patterns different from what the World and American record holders do.

I have been studying and competing in elite swimming for almost 30 years now, and my experience is that for the 100 and up, just about everybody that’s really fast breathes every two strokes. Breathing every “2” is the pattern of winners. Now, there is some variations when it comes to the 100, but for the 200 and up I would propose that every 2 is the way of winners.

Obviously, each swimmer has to do what they and their coach have agreed upon and what’s best for that swimmer. And you may or may not want to change a breathing habit in these last few weeks of the championship season, and then again maybe you should. I leave it to you to find what gives you the most energy over the course of the race while minimizing drag. (But if I ever get to race you in the 200 free, I hope you breathe every 3 or 5. As for me, I’ll be breathing every 2!)

5 Tips for breathing every two effectively

1. See the black line.

When you’re not breathing, have a neutral head position in line with spine. Basically, you are looking down at the black line. This takes a lot of self control and pool awareness for young swimmers but you have to do it.

2. Sneak the breath.

Turn the head as naturally and quickly and early as possible in the stroke cycle. Make the sneaky breath a natural extension of the shoulder/torso rotation. Don’t let the next arm stroke run into your face.

3. Submerge half your head.

Try and keep half your face in the water and sneak a breath with your bow wave. The faster you go, the bigger the bow wave, the less you have to turn your head. Nathan Adrian is one of the best I know at this, you can barely tell he’s breathing its so quick and low.

4. Shoot air out your nose.

Blow the CO2 out better when you’re looking down to create a nice vacuum in your lungs to receive the new breath better.

5. Surge to the wall!

Enjoy the extra oxygen and energy you will have the last quarter of the race!

I surveyed some of our top freestylers in the USA and below is their answers. Feel free to contribute your thoughts on breathing patterns.

Survey results:

1. For 100 free and up, do you breathe every 2, 3 or 4 strokes?

Nathan Adrian: Every 2 strokes (or 1 cycle) after not breathing the first cycle off the wall.

Michael Andrew: I breathe every 2 strokes.

Josh Davis: I breathe every 2. In the 100 I usually try and take 4 strokes off start and 2 strokes off turns. In the 200 and up I breathe every 2 and right off the walls.

Anthony Ervin: 2

Jimmy Feigen: Breathing patter is every 4 on the way down then 4-2-4-2-4-4

Dax Hill: On the 100 I breathe every 2 during the middle 50. First lap I typically take 2 breaths. Last lap is the Horns breathing pattern: breath on the second stroke, breath again on the second, breath on the fourth, finish the race no breather.

Jason Lezak: 2

Derek Toomey: I breathe every 4 for the 100, and IF/when I swim anything over a 100 I breathe every 2

Mark Weber: Every 2 and every 4. It changes during the course of the race.

Garrett Weber-Gale: I breathe 4-2 in a race, only to my left side.

2. What breathing pattern do you use most in practice?

Adrian: Every 2 strokes (1 cycle)

Andrew: 2, same as when I race

Davis: I will breathe every 2 to my left in warm up and every 2 to my right in race pace

Ervin: 3 and 2

Feigen: 2 and 4

Hill: I use breathing every 2 in practice

Lezak: 2

Toomey: Unless I am swimming all out sprint, I breathe every 2 strokes. During sprints I do not breathe in 25’s, and breathe every 4 on 50’s/75’s

Weber: Breathing every 2.

Weber-Gale: In training I breathe every three.

3. Did your first coaches or current coaches promote a certain breathing pattern? And did that help?

Adrian: Nothing in particular. Bottom and Durden helped me develop my quick breath.

Andrew: We have practiced alternate breathing so I am comfortable breathing both sides. Although now I choose to breathe to my right.

Davis: My coaches let me breath whatever was comfortable for me.

Ervin: not really

Feigen: I found the breathing pattern that worked for me and practiced it a lot

Hill: My first coaches promoted breathing every 3 to develop a more even rotation but I hated it. But it did inspire me to find a way to become more even while breathing every 2.

Lezak: When I was younger they wanted me to breathe every 3. Then later on every 4. Nope I’m best with every 2

Toomey: Not much. Most of my coaches never gave insight on my breathing pattern. I just learned what worked well with me and my racing/training.

Weber: I have never been encouraged to take one breathing pattern over another. It has always been important to do some bilateral breathing to balance out the stroke, but nothing specific has been encouraged.

Weber-Gale: Jack Nelson, when I swam for him as a kid, he always got me to breathe every five or seven. After a while it actually becomes easy. When I was swimming for Randy, and for a long time in my Texas career, I would only take three breaths per 25 throughout practice, three strokes off the wall, then one breath, then breathe every three…worked out to three breaths per 25.

4. And last one, how many breaths do you take in the 50 free?

Adrian: 0

Andrew: 1

Davis: 1

Ervin: 0

Feigen: 0

Hill: Zero breaths for the 50 short course. One in long course.

Lezak: 1 or 2

Toomey: I do not breathe in the 50 free, it’s not THAT long of a race!

Weber: 0!!!

Weber-Gale: 0

In addition, below is some of my favorite freestyle swims/swimmers who breath every two:

Simone Manual American Record 100yd free :46.6

Abby Wetzel American Record 100yd free :46.2

Jack Conger 4:13.87 500yd free national high school record 2013

Nathan Adrian :47.51 100m free Gold in London 2012. Best I’ve ever seen of sneaky breathing every 2!!

Mike McBroom sets American Record 800m free 7:43.60 This one is fun because Jaeger, Yang and McBroom all breath every 2 to the right.

Kieren Perkins 400m free 3:43.8 I was there and it was amazing. I watched this on my VHS tape for inspiration for years. Over 20 years later his time is still awesome. His aggressiveness and dominance is similar to Ladecky.

Grant Hackett vs Ian Thorpe 800m free 7:41.59 in 2001. Two Titans going head to head…Thorpe the WR in 400 vs Hackett the WR in 1500 meeting in the middle for the 800. Whoever wins gets the World Record…you’ll just have to watch to find out who wins. But they both breath every 2 the whole way.

Pieter van den Hoogenband’s 100m free :47.84 Sydney 2000, first man to break :48 flat start. I watched this one with my own two eyes and it looked effortless. Also interesting is that he is the smallest man in the heat and takes down two of my favorite Olympic Village roommates, Neil Walker and Gary Hall, Jr. Peter is such a nice guy it was ok.

Michael Phelps 200m free 1:42.96 Gold Beijing 2008 Olympic & World Record. I once asked Phelps when we were doing a kick set together what his all time favorite Olympic race was. I was pleasantly surprised when he said this 200 free in Beijing because he felt so in control, powerful and one with the water. It was one of his most perfect, enjoyable and satisfying swims of his life. And, of course, he breaths every 2. It really is beautiful.

Any of the dozen Katie Ledecky Age-Group, American and World Records in the last 3 years!! In this 400m free WR swim from 2014 Pan Pacs you get some good underwater angles of her sneaky breathing every 2.

And my all time favorite breathing every 2 swim…”The Anchor”.
Jason Lezak anchoring the 4x100m Free Relay to a World Record, Gold Medal and the fastest split ever by a human :46.0.

Are you going to breath like the best or stick to something else? Tell us your thoughts about breathing patterns.

About Josh Davis

Josh Davis USMS Nationals by Mike LewisJosh Davis was the first American to go 1:46 in the 200m free at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. He just recently broke his own Masters American Record in the 40-45 age group going :20.6 He has been leading the Mutual Of Omaha BREAKout! Swim Clinic Tour for 8 years to challenge the next generation of swimmers to work harder, swim smarter and have more fun. Josh is a proud 2 breather and he will race anybody, anytime, anyplace.

2000 Olympics
Silver 400m freestyle relay
Silver 800m freestyle relay

Josh Davis1996 Olympics
Gold 400m freestyle relay
Gold 800m freestyle relay
Gold 400m medley relay

Follow Josh Davis on Twitter here.

Fan the Mutual of Omaha BREAKOUT Swim Clinic on Facebook here.

Mutual of Omaha BREAKOUT Swim Clinic HQ.

Become the Ultimate Swimmer. See here.

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8 years ago

I agree with the hypothesis put forward by Mr. Davis. But in the article, there should be a better explaination as to why breathing every two strokes is better as well as the counterargument that this way of swimming causes too much resistance. Also- some history as to changes in breathing patterns by elite swimmers and why. For example, swimmers used to be taught to breathe on both sides to balance the stroke and breathe less frequently as it was thought that too much head turning can slow you down. Also- explain, if breathing every two is so great, why don’t swimmers use that pattern for the 50. In sum, overall good point and surveying of swimmers, but not the… Read more »

Reply to  easyspeed
8 years ago

50 Free- no oxygen required. Breathe = wasted motion

100+ Fr- oxygen necessary, crutial… so breathing oxygen > higher, more consistent rate.

Reply to  Hulk Swim
8 years ago

Um, I’m pretty sure you need oxygen to do a 50 free…. I know what you mean tho. But to play Devil’s Advocate, why not swim the 50 with more frequent breathing? And I’m not completely convinced taking breaths results in loss of speed. Not to nit pick too much, but this topic has been interesting to me and I’m sure others. There was a good article on this site not too long ago re:”hypoxic” breathing in practice. It has more reasoning behind the conclusions. Perhaps J Davis could elaborate more or we could get more opinions on this. As far as history, off the top of my head I remember Brooke Bennett with a bilateral 3 pattern for the… Read more »

Andy Astfalck
8 years ago

Thanks Josh, you should add the Sun Yen’s 1500m world record swim, he breathes every stroke for 5 strokes leading into the wall, then 3 strokes out afterwards.

8 years ago

I think Ledecky breathes every stroke

Reply to  Ervin
8 years ago


Becky D
8 years ago

So many have been taught to breathe every 3 in order to “balance out the stroke.” This morning I had a beginner masters swimmer switch from 3 to 2. Instead of balancing out his stroke, breathing every 3 was masking a cross-over midway through his stroke. Breathing every 2 suddenly made him aware of what he was doing.

8 years ago


Why the difference in warm-up versus race pace? I’m assuming Davis is you? 🙂

Nice article. We discussed it this morning in practice


8 years ago

I’d be curious what the thoughts of the above swimmers are on breathing off the turn. Some said it…others didnt.

8 years ago

Great article. Informative and insightful. Thanks for taking the time to share.

8 years ago

Great post! The Ledecky video is private though.