Why Swimmers Should Breathe Bilaterally at Practice

by Olivier Poirier-Leroy. Join his weekly motivational newsletter for swimmers by clicking here.

If you are like most swimmers you have a dominant side to which you breathe when swimming freestyle. Like a favorite blankey it’s always there for you, nice and strong, to carry you through those tough sets and races.

Leaning on a strong side over the course of a swimming career opens up a wide spectrum of problems, however.

It makes us dependent on that one side, makes us feel like we are losing momentum and rhythm when we breathe to our soft side, and can lead to a variety of technical errors and injuries.

Even though almost every elite swimmer on the planet breathes every two strokes from 100m and up during competition, here are 7 reasons to make bilateral breathing a staple in your training:

1. It gives you better rhythm.

As a reformed distance swimmer I leaned on bilateral breathing to help get me through those long reps and sets. Especially when swimming long course.

When I got into a nice bilateral groove my body position was higher in the water (less likely to have a sagging elbow during the catch on my soft side) and I was better able to maintain momentum from push-off to flip-turn.

However, it did nothing to resolve the sometimes awful songs I had in my head over the course of those long sessions in the pool (“Mamba #5”, I will forever despise you).

2. It evens out body roll.

Ever notice that you reach further with your hand entry on your dominant side? When you take a breath your body rotates along the spine of your axis. Matching this exact body roll on your non-dominant side is almost impossible without breathing to the other side.

Breathing bilaterally will not only give you a better sense of how to roll with your non-dominant side, it will also develop a more symmetrical stroke.

3. It lessens muscular imbalances.

Breathing to the same side is a bit of self-fulfilling prophecy—because we are comfortable turning our head to our strong side, we continue doing so because we view the other side as weak, or it breaks our rhythm, or just feels straight up weird.

When you do hundreds and thousands of laps breathing to one side you are inevitably going to develop some serious muscle imbalances.

The brutal catch-22 that happens here is that when you try to do heavy work with your weak arm you’ve primed it for risk of injury, while also overloading your strong arm with a brunt of the work.

4. It can be a strategic advantage during races.

When your competition is to your right, but your strong breathing side is to the left, you are at a bit of a loss to see exactly where they are at.

One of my favorite things to do as an up-and-coming age grouper was lock eyes with swimmers next to me. It’s in those moments that your competitive fire can give you a much needed boost. More often than not competing swimmers would get demoralized by this.

By training to be comfortable breathing to both sides you can look in any direction you want when it comes to race time and not be cornered into only breathing to one side.

5. You’ll swim straighter.

Pool swimmers have the benefit of the black line to keep them swimming in a straight line. But for swimmers who train and compete in open water the ability to be able to swim straight without having to pick your head up every 5 strokes to make sure you are swimming in a straight line is profoundly helpful.

When swimming in tossing waters this also means that you can breathe to the side that the ocean isn’t crashing into your mouth.

6. It cuts down on several technique errors.

Bilateral breathing isn’t a technique cure-all, but it can help reduce the incidences of a cross-over hand entry, not swimming straight, and as mentioned previously, insufficient body roll.

Commonly I see swimmers who favor a side have a soft catch on their weak arm because there isn’t enough rotation to give them the angle necessary for their arm to have a high elbow catch.

7. Teaches you breath control.

Swimmers breathe every two strokes because it closely matches your natural in-and-out breathing cycle. Which means that going to every three arm strokes requires a little bit of breath management.

Swimmers need to be able to manage their oxygen intake lest they want to find themselves gasping for air through a straw when they need max effort and max oxygen.

The Takeaways

If you are vehemently opposed to breathing bilaterally, there is some good news…

You don’t need to breathe every 3 strokes to balance things out.

One simple way to make sure that you are breathing to both sides, but breathing every two strokes, is to pick one side of the pool and face that direction every time you breathe. Whether going up or down the pool you always face the same side.

In sum…

  • Bilateral breathing should be performed during training, especially during long, slow aerobic work to even out stroke and muscle imbalances. Pull sets in particular should be always done bilaterally.
  • If you want to balance out your stroke, but have no interest in bilateral breathing, train with a swimmer’s snorkel. This way you get all the rotation, and you can basically breathe as much as you want.
  • Being able to proficiently breathe to both sides means that you can see where the competition is, and for you open water swimmers, avoid the side where you are likely to get a wave to the mouth.

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Steve Nolan

*Mambo #5

When I’ve got a group of kids that don’t often bilaterally breathe, I like having them breathe towards a certain side of the pool. That way they’ll always breathe towards the side I’m standing on and it makes it super obvious if they’re not.


Several of my swimmers know this as the 11th Commandment: Thou shalt bilateral breath!

Gary P

All good points. It all goes out the window, however, when you keep inhaling the bow wave off your lane mates when you try to breathe to the left. Survival instinct turns a lot of swimmers into right side breathers.

About Olivier Poirier-Leroy

Olivier Poirier-Leroy

Olivier Poirier-Leroy has been involved in competitive swimming for most of his life. Starting off at the age of 6 he was thrown in the water at the local pool for swim lessons and since then has never wanted to get out. A nationally top ranked age grouper as both a …

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