One of the most common questions from swimmers is whether they should use alternate-side, or bilateral, breathing. And the quick answer is yes, you should breathe to both sides. At least in practice. And on some occasions it can be an advantage while racing too.

The primary reason is that it promotes more symmetry in the stroke – i.e. whatever happens on one side of the body, happens the same way on the other side. Here’s a lesson I learned about muscle memory on my very first day of coaching in September 1972: It seemed that virtually my entire team at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, NY, had lopsided freestyle strokes, rolling more to one side and a wider recovery on the same side. The next day for warmup, I had them swim 800 yards breathing to the “wrong” side. Instantly, every stroke in the pool was more symmetrical and balanced—the “blank slate” effect. Lacking a history of practicing bad habits, each swimmer’s less-natural breathing side, though it probably felt awkward, was more efficient.

Virtually all swimmers breathe to one side most of the time. Trying to breathe to the other side feels awkward, so you just don’t do it. Who needs to feel even more awkward? The problem with breathing this way is that it tends, over time, to make your stroke lopsided and asymmetrical. And small wonder; in just an hour of swimming, you’ll probably roll to your breathing side about 1,000 times, meaning all your torso muscles pull more in that direction and less to the other side. Multiply that by hundreds of hours of swimming and you can see how a lopsided stroke can easily become permanent.

Why you should breathe bilaterally in training

Committing to breathe nearly as often on one side as the other in practice has two benefits:

1. Using your more efficient, “blank slate” side more frequently will help your stroke overall, including your regular breathing side.

2. You’ll have better command of a potential tactical racing advantage: In the pool you’ll never have a “blind” side, and in open water you can check for landmarks wherever they may be, or avoid chop, or keep a rough swimmer alongside from splashing water into your face as you breathe.

The best way to get all these benefits is to practice bilateral breathing, which can be done in any number of ways. Awkward? Yes, that’s how it feels at first to most everyone. But the awkwardness may be easier to deal with than you realize. All Total Immersion drills teach bilateral balance and rolling—and breathing—to both sides. Regular practice of these drills virtually guarantees your awkwardness will soon be a thing of the past.

Once it is, you can be endlessly creative in your bilateral breathing patterns. And you’ll want to be. While breathing every third armstroke may be the simplest, it also means you breathe onethird less often than when you’re breathing every cycle to one side. On top of that, when you develop a more efficient stroke, you will be getting still fewer breaths because you’ll be taking fewer strokes per lap, so you may feel winded. Time to become more imaginative with your bilateral breathing pattern. Here are just a few options (assuming a swimmer who normally breathes to the left):

1. Breathe to your right side on one length and to your left on the next. That way you still get plenty of air, but develop a balanced stroke.

2. Breathe to your right side in warmups, cooldowns, and slower swimming sets, and to your left on main sets.

3. Breathe to your right side during the first few repeats of main sets, then shift gradually to your left side. Example: On a set of 5 x 100, breathe right on the first 100, 75 right/25 left on the second, 50/50 on the third, 25 right/75 left on the fourth, and breathe left on the fifth 100.

4. Experiment with 3L/3R or 4L/4R until you find a comfortable pattern.

Your goal, over the course of any week of swimming, is to breathe about as often to one side as to the other.

What About Breathing in Races?

When it comes time to race, many swimmers feel they must stick with the breathing patterns they’ve established in practice. This theory is fine for open-water swimmers, who don’t experience the air-deprivation of flip turns and may benefit from settling into a comfortable pattern of bilateral breathing. Pool racers, and sprinters in particular, should take a more flexible approach. It’s a good idea to breathe as little as possible in a 50. But you can’t really “sprint” a 100, so it stands to reason that you need your air in order to produce the energy to swim it as fast as possible.

Sprinters have traditionally skipped breaths on the notion that every one makes you a bit slower. But if you can learn to breathe seamlessly, you’ll gain a big advantage late in the race over those who do need to skip getting air in order to be fast. By breathing every cycle (except inside the flags) during the first 50, you might lose a tenth or two to someone who is breathing every two or fewer cycles. But as they’re suffering on the final 50, you may gain back a full second.

Following that theory, sprinters can do two things:

1. Work constantly on developing a breathing form that doesn’t interrupt balance, alignment, or rhythm. How? Not by taking fewer breaths, but by breathing often, and nearly the same number of times on both sides. Use the “blank slate” you have on your “non-breathing” side to help correct errors that have developed over the years on your breathing side.

2. Do a lot of sprint work in practice with an every-cycle breathing pattern, so that you learn to breathe without sacrificing speed.

Here are a couple of breathing patterns to practice in training:

1. Swim 8 x 75. On each 75, breathe every 5 strokes on the first 25, every 3 strokes on the 2nd length and every stroke (right-left-right-left) on the last length. Swim at a moderate pace. Focus on fitting in each breath smoothly and seamlessly. This will be easy on the first two lengths, and more of a challenge on the third. But if you can stay smooth and fluid while breathing every stroke, then breathing every cycle with no interruption in your flow should be easy.

2. Swim 3 (or 4 or 5) x 200. On each 200, use the following breathing pattern.

-First 50: Breathe every 3 strokes.

-Second 50: Breathe twice on the right, then twice on the left.

-Third 50: Breathe 3 times on the right, then 3 times on the left.

-Fourth 50: 4 breaths on right, then 4 on the left.

This set allows you to practice a pure bilateral (same number of breaths on either side) pattern, but gives you more air the further you go into the set. Need more oxygen to maintain your pace and intensity as fatigue grows? You get more.

Excerpted from Swimming Made Easy. Read a free sample chapter at Order online at or by calling 1-800-609-7946.


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