October 18, 2016

The Importance of Bilateral Breathing

I often watch swimmers as I’m standing on the deck at the pool. I’m watching to see how fluid their stroke is depending on how they have been conditioned to breathe in the water. The decision as to whether to train swimmers using bilateral breathing or one side breathing is often debated. I happen to be in the camp that how you breathe during a stroke depends on what you’re training to accomplish.

There are three types of breathing:

Unilateral – every stroke on the same side
Bilateral – typically every 3rd or 5th stroke so that you alternate sides
Hybrid – breathing on the same side for a few strokes, breathing after a 3rd stroke and then breathing a few strokes on the opposite side, repeat continuing to alternate sides (2:3 ratio)


I stand strongly on the side of bilateral breathing for a couple reasons. First, breathing on only one side of the body can cause you to develop the muscles on that side of the body more than the non-dominant side. The goal in any sport should always be to develop muscles evenly and bilateral breathing allows you to use the lats on both side of your body.

Second, when I see swimmers who don’t bilaterally breathe, I often observe an uneven stroke. They actually look lopsided in the pool. They favor one specific side of the body, so the stroke on the non-dominant side is not as strong. I will go so far as to say that some swimmers almost look like they are flailing on the weaker side.

Third, if a swimmer ever decides to swim somewhere other than a pool with lane lines, they won’t be able to observe 50% of their environment. As a triathlete, it’s imperative to bilateral breathe in open water. It becomes very inefficient if you have to stop every 3-4 strokes to figure out where you are and if you’ve gotten off course. This is especially true if you breathe only on your right side since the buoys are often on your left side.

All that said, the bottom line is that when you swim you need air. How much air is strongly correlated to your swimming fitness. You may require more air than the person in the lane beside you. So, while you may need to breathe unilaterally while you build your fitness, the person next to you may be able to sustain a longer swim using a bilateral approach. Each swimmer is different and what works for one may not work for the other.

If you’re already a bilateral breather, kudos! Keep up the great work. If you’re not, I strongly encourage you to practice some drills so that you have this skill set in your back pocket. It is especially helpful during an open water swim when the sun is in your face, the swimmer next to you is thrashing water into your breathing space and when you need to sight those buoys.

Add these drills into your regular workout for practice:

  • Using a pull buoy, practice swimming your warmup breathing only on your non-dominant side.
  • Do a set where you breathe on your right side for 25m then breathe only on your left side for 25m. Repeat for 200m.
  • Do catch up drills, alternating sides. Start by breathing with each stroke while alternating sides and work up to a cadence of three strokes on each before taking a breath.
  • Since bilateral breathing requires a count of odd numbers, try using a pull buoy and breathing every 3rd or 5th stroke until you find the pattern that works for you. Continue this drill for 100m and work your way up to drills of 200m until you can comfortably swim using bilateral breathing.


I’d love to hear how your swimming improves or has improved using bilateral breathing techniques.

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23 Comments on “The Importance of Bilateral Breathing

October 18, 2016 at 1:45 pm

I’ve tried the first one, buoy with no dominant side… I always feel like I’m about to drown haha
Carmy recently posted…What’s in my Travel Bag (Montréal)My Profile

Cassandra @ Powered By BLING
October 19, 2016 at 9:42 pm

Please don’t do that! LOL The buoy does take some getting used to, but it is a great upper body workout pulling yourself through the water.

GiGi Eats
October 18, 2016 at 7:29 pm

I am terrified of water. Thus I am terrified of swimming. I get tiny panic attacks when I am near it too. It stems from my childhood. Ha! Long story!
GiGi Eats recently posted…Fixate On This RecipeMy Profile

Cassandra @ Powered By BLING
October 19, 2016 at 9:41 pm

My mother is the same way. Bad childhood experience. Hope my post didn’t cause one of those panic attacks HaHa!

dixya @food, pleasure, and health
October 18, 2016 at 9:13 pm

i need to learn how to properly ‘swim’..while m not afraid of water generally, i just dont find it exciting for me except for the lounging in the pool part 😛

Cassandra @ Powered By BLING
October 19, 2016 at 9:40 pm

LOL, lounging in the pool is great! Swimming laps are my version of yoga. It’s so relaxing to me. If you have the opportunity, take a few private lessons. You may fall in love with it.

October 18, 2016 at 10:04 pm

I know nothing about swimming, so this is all intriguing to me. I would love to run a tri some day!

Cassandra @ Powered By BLING
October 19, 2016 at 10:11 am

Check with your local YMCA (shameless plug as I moonlight as the Swim Team Coordinator for our Y). You can do some private sessions pretty inexpensively. Without alot of swimming experience, I would suggest doing a pool tri before doing an open water tri. Open water is completely different from pool swimming. You can do this! I’m always here if you have questions. Shoot me an email happy to help!

Kathryn @ Dancing to Running
October 18, 2016 at 10:08 pm

I’m so terrified of losing my contacts, so its rare that I’ll put my head under water. I really need to get over that fear and just put some goggles on my face.

Cassandra @ Powered By BLING
October 19, 2016 at 10:07 am

I wear contacts too. I never go in the pool or ocean without goggles because I have the same fear of losing my contacts.

Abbey Sharp
October 18, 2016 at 10:46 pm

Very interesting article, great to know!
Abbey Sharp recently posted…The 20 Best Healthy Pumpkin RecipesMy Profile

October 19, 2016 at 10:12 am

I really need to incorporate more swimming into my weekly routine. So good for your overall fitness!
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Cassandra @ Powered By BLING
October 19, 2016 at 9:38 pm

Absolutely, Ilka! Swimming is my yoga. It just takes all the stress of the day right out of my body and I feel so refreshing when I finish that workout. Swimming also helps your running. Doing laps help build endurance and deep water jogging is a stress free way to get a leg workout in especially if you’re nursing an injury.

October 19, 2016 at 2:33 pm

Um, I don’t even swim like this. I need to…our aquatics director is constantly on me to get in the pool. Gah!
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Cassandra @ Powered By BLING
October 19, 2016 at 9:37 pm

Sounds like an Aquatics Director LOL

October 19, 2016 at 2:34 pm

I learned how to swim at an early age, thankfully I went to a summer swim gym where they did teach you the correct way to swim and the strokes, we had swim meets there. That was a long time ago, I do remember how to swim but I’m afraid it would be a far cry from being competitive. If I was to think about a tri, the swim part would be the most challenging part. 🙂

Cassandra @ Powered By BLING
October 19, 2016 at 9:36 pm

Swim is the most challenging part for a good number of people. It’s the only one of the three sports you can’t stop without grave consequences. I often get asked alot to be the swimmer in relays because no one wants to do the swim.

October 19, 2016 at 3:45 pm

I have never really thought about my breathing style before. Such a great tip for improving swimming! Thanks!

Cassandra @ Powered By BLING
October 19, 2016 at 9:35 pm

Hope this tip helped you consider making bilateral part of your training.

Lauren @ Lauren Runs
October 19, 2016 at 8:51 pm

I love these tips! I can certainly echo the “outside of the pool” reason to learn to breathe bilaterally. As a triathlete, there might be waves coming at you from either side depending on the swim course. Being able to breathe to either side allows you to not only see the course, but you can time or focus your breaths to the side with fewer waves into your face. If you can’t breathe both ways, it’s harder to be able to handle the waves coming toward your dominant breathing side!
Lauren @ Lauren Runs recently posted…What’s in My Gym Bag: Swim EditionMy Profile

Cassandra @ Powered By BLING
October 19, 2016 at 9:33 pm

I think we’ve all had to eat a wave or two which is even more encouragement to bilaterally breath!

Montana @ Pretty Lil Mudder
October 20, 2016 at 1:50 pm

This will definitely be something I come back to when I get better at swimming! Right now I just learned how to do freestyle and I breathe on my right side. But eventually I do want to learn how to breathe bilaterally.
Montana @ Pretty Lil Mudder recently posted…Goals to Finish Up 2016 (TOTR)My Profile

Cassandra @ Powered By BLING
October 21, 2016 at 9:12 am

Good job learning to swim, Montana! I was a right side breather for years. Once you get comfortable, you can start adding some drills in to your workouts to help bilateral breathing become natural. Are you thinking of doing your first triathlon??? I know you’re our resident tough mudder!


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