Breathing is one of the first things you learn in swimming. After all, humans can’t breathe underwater! When done correctly, proper breath timing and technique allows an athlete to swim efficiently and perform at their best.
You’ve probably heard about two ways of breathing in triathlon swimming: Single Side Breathing, and Bilateral Breathing. These breathing patterns have their own advantages and disadvantages, so let’s break them down so you know when and why to use each one.
When we say bilateral breathing, this doesn’t necessarily mean breathing every three arm strokes; it can be breathing every five as well. This can also mean breathing to one side while going down the length of the pool, then switching to breathe to the other side coming back. The point is to develop the ability to breathe on both sides of your body.
Bilateral breathing is taught to novice swimmers for good reason. Every swimmer has a dominant side that they instinctively go to breathe. Beginners risk overcompensating to follow this instinct (by rotating too much, and/or lifting their head to breathe), which can disrupt rhythm and timing and also cause you to veer to the side instead of swimming in a straight line. When you’re able to breathe to both your left and right sides, your stroke becomes more symmetrical and you’ll also swim straighter.
In open water swimming, being able to breathe on both sides confers another advantage: you’re able to see what’s happening on each side which will help when sighting and trying to swim from buoy to buoy. Also, if there’s chop coming from one side, you’ll still be able to breathe to the other, protected side.
Now you might have seen some race videos where the pros are breathing every three strokes. Notice when this happens: it’s usually when they’re swimming at a constant pace just chugging along; breathing every three strokes allows them to keep swimming straight without lifting their heads to sight forward. But when they pick up the pace you’ll find they switch to breathing every other stroke. That’s because this provides oxygen supply more frequently which allows your muscles to work harder.
Note that breathing every three strokes requires a bit more processing and coordination from your brain to accomplish, since you’re alternating the sides you’re breathing on; for this reason we recommend a lot of practice before doing this in a race, if ever.
Single-side breathing comes naturally since you’re not fighting your instincts and dominant side in the water. This is why beginners pick it up easily. Instead of forcing your brain to learn to breathe on both sides, doing it only on one side allows your brain and muscles to master the coordination needed to do it much faster. Additionally as noted above, single-side breathing allows you more chances to take in oxygen since you’re breathing every two strokes instead of at least every three.
However, when you breathe exclusively to one side you can miss out on the advantages we’ve outlined in the section above: a more symmetrical stroke, open water sighting capability, and breathing adaptability.
If you’re used to breathing only to your dominant side, you can build the ability to breathe to both sides by incorporating breathing drills in your warm-up, cool down, and during recovery laps. Our MX Endurance training plans and video library include swim sessions with these built in.
When it comes to breathing, it’s a matter of “horses for courses”: use the breathing pattern that will best suit what you are trying to accomplish.