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by Megan Lassen

November 12, 2018

Side-breathing butterfly may be an option if traditional fly isn’t working for you

The strength and precise timing butterfly requires might make it the most difficult stroke to master, especially for Masters swimmers who are learning how to swim later in life. Masters swimmers have a range of abilities, ages, and body types, and sometimes injuries to overcome, any of which might keep them from performing the same fly drills and techniques that come naturally to a younger swimmer.

Neck, shoulder, and spinal injuries and core weakness can contribute to two interconnected problems that many new butterflyers experience: improper undulation (too much or too little) and poor breath timing.

One of my favorite workarounds for Masters swimmers with these issues is teaching them to breathe to the side during fly. It might look unusual, but it works. I do it, and so do elite swimmers who have reached the pinnacle of the sport. Mel Stewart breathed to the side en route to his gold medal in the 200-meter butterfly at the 1992 Olympics.

What Side-Breathing Fly Should Look Like

Side-breathing in fly is similar to freestyle breathing, the difference being that you don’t rotate to the side during fly as you do when swimming free.

I’ve found that breathing toward my nondominant arm works best, but you might find more success breathing toward your dominant arm or alternating which side you breathe to.

Regardless of which side you breathe to, keep your head low so your spine stays in a straight line and get a good breath that finishes just into your armpit as your arms are behind you at the beginning of the recovery phase. It’s important to get your breath quickly and keep your undulation, which should originate in your core muscles, small.

Next, return your head to a neutral, spine-in- line position, so you’re looking at the line on the bottom of the pool before your arms finish the recovery. Finish your stroke by moving into the glide phase with your arms extended in front of you, which puts you in a more streamlined position and ready to catch the water.

Why Side-Breathing Helps With

Too Little Undulation

If you have a hard time breathing to the front during fly, you’re likely breathing too late or not undulating enough to get your mouth in the proper position to reach the pocket of air in front of and slightly under your face, and you can swallow or choke on water. A weak kick can contribute to this.

By keeping your head low during the catch phase of your stroke and then gently turning your head to the side, you can access a pocket of air. Take the side breath a bit later in the cycle than you would when breathing to the front. After the side breath, bring your face back down and put your head in line with your spine by the time your hands enter the water in front of you at the end of the recovery, for the slight glide portion of the stroke.

Too Much Undulation

Too much undulation—coming up too high out of the water or diving too deep—creates more drag and muscle fatigue, can cause soreness, and slows you down.

Drill: One-Arm Fly

Side-breathing can get you into a more streamlined position than when you breathe forward and have poor undulation. It will take a little drill work in that position—light dolphin kicking with your arms stretched over your head, biceps to your ears if possible— keeping your spine straight during each part of the stroke. Slowly add your arms back into your stroke by doing one-arm drill. Remember: When you’re doing one-arm drill for fly, you shouldn’t rotate on your long axis as you would in free and backstroke drills. Keep your arm close to the surface of the water and don’t bend your elbow during the recovery phase. You should be nearly dragging your thumb across the surface. Use small movements with your head to get a breath to your side when doing one-arm drill.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Fly can be the most beautiful stroke to watch, depending on who’s swimming it, how long he or she has been swimming, and how much he or she trains. It’s enjoyable to watch a swimmer with a natural and easy butterfly, but harder to watch someone struggle with poor undulation, strength, or timing.

If you’re closer to the latter category or you’re dealing with injury or core weakness, side-breathing fly might give you the opportunity to improve your stroke.

Remember, the key to learning fly is to take it easy and build up slowly. A good way to practice your fly is to add it into a free set by starting with three full stroke cycles of fly off each wall during a 50 or 100 free. Don’t do any more than three strokes until you can add more strokes easily. Then add more fly strokes until you’re easily swimming a 25, then a 50, then a 100 butterfly.


  • Technique and Training


  • Butterfly
  • Breathing
  • Stroke Technique