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by Elaine K Howley

June 23, 2020

This skill is important for open water swimmers to master

Most Masters coaches have probably shouted themselves hoarse over the issue of bilateral breathing once or twice in their lives. And there’s a reason most of them are so emphatic that swimmers adopt this skill and get comfortable with it.

For pool swimmers, it keeps your stroke balanced and lets you see your competition on either side of you during a race. It can also reduce strain on one side of your neck and potentially alleviate shoulder and upper back injuries related to imbalance and incomplete body rotation while swimming.

But for open water swimmers, being able to bilateral breathe is even more important. Depending on how the wind is blowing and obstacles and other competitors on the course, you’ll need to be able to breathe to both sides not just to take in more air, but to also take in what’s happening around you in that wild environment.

Bilateral breathing can help you avoid taking in a huge gulp of water if waves are coming from one side. It also allows you to keep an eye on that other swimmer creeping up on the other without having to break your stroke to sight.

During training sessions, bilateral breathing can help you keep along a shoreline (both coming and going). When going longer distances, it can also even out your stroke and keep you more balanced and less chafed. As with pool swimmers, it may even help reduce incidence of neck and shoulder stiffness or injury related to imbalances.

And if you’re aiming to get into marathon swimming, being able to breathe to both sides makes it much easier to swim alongside a guide boat. If you have the flexibility of breathing to both sides, your kayak can be on the side that’s most advantageous for navigation. With motorized craft, this flexibility may be even more important to health and safety; it’s never fun to be downwind of a diesel engine when sighting off a big boat. Being able to get upwind while still seeing the boat can make a huge difference over a dozen hours or more crossing a big body of water

Getting Up to Speed on Both Sides

Not everyone is comfortable with breathing to both sides while swimming freestyle, especially swimmers who grew up breathing to one side only. But it can be done.

Here are a few tips to make learning bilateral breathing easier, so that the practice can become a comfortable part of every swim.

Start small and slow. If you’re new to bilateral breathing, try incorporating a few breaths to your weaker side on each swim for a week or so. Incorporating a little bit of bilateral breathing during the warm-up or cool-down portion of your swim—when you’re not working so hard—is a good place to start. It can help you feel the mechanics of breathing to the other side when you’re not trying to make a certain time. As time goes on, increase how many times you try breathing to your nondominant side.

Try different patterns. Many swimmers prefer breathing every third stroke, alternating sides throughout the entire swim. But every third isn’t the only option. You can try every two or every four, but alternate which side take your first breath on. You can also mix every three with every two or even mix in breathing every fifth stroke on a changing pattern. Try different patterns to see what feels most comfortable.

Focus on mechanics. When breathing, you should keep your bottom goggle under the water line and breathe into the pocket of air created by your forward motion—a bow wave of sorts. This helps keep your body position optimal and might make it a little easier to learn breathing to your less dominant side; keeping your head lower in the water can make it seem less awkward. It’s tough to always achieve this form in open water when conditions may be rougher than in the pool, but practice makes perfect.

Fix stroke flaws. You should also work on any poor stroke mechanics or hitches you have that make you imbalanced or make it difficult for you to rotate to both sides while swimming. A few sessions with a coach or some video footage of yourself swimming can help illuminate what you’re doing wrong that makes breathing to your weaker side feel so awkward.

Relax and slow down. If you’re racing or feeling anxious about swimming in open water, that can make it harder to get comfortable breathing to your weaker side. The harder you’re working or the more uncomfortable you are in open water, the more likely you’ll revert to your more practiced and natural-feeling breathing pattern. But if you slow things down and relax, you may find it easier to get comfortable breathing to your weaker side.

Keep at it. It might be frustrating at first to try to get comfortable with breathing to both sides but stick with it. The more you practice breathing to your weaker side, the easier it will become and the more comfortable you’ll be with it. Adopting any change to your stroke takes time and will feel weird at first. But keep trying.

If you just can’t get comfortable with bilateral breathing, don’t lose sleep over it. Try to incorporate bilateral breathing when you can. But if it just doesn’t feel right or slows you down, revert to what’s most comfortable and feels right when racing. Any technique that gets you to the finish line fast without injury is probably a good option.


  • Open Water
  • Triathlon


  • Breathing
  • Triathletes
  • Triathlon
  • Training