Triathlete practising bilateral breathing
Triathlete practising bilateral breathing
Training > Swim

How important is bilateral breathing for beginner swimmers?

With many new triathletes struggling to master this skill, our experts discuss how big an impact it has on your swim split

Are you finding bilateral breathing a tricky skill to sort and finding yourself worried about just how important it is in the swim?

Our experts Mark Perry and Alan Rapley discuss whether it's more important to focus on technique or fitness for that nerve-wracking first race....

'Great technique will make you more efficient in the water'

Your specific swimming fitness will have a much bigger influence on your performance than mastering bilateral breathing in your first-ever triathlon open-water race (writes Mark Perry, a former coach of the GB swim team at seven Worlds and three Olympics).

This is particularly true at this stage in the season, when any major stroke changes should have already been done. I’d suggest working with the technique that you have now, as we head towards the start of the season, and leave working on stroke changes until winter.  

I’m not advocating that you should never learn to breathe bilaterally, as it’s an important skill. Almost every swimmer has a dominant side – the side that they instinctively turn to breathe – and in the majority of cases this never causes a problem.

With novice swimmers, bilateral breathing is taught to help to balance out the stroke, therefore not allowing the naturally dominant side to adversely weigh them to one side. Bilateral breathing will help you reduce this overcompensation, making swimming in a straight line much easier, therefore it’s a skill worth pursuing – just not the most important one for a first event.

Of course, bilateral breathing in open water makes it much easier to know what’s going on around you, so it’s always helpful if you can comfortably breathe to both sides. However, if you’re simply not fit enough to keep up with the pack then everything else becomes irrelevant. Having great technique will ultimately help you to realise your goals by making you more efficient in the water. In the short term, you simply have to be fit enough to go the distance. 

My advice would be to find a local club where you can increase your fitness. The club coach should also be able to help you improve your strokes at the same time, making you fitter, stronger and more efficient.

'Bilateral breathing will create a great swimming rhythm'

I’d always work to improve technique before fitness; great technique allows you to swim more efficiently and therefore train more effectively and for longer (says Alan Rapley, Olympic swim coach and trainer to numerous champion triathletes).

Getting fit is easy, getting fit with great technique is a challenge! One of the main areas within technique is learning to breath bilaterally, especially if it’s your first triathlon and especially if it’s open water.

Bilateral breathing will allow you to develop awareness of your surroundings as well as create a great swimming rhythm. I think it’s a myth that it gives you a ‘balanced’ stroke, but what it will give you is a rhythmical stroke. In your training, I’d suggest that you continually practise different types of breathing patterns, to see what fits your natural cadence. 

An example set would be 9 x 100m front crawl (rest interval, 30secs) as: 1 and 2, breathe every 3 strokes; 3 and 4, breathe every 5 strokes; 5 and 6, alternate 3 and 5 strokes (every cycle); 7 and 8, breathe every 3, 2, 2, 3, 2, 2, 3; 9 and 10, breathe 3, 4, 5, 3, 4, 5, 3, 4, 5 – ‘play’ around with the patterns until you find the rhythm that suits you. Remember, bilateral doesn’t always mean breathing every three arm strokes. 

When you become practised at your ‘natural’ preferred rhythm then you can work on higher-level skills, like sighting and seeing where you are in relation to others. Build these skills into your sessions and find out where they fit naturally into the rhythm: so you could do the above set of 9 x 100, breathing 3, 2, 2, sight front; 3, 2, 2, sight front; 3,2,2, sight front.

The golden rule: if you’re going to do it in a race, practise that skill until it becomes unconscious and natural.

(Main image: Jonny Gawler)

For lots more swimming advice head to our Training section


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Stephen Miller

Thank you for recognising that "...bilateral doesn't always mean breathing every three arm strokes". I find this is often overlooked. I learned freestyle 25 years ago and started forming good habits by simply making myself look out towards the same side of the pool, both coming and going. This gives you right side one way, and left side the other. Bilateral breathing. I like this because it allows me to breathe every two arm strokes which is where I am most comfortable and effective. Having the ability to switch sides at will is a great benefit in open water as it allows you to breathe away from where the flailing arms of your competitors are more intense and thereby protect both your face and your swim split (which won't be helped if you get your goggles ripped off mid-swim). I agree with you and would encourage everyone to keep at this. Practice makes perfect.


I usually don't bilaterally breath or at least not for the entire swim. I train doing laps breathing off of either the left or the right side so that I am comfortable doing it. But in a race I prefer to just raise up slightly to sight usually. But maybe that's just me, probably not the most effective way


Because it's the natural way to keep your stroke technique symmetrical. Bilateral is particularly good for developing good body roll to both sides since you need to rotate well to breathe .. here is also a cool way of syncing the tempo to a lap of left side breaths, to a lap of right side breaths, to a lap of bilateral breaths, to bilateral breaths of different frequencies


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