What breathing pattern should I use?

Let’s not beat around the bush with this one as this continues to be a highly contentious issue in the swimming world when it need not be.

The simple answer to this question is the classic coaching answer “it depends on the swimmer”. My biggest frustration as a Coach is the people who believe there is just one way of doing something.

There simply isn’t just one way of doing anything but there is a right way for the athlete you are working with.

In 22 years of Coaching, I think I can sum up breathing pretty well:

  • The vast majority of swimmers at all levels prefer to breath to one side (unilateral)
  • A much smaller percentage like to breath to both sides (bilateral)
  • Some swimmers like to mix it up 

What’s even more important to realise is that many swimmers have a very good instinct for what feels easier but often choose to ignore it.

This is quite clearly the case when swimmers are told that breathing bilaterally is the ‘holy grail’ of swimming. The stroke also apparently also needs to be ‘symmetrical’. This couldn’t be any further from the truth because if that were the case you would see all the best swimmers in the world doing it. Just look at any major swimming race or triathlon race out there and watch what most swimmers are doing, it’s quite clear that a much higher percentage are breathing to one side. Sure, some might switch to the other side every now again if needed but many will continue solely breathing to one side.

The reason for this is it allows them to get more air in frequently and it also helps them to turn the arms over quicker with a higher cadence. Air is simply fuel at the of the day and you need to keep up with demand relative to effort. More air also makes any swimmer feel more relaxed and less panicked because they can more easily keep up with demand.

The other problem is in relation to the pursuit of symmetry in the water. This will certainly be the case for a swimmer that uses a bilateral breathing patten because you essentially doing the same thing on both sides. The moment you breath to one side you must accept that the stroke is asymmetrical. This often creates more rotation the side you breath to and a slightly different pulling pattern on the opposite side to your in breath. The goal is not to try and make it feel the same on both sides! More so accept one side will feel slightly different and in general the side you breath to might feel a tad stronger/connected than the side you are breathing away from.

Or if you are left or right-handed this side can quite often feel stronger or more ‘connected’ when you pull to that favoured side.

There are many sports out there that are highly asymmetrical in nature that place far more load through the shoulders than swimming. Think of tennis for example, just because Roger Federer serves with his right hand does he need to do an equal number to his left to balance his body out? No, he doesn’t. But what all great athletes have in place is a balanced training plan that will focus on strength, mobility, flexibility and self-care routines (massage, stretching, rolling etc) that help alleviate some of the stresses and strains on the body of that sport.

The other common misconception is that apparently ‘elite swimmers race breathing to one side and then breath to both sides in training’. This could not be any further from the truth because and it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. Why would anyone do one thing in training and then something completely different in racing? What you do in racing needs to be practised even more so in training so that the stroke develops in the most optimal way for speed, strength and efficiency whilst using this movement pattern.

I can’t begin to tell you how many swimmers (usually triathletes) I’ve coached over the years that tell me they breath bilaterally in training but can’t hold onto it when racing or when they get tired so switch to one side. The true bilateral breathers of the world rarely feel any difference when you compare training to racing and usually wouldn’t even consider switching to one side because they just don’t feel the need.

If you try something for a several weeks and it doesn’t get easier then common sense should tell you it might not be the right way for you. Unfortunately, I see many swimmers at worst that have been trying to conquer bilateral breathing for 5 years plus and they are still getting tired and out of breath after 200m of swimming, but they persevere anyway…crazy!

The key thing to understand is that breathing will be dictated by many things as we all have unique bodies. The effect and experience will also be highly individual. It goes without saying that if someone experiences niggles with one way of breathing, they should experiment with another to see if it alleviates the issue. But usually, these problems are caused by postural issues, mechanical issues, muscle imbalances, training load increases, mobility and flexibility issues that haven’t been addressed in the first place.

Rarely do I see many swimmers make the effort to do a thorough warm up before swimming or follow a strength routine to help stabilise, balance and strengthen their swimming muscles. When you look at high level swimmers, they make time to fit all of this in in abundance. If they don’t any of the issues I’ve listed above will be exacerbated when you add a training load to the body like swimming which will result in problems further down the line.

You can also teach yourself to swim breathing to both sides that isn’t true bilateral breathing by nature if you feel you might need it one day like in racing. That simply means you do some sets or lengths breathing to right and you do others breathing to left, the ratio of this will be determined by what feels comfortable to you.

So, in summary single side, bilateral or some form of combo is probably right for you if:

  • It feels good and breathing is no issue for you 
  • You can sustain it for long distances, faster pace work or racing 
  • It feels like the more natural way for you to swim

And just to note I’m a huge fan of any breathing pattern if it works for the swimmer. There is no one size fits all but finding what works for you should be the absolute priority for any swimmer. In many cases it can be as simple as just trusting your instinct for what feels better, a guiding light that many choose to ignore.