Bilateral or single side breathing?

I think I can sum up breathing after 20 years of coaching poolside:

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

This continues to be a highly contentious issue in the swimming world when it need not be. Many swimmers are told that breathing bilaterally is the ‘holy grail’ of swimming. They are also told the stroke needs to be ‘symmetrical’.

This is short-sighted advice at best.

The reason for this is there are just way too many variables that need to be considered for there ever to be just one way of doing something. Each athlete is unique so it’s important to find out what works best them.

If breathing bilaterally were so important you would see all the best swimmers in the world doing it. If you watch any swimming/ triathlon race it’s quite clear that a much higher percentage are breathing to one side. Some will also mix it up and a few will be purely breathing bilaterally.

The reason for this is that for many breathing to one side allows them to get air in more frequently. It also helps many swimmers maintain a higher/faster arm cadence. Air is simply fuel at the of the day and you need to keep up with demand relative to effort. A higher frequency of breathing also makes any swimmer feel more relaxed and less panicked because they can more easily meet demand.

Symmetrical strokes work for swimmers that breath bilaterally.

The moment you breath to one side the stroke becomes asymmetrical.

The stroke will also feel different on one side compared to the other. The reason being is because it often creates more rotation on the side you breath to. The pulling pattern will also be slightly different on the opposite side to your in breath due to the body & shoulder being in a different pushing when you pull. 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.

There are many sports that are highly asymmetrical in nature that place far more load through the shoulders than swimming. Tennis, boxing, cricket (batting & bowling), golf, athletic events such as the javelin, high jump, shot putt this list goes on and on.

What all great athletes put 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 solely to both sides in training’.  I’ve stood poolside next to some of the greatest swimmers in the world to know this is not the case. Although some of them will mix in different breathing patterns at times, usually as part of a warmup or some easier sets.

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 so they switch to one side. Again, when we talk about ‘specificity’ this makes no sense either. The true bilateral breathers of the world rarely feel any difference when you compare training to racing. Many of them wouldn’t even consider switching to one side because they just don’t feel the need unless conditions dictate otherwise (big waves, heavy chop etc).

Common sense should tell you if you want to strengthen something for racing it should be practised repeatedly in training. This is known a specificity, a crucial component of any sport. This will then help you develop your stroke in the most optimal way for speed, strength and efficiency whilst using this movement pattern.

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, at worst I see many swimmers that have been trying to conquer bilateral breathing for 5 years+ and are still getting tired and out of breath after 200m of swimming. But guess what they persevere anyway! Their resilience in the face of insurmountable evidence is quite astonishing.

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. I’ve seen it work both ways, where some swimmers find breathing to both sides helps and others feel that single side breathing is better. There’s no one pattern that is the magic bullet.

More so 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.

I should also add a note to say that exhalation underwater is also an important part of what also makes breathing feel easier. Some like to do it through the mouth or nose or a combination of the two. Again, there is no one size fits all and it’s worth practising swimming a few lengths with each one to see what suits. It’s usually clear when you do this. The rate of exhalation underwater will be determined by the pace you are swimming at. Slower and gentler when swimming easy, then slightly stronger and more forceable relative to the pace increase.

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.