How & Why to Bilateral Breathe

September 11, 2014

Most swimmers have a side that they’re more comfortable breathing to. Heck, some swimmers might not even be able to breathe to their other side without swallowing water! Bilateral breathing is extremely important, though. It can help your freestyle in a multitude of ways. Not only can it help smooth out your stroke, but it can also help prevent shoulder injuries.

If you’re wondering how to better balance your stroke and prevent injuries while swimming freestyle, this guide is filled with great tips for you.

Why to Bilateral Breathe

For the purposes of this guide, the right will be considered the dominant side. If you feel more comfortable breathing to the left, reverse all of the following instructions.

When breathing to your right, your left side tilts downward when you breathe. You balance on your left side as you take in air, causing the left lateral muscle to develop more. Also, you’re putting a ton of strain on your shoulder as you balance in that position. This repetitive motion can start to irritate your shoulder. Take some of the pressure off of your overused shoulder by breathing to both sides.

When solely breathing to your right side, your body rocks more to your left side as you swim — even when you’re not breathing. This habit can create a limp in your stroke. This means you’ll spend more time on your left side, and take a quicker stroke when rolling to your right. Not only do you put more strain on your lower shoulder when you have a limp, but you also don’t get the maximum force out of each pull. If you shorten the pull with your non-breathing arm, you’re slipping water.

Bilateral breathing will help even out your stroke, as well as put you into a nice rhythm. It will create symmetry in your stroke. This balanced, smooth feeling will make you feel stronger and more efficient in the water.

What to Focus On

Breathing to your weaker side can feel awkward at first. Since you’re probably not rotating enough to that side, you might even swallow water. Just keep at it, and you’ll get the hang of things. If you’re having trouble breathing, think about side-breathing basics:

  1. When breathing to the left side, point your right armpit down toward the bottom of the pool. If you're not rotating enough, a flat body position can cause water to get into your mouth.
  2. 2. Look slightly behind you when breathing. This way, there will be less water coming at your face. 3. Breathe early. As you pull, start your breath. When your arm exits the water and begins to recover, roll your head back into the water. It's much easier to breathe when your arm isn't in the way.

For more side-breath reminders, check out the related iSport guide, How to Side-breathe.


To help master breathing to your weaker side, here are some drills that can assist you. They will likely help to your breathing feel more comfortable.

One-arm Freestyle

To practice breathing to your left, leave your right arm at your side. Perform One-arm freestyle. Whenever you need to breathe, roll your head to your weaker side. If you’re having trouble with this drill, grab a board. Grip the board with your right hand and lock your elbow. Perform One-arm freestyle with the board. As you roll your head to the left side, the board should help keep you afloat. This will make it easier to breathe.

Use a Single Paddle

After you’ve mastered breathing during One-arm freestyle, take away the board. Place a paddle on your left hand and swim regular freestyle. As you swim, you will most-likely feel lopsided. Focus on evening out your stroke, especially when you breathe. Breathe every three strokes. Try to make breathing to both sides feel identical.

Breathe Every Three, Five, or Seven

Hot Tip: Don’t Cheat
You probably have one side that’s so comfortable to breathe to that it’s hard not breathing to it. Don’t give in to the temptation of breathing to that side more frequently. It can affect your rhythm and balance in the water, diminishing your progress completely.

Once you feel like your stroke is more balanced, practice a breathing pattern. Breathe every three, five, or seven strokes. You’ll start to feel symmetrical in the water while also building stamina.

Seize Every Opportunity

Practice bilateral breathing whenever you’re doing a set. Sometimes, the focus of a set will be to breathe every three, five, or seven breaths. Even when you’re not doing one of those sets, you should try to breathe to both sides.

Breathe every three strokes when swimming long sets. You’ll start to get into a rhythm and your stroke will feel better. With some practice, you’ll start to breathe more easily without swallowing water!

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