Article image

by Scott Bay

May 5, 2021

Here’s how to determine whether bilateral breathing is right for you

Seasoned swimmers might remember a time when coaches forced freestylers to breathe to both sides, also known as bilateral breathing. Times sure have changed.

By breathing largely to his right en route to setting world records in the 200, 400, 800, and 1500 freestyle events and winning seven Olympic medals, Australian Grant Hackett showed the world that you don’t have to bilaterally breathe to be a successful swimmer.

So, should you breathe to both sides or just one?

Why bilateral breathing is a good idea

There’s some wisdom in bilateral breathing. Here are some compelling reasons why you shouldn’t only learn it but also practice it on a regular basis.

  • Avoid muscular imbalance. Back in the day, coaches were primarily concerned with making sure you didn’t have an asymmetrical stroke, which they thought would lead to slower swimming. The better reason, especially for competitive and fitness Masters swimmers, is that bilateral breathing helps prevent or correct muscular imbalances from repetitive motions to one side only.
  • Zone training. Coaches used to think that swimmers should train their bodies with less oxygen. Although this is a good idea to a minimal extent, oxygen demand is based on your body’s needs. Burning oxygen as fuel is part of what swimmers do. But training a breathing pattern such as breathing every third stroke is also beneficial for learning how to relax those parts of your body that aren’t helping you swim and for decreasing oxygen demand.
  • See the big picture. Competitive pool and open water swimmers need to see to both sides of the course and where their competitors are. Also, in open water, if you’re getting splashed in the face by choppy water when breathing into the wind, being able to get air easily on the other side is great. Developing this skill in the pool first reduces the anxiety for when you need to do it in the open water.

Why bilateral breathing might be a bad idea

Here’s the case for not bilaterally breathing on a regular basis.

  • Injury. Some swimmers have injuries or other physical issues that prevent them from bilateral breathing. Lifelong swimmers who didn’t learn to breathe to both sides in their youth have developed muscle memory and structural imbalances from a lifetime of breathing to one side and that’s hard to change. It can be done, but it isn’t required to enjoy your swimming. If bilateral breathing causes discomfort and you just don’t want to take the time to learn to breathe on your other side, just keep breathing to one side.
  • Optimal racing. Hackett and many other elite swimmers who breathe to just one side cast doubt on if the idea that breathing to one side is all that bad. Your body has a need for oxygen for fuel, especially in sprints. Some swimmers will breathe bilaterally in practice but revert to a favored side when racing. This is perfectly fine.

What’s right for you?

So, should you breathe bilaterally? If so, how much should you do it and when?

If you’re a lifelong unilateral breather and want to learn to breathe bilaterally, use fins or a pull-buoy to start the process of evening up the muscles that move your head and getting your body used to the unfamiliar side. Take plenty of time and gradually increase the amount of yardage in which you breathe to both sides. Start with warm-up and warm-down, and gradually work it into your sets.

Have a coach or a friend take a video of you breathing to your dominant side, your off-side, and then to both sides. Compare your stroke technique and stroke rates, as well as your times. It’s amazing what you can learn from visual feedback, and it may make you a better, healthier, and faster swimmer.

As in all things Masters swimming, the most important thing is to enjoy your swimming and do what’s right for you.


  • Technique and Training


  • Breathing
  • Freestyle