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Why you need to be able to breathe on both sides. (Especially you triathletes out there!)

How often do you breathe while swimming? 1 breath for every 2 strokes, 3 strokes, 4 strokes? In my years of coaching I have noticed that nailing the 'right' breathing pattern is a big topic for newbie swimmers. We've all heard that we should be breathing to both sides and in a 'perfect' world you should breathe once in every 3 strokes, or 1 in 3 as this is commonly referred to. But WHY and HOW? Let's take a deep breath and dive into the world of breathing patterns.

My personal breathing pattern preference for an easy swim in the pool is a 1 in 4, breathing to the right side. If I speed up though this changes to a 1 in 3 or even a 1 in 2. And somehow in the ocean I prefer a 1 in 2 breathing pattern, which probably has a bit to do with spending less time looking at what's underneath me haha! But it also gives me more opportunities to see where I'm going and if I don't get a good breath because of a wave I know I get another chance pretty quickly.

Hopefully my breathing story already makes you realise there is no 1 perfect breathing pattern for all situations and swimmers. It's all about being flexible and taking a breath when you feel like it.

If you are struggling to take good breaths while swimming, check out last week's Swimfit blog:

Getting enough oxygen

Newbie swimmers usually seem to think that they have to completely run out of breath before they can take another breath. If this is you my question is: 'Is this what you do on land as well?' Chances are it's not. We don't wait to take our next breath until we feel like we run out of air, instead we continuously breathe in and out to have a steady stream of oxygen going in and carbon dioxide coming out. This is the same for swimming!

Sure if I really push for it and take a big breath at the start I can probably do about 15 - 20 strokes without breathing, but this way of swimming would make me feel very out of breath after about 50 meters. I would rather take a normal little breath every 4 strokes, breathe out under water and take another breath after the next 4 strokes. This is a much more sustainable way of swimming which you can do for a much longer distance.

When swimming fast you might want to bring the number of strokes in between breaths down, and keep it down when recovering after a fast swim. When you heart rate starts to slow down, you can start upping the pattern to 3, 4 or even 5 strokes in between breaths. Whatever pattern keeps you feeling comfortable.

Except for smashing out a short sprint which is done fastest without interrupting your speed with taking breaths, you never want to feel like you're running out of air while swimming. Take a breath before you really need to.

Creating a balanced and symmetric stroke

Breathing on both sides makes for a much more balanced and symmetric stroke. Often, especially when breathing 1 in 2, you see the swimmer hanging to the one side that they breathe on, missing out on rotation to the other side.

To realise how important it is to rotate to both sides you have to understand that rotation helps with the strength of your stroke and it gives you space to easily lift your arm over the water. Actually it helps with many more things, but these are the biggest ones for beginner swimmers. If you breathe 1 in 2 and find it hard to get your arm over the water on the side that you don't breathe to, chances are you're hanging to the one side.

By starting to breathe 1 in 3 strokes, you will notice that your rotation will become equal on both sides, resulting in stronger strokes and an easier recovery on both sides.

Being flexible depending on conditions

This one is most important for the triathletes and open water swimmers out there; you have to be able to be flexible with your breathing pattern depending on conditions.

For example the Cairns Ironman starts at sunrise and the swim course heads south for the first half. This means that if you breathe to your left side you will be blinded by the rising sun. You're better off breathing to the right for the first half, but on the way back heading north you'll want to be able to switch to the other side to not get blinded.

Another condition that calls for flexibility is waves. Especially in the ocean but even lakes on a windy day can have some little waves that can just be big enough to ruin your breathing on that one side. Being able to breathe away from the incoming waves will safe you from a lot of mouthfuls of water. In saying this, I sometimes like to breathe towards the waves so I know what's coming and I don't get smashed by a wave by surprise. This way of swimming calls for careful breathing though!

Avoiding injuries

As I mentioned earlier in this blog, a 1 in 2 or even a 1 in 4 breathing pattern can lead to hanging to one side only. Besides losing strength in your stroke because of this, this can also lead to injuries. Breathing to the same side every time and not having a balanced stroke can cause a sore neck, sore shoulder on one side and back pain.

Breathing to both sides creates a balanced and symmetric stroke which is your best bet to stay away from injuries. Swimming is actually one of the least injury prone way of exercising... if done right!

If you have any of the above mentioned aches or pains and you breathe to one side only, try to start breathing on the other side as well and chances are you'll be pain free.


Most swimmers have a preferred side to breathe, I don't know why, but this is normal. Everyone is able to teach themselves to breathe to both sides though, no excuses!

To make it a bit easier you might want to start the process by holding a kick board in front of you. This will help you to balance to the other non-preferred side to take your breath. DO NOT start pushing yourself up from the kick board and lifting your head out of the water to take your breath, instead rotate to the side and look to the side or even back at your shoulder. Remember, we don't breathe through our eyes so there is no point in lifting them high up out of the water. Think about lifting your mouth up by pushing the top of your head down.

You might want to start breathing 1 in 3 or 5 in the warm ups, cool downs and easy swims and once you're comfortable and confident with this, give it ago in your faster swims as well.

I find that usually it's more of a mental thing that you think you can't breathe on the other side and once you start practising and doing it more, it turns out it's actually not that hard. It's definitely worth the effort, especially if you are a triathlete or open water swimmer. And the great thing for newbies is that you're still fresh and haven't thought yourself any bad habits yet, which makes it a lot easier!

If you have any questions feel free to comment below or send me a message. And if you know anyone who could benefit from reading this blog, share the love :)


Coach Irene



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