What breathing pattern should I use?

We take it for granted that we can breathe while running or while doing just about anything on land. Most probably pay no attention to it, as we can rely on our parasympathetic nervous system to keep exchanging that air for us without our conscious control.

But we suddenly become aware of our need to figure this out when in water. Since air is only available to the swimmer in a unobstructive way for a fraction of each stroke cycle – we have to actually think carefully about when and how to breathe so we don’t provoke panic and we don’t induce unnecessary exhaustion.

We all understand that we need to get enough volume of air while swimming and get it frequently enough in order to stay comfortable and to stay swimming.

The frequency and degree of air exchange is determined by these factors:

  • How much air-exchange you need.
  • How you arrange the inhale/exhale exchange.
  • When you schedule that complete exchange to take place.

This sets up 3 skills we need to build:


1) Lowering the demand for energy, which in turn lowers the demand for air-exchange. We lower energy demand, and thereby lower oxygen-demand by reducing struggle against imbalances, and struggle against excessive drag.


2a) Completing partial exchanges of air – rather than complete exhale/inhale on each breath – and completing them more frequently. This allows the swimmer to skip a breath as needed (for example, when splashed in the face by a wave, or holding breath longer at a flip turn and push-off).

2b) Exhaling through the nose with a small bubbles during non-breathing strokes, then blowing the airways clear at the last moment before the mouth breaks the surface on a turn-to-breathe, then taking ‘just a sip’ of air and quickly getting the head turned back down to most streamline position.


3a) Coordinating the breathing timing with the stroke pattern – in terms of placing the breath at the precise right moment in the stroke cycle. We say that “you can’t breathe too early in the stroke”, but breathing late increases drag terribly. Even the best swimmers need to keep attention on an early breath – good timing can easily break down under stress.

3b) Coordinating the breathing pattern with the stroke tempo – in terms of picking the stroke count on which to take a breath so that you are getting a generously frequent air exchange. You don’t want to be swimming on thin margins of oxygen supply if you can help it.

Though just about every human in the water I know demonstrates some asymmetry (we all favor one side in stroke and in breathing), learning bi-lateral breathing is non-negotiable in my coaching book. A serious swimmer needs to do learn it no matter the initial awkwardness. It does take some effort to break the old habits and build the skill, but anyone (without an injury preventing it) can do it if they put in the time to practice. Without bi-lateral breathing the swimmer is severely restricted in his options for breathing patterns and is virtually assured of keeping an asymmetrical (imbalanced) stroke.

One simple way to discipline yourself to learn is to set this rule for yourself for the next 2 weeks in the pool: On every odd lap in the pool you may breathe to your strong side. On every even lap you may breathe only to your weak side.

A little calculation here to show the advantage of bilateral breathing:

Let’s say the swimmer is using a 1.50 second stroke tempo (1.50 seconds between the left recovery hand spearing into the water and the right hand doing it next). A unilateral breathing swimmer can only choose a breathing pattern of every 2 strokes (3 seconds between breaths), or 4 strokes (6 seconds), or 6 strokes (9 seconds!). The only way to shorten that breathing interval is to speed up the tempo, which likely also increases the heart rate, which increases the oxygen demand, which compels the swimmer to either breath more frequently (which he can’t if he is already maxed his frequency at 2-stroke breathing pattern), or increase volume on each air-exchange which takes up more time on a faster stroke, and thereby increases drag on each stroke.

But a bi-laterial breathing swimmer has more options – he can breathe on every 2 strokes (3 seconds between breathes), every 3 strokes (4.5 seconds between breaths), every 4 strokes (6 seconds), every 5 strokes (7.5 seconds), or breathe on 2 stroke count, twice on the left, then 3 strokes, then breathe on 2-stroke count on the right, then 3 strokes, and so on’ (for an average of 3.75 seconds between breaths).

This last pattern is often what I use for long distance, paced swims. I don’t pre-plan that pattern, but because I have bi-lateral breathing capability my body just finds the pattern that comfortably fulfills my oxygen demand in those kind of swims. My breathing pattern shifts with the tempo and the intensity of my stroke. If the wind is pushing chop into my face on one side, I can just keep breathing on the other side – 2-stroke breath, then 4-stroke breath, then 2-stroke breath, then 4-stroke breath, etc.

Swimmers sometimes ask me, “What stroke interval should I breathe on?” Wrong question. We switch the pattern to fit our need. We don’t serve the pattern, the pattern serves us. Pick the pattern that fulfills the need. A bi-lateral breather has the option of shifting pattern to get more breathes in rather than speeding up tempo.

I will say this, unless you have a health-problem, have a weak immune system, or are a brand new swimmer, if you have to take a breath on every 2 strokes even at modest intensity level, I suspect you have a serious energy waste problem, not a fitness problem. (See my previous post regarding Technique and Energy Savings).

I frequently hear complaints from swimmers who claim they are getting out of breath too easily – the first most common culprit is poor balance, the second culprit is breath timing, the third culprit is being restricted by unilateral breathing. There are other possibilities, but these are the most common ones I happen to see.

The first is addressed by learning the turn-to-breathe in the stable balance of Skate Position, then in learning the turn-to-breathe in single Swing-Switch drills. Keeping the head on the Laser Spine (we call it the Shishkabob here in our workshops in Turkey) and to keep a Patient Front Arm is critical to this working. Compromise either one and breathing will be a struggle.

The second is addressed by simply turning the head with the shoulder rotation at the instant of the catch – as if a rubber band is tied from shoulder to chin. As son as mouth touches the air take a quick sip and get the head turned down before the recovery arm comes forward. The swimmer should NOT see the recovery arm with her own eyes (no matter how common it is done that way, nor by how famous the swimmer doing it).

The third is addressed by pure discipline to practice and establish the habit of bi-lateral breathing.

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