Swimming for Triathletes: Bilateral Breathing

Bilateral breathing is often under-rated, but it is a key component of swimming for triathletes. It is fine to have a stronger side, but do incorporate bilateral breathing into your workouts for open water swimming.

open water swimming breathing tips for triathlon

Three reasons you should practice your bilateral breathing:

1) Balance your stroke

Just like writing, people naturally have a stronger side when it comes to swimming, and are biased towards breathing to that side. That is perfectly fine, and stick to your preferences when racing, but practice breathing to both sides when you’re training. This will balances out both sides of your stroke and ensure you are equally strong on both sides.

2) Race day skills

If you happen to be swimming beside someone who is super splashy you will want to breathe to the opposite if you don’t want to be swallowing water every breath. Being able to breathe bilaterally will allow you to switch sides and breathe towards calmer waters. You can also track your rivals while racing – there will be no hiding for them! Give yourself options.

3) Open water navigation

Bilateral breathing will allow you to sight to both sides and ensure you are swimming in a straight line. For example, if you are swimming parallel to the shore on your left, but you breathe only to the right, you will miss out on easy sighting. Practice breathing to both sides and reduce the number of times you need to lift your head to sight forwards.

How to add bilateral breathing to your swimming

Add bilateral breathing to your swimming gradually. Breathing every three strokes can be tough on the lungs so increase it gradually.

Start with breathing to the left for one length, then breathe to the right only for one length. This will get you used to your form when breathing to both sides while swimming.

Next, add some breathing to your weaker side every 5th stroke: breathe every two as normal, and then on the 5th breath take three strokes and breathe to your weaker side before switching back to your stronger side. When that becomes comfortable increase the number of times per length that you breathe bilaterally.

To increase your bilateral breathing further, add it every fourth length, then every 3rd, then every second length, until you can breathe bilaterally continuously during a long swim. Here is a great video on how to add bilateral breathing.

Breathing to your weaker side may throw your stroke off and feel weird at first but persevere, it will soon become second nature. You will be glad of this skill when you hit the open water and on race day.


  1. photographydream

    I do the bilateral stroke in the pool alright but would you do it in a race? I find it hard to keep the bilateral stroke going once the race starts. I usually find that I do not have enough air to do a three count despite being well able for it in training even at faster speeds.

    • Coach Eamon

      I definitely recommend breathing bilaterally in training. Everyone has a stronger side and a preference when racing, and that is fine, as long as you practice the tools that will help you on race day should the need arise. Breathing every 3 is tough when racing, better to keep the oxygen flowing and keep relaxed!

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