Breath Rate - Swimming

Following up on the breathing rate podcast, I found the info related to oxygen update vs intake very interesting, particularly when it comes to swimming. I was a competitive sprint swimmer for 6 years where my coaches hounded bilateral breathing (every 3 strokes). Then I got into triathlon and read an article where it said you should breathe every 2 strokes to get more oxygen in. The theory was not only would this help your swim be faster, particular in 1/2IM and IM distances, but your muscles would be in a better state to start the bike. This felt to fast to me, but I adapted cause why would an internet article be wrong? Now after hearing a more scientific approach, I feel like this would indicate it doesn’t matter if I breathe every 2 strokes or 3, I should just do what’s natural.

Thoughts from the group? Does anyone very their breathing rate depending on the distance?

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I’m not a triathlete, but like to swim: 2 strokes always felt too fast for me, and in open water I would tend to go crooked if I continuously breathed from the same side. 3 strokes is perfect and I like bilateral breathing. FWIW, from a physical therapist’s perspective, breathing bilaterally reduces the potential tension and overuse (vice versa underuse of the contralateral side) in specific muscles, from the neck, to the lats, and even in the deltoids and rotator cuff because the pull is slightly different during breathing.

I also just really like symmetry…

Watch the 1500 in the olympics. Very little bilateral breathing. Sun yang used to also break convention and breath every stroke as he got ready for his flip turns. In shorter events you don’t have as much of a consequence for breathing less. They hardly take any breaths in the 50 free.

When I’m racing (triathlon swims) or doing hard pieces I tend to gravitate to breathing to just one side, but otherwise I usually do “2/3” breathing where I breathe once per 2 strokes on one side then 3 strokes and breathe on the other side, then 2 strokes and breathe on that same side, 3 strokes breathe on the other side, etc. Mixes it up a bit for bilateral breathing where I want to swim hard, but not all out and can still handle some three stroke gaps between breaths.


[quote=“Grotex, post:1, topic:7549”]
The theory was not only would this help your swim be faster, particular in 1/2IM and IM distances, but your muscles would be in a better state to start the bike. This felt to fast to me, but I adapted cause why would an internet article be wrong? Now after hearing a more scientific approach,
[/quote]Which approach? You mean the podcast?

If triathlon swimming were a solo, calm waters affair there might be some merit to the discussion. In my experience there is almost always too much chop (from wind) or disruption from other swimmers to breath bilaterally. One side is almost always much easier to get air on than the other.

It’s easy to limit how fast you go with your breath rate, but it doesn’t have to determine it - you can breath every two strokes and hold an aerobic pace.

Then there is how much your body wants to breath. Panic in the water is not a conscious thing, it’s a reaction. Your body needs to be relaxed to swim well, and confident that getting air is not a problem - a good lungful every two strokes should calm anyone feeling panicky.

Also if I recall correctly most open water racers breath every two strokes(?)

All of that said, if I do find myself in calm open water, bilateral is a good rate of breathing for me on the long distance events.

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I breathe bilaterally when going easy in order to balance my stroke. In races, and when training hard, I breathe every 2 regardless of distance, always away from the surf. Bilateral breathing works well for being comfortable breathing to either side in ocean swims.

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As an adult onset swimmer everything slower than 2-stroke felt like choking in the beginning. It took me a year of dedicated training to at least be able to execute different breathing patterns. By now it’s 2-stroke all the way because somehow rhythm feels the most natural . Only on the IM distance where pacing really matters do I drop to 3-stroke.

I’ve been experimenting with this exact topic. 2017 Autumn I trained for an open 1500 with bilateral breathing. I was watching youtube clips etc…at noticed how much air is taken in via unilateral 1 in 2 breathing by ledecky and Gregorio Paltrinieri (I don’t bother watching San Yung because he is so much taller than me)

(apparently Ledecky does bilateral breathing in the warm-up pool)

I did the open 1500 and towards the end of the event bilateral went out the window and I started breathing whenever I could. Obviously I’d not really trained for this.

On my ‘revenge’ swim, this year past I trained and raced breathing unilateral. Most of my training was bilateral, but when things got very hard I would immediately go for that unilateral 1 in 2. This gave me more oxygen but I felt less controlled in the stroke. In the race I did all 60 lengths unilateral 1 in 2 breathing. RESULT: it was pacing early lengths, not breathing pattern that effected my performance.

I STRONGLY suspect my streamline is compromised each time I breathe. So there is a trade-off between oxygen intake versus stroke efficiency. So for me bilateral breathing is better as I feel more in control of my stroke. Going forward I will probably experiment with various breathing patterns when things get tough, but use bilateral as my base.

Moral of the story is to try out both for yourself and see what works best. I would say, based on my personal experience, that bilateral breathing is the better way to go.

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There’s no right answer. Breathe as much or as little as you need to maintain the effort level needed for your race which will be very different in an Ironman to a pool based 400m sprint.

I feel somewhat embarrassed giving swim advice to a former competitive swimmer (!) but don’t overthink it, just breathe.

FWIW for longer distances I often fall into a 2/3 pattern of breathing but it also depends on whether it’s a wetsuit swim or not. I’m an adult onset swimmer and by no means a natural so the buoyancy of the wetsuit means swimming takes much less effort for me and I tend to breathe less, maybe alternating 2/4 to the left as it’s generally my preferred side. Without a wetsuit it’s harder and I’ll tend to breathe every 2. For you as a swimmer it may be less an issue.

Just do what feels right for you and swim to your ability while the rest of us flounder some way behind :grinning:

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Competetive swimmer as well - always breathing every second stroke. When competing in 50 meter distance, I don’t breathe at all (once at the turn). When I swim in open water, like 2-3 km, constant pace without rest, it’s every second stroke. If I breathe every third, I’m always slightly out of breath.

The most interesting question for me is not when to breathe, but when to swim with symmetrical strokes and when to swim with asymmetrical. For me, it’s symmetrical in still water - asymmetrical in waves or when sprinting.

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it’s crazy watching a WTS race, those guys are windmilling a crazy stroke rate, and not quite in a steady cadence since there is a slight pause when breathing. But in an aerobic sport, more air is beneficial… and in a mass start high stroke rate vs. perfectly efficient stroke seems to win out as well.

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I’m not an expert, long way from it.

But in relation to an open water swim I always practiced different patterns. I feel like it’s good to be able to break it up and when it is crowded and people are flailing at first it is nice to be able change it up with ease. If you’re not a strong swimmer or it makes you nervous it could also be good mentally to stretch out the time between breaths in training to see that if you miss a breath for whatever reason it is okay and you can make it up soon without it being an issue.

Same with breathing on different sides, I usually change that up about 50/50, that way I’m never looking into the sun, or if I want to turn toward the shore or some landmark it’s no problem, or if I’ve got a splasher on one side or the other I just breathe the other direction.

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Absolutely. Alistair Brownlee swims with a stroke rate of around 95 spm :astonished:

I swim with one of those Finis tempo trainers in practice… I’ve tried 80 spm and even that feels crazy fast!

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It’s not a slight pause, it’s asymmetrical strokes. It has nothing to do with breathing, but rhythm, stroke reach and stroke power.

If in still water (pool or still ocean), this is the most effective technique there is (1500 m record holder):
However, if sprinting or in a lot of waves, asymmetrical is better.

Sun yang has one of the smoothest strokes around. The other video posted above was assymetric to his breathing side and looked like an open water stroke sighting except of course he wasn’t looking ahead.

Can you share a video that is assymetric to a non breathing side?

Sure - we can even stick to Sun Yang in the same event. Look at the difference in stroke technique in the beginning, mid and end. He starts asymmetric, switches to symmetric in mid, and finishes strong with asymmetric.

Most people, most of the time, swim asymmetrically (10k open water):
Compared to Sun Yang it looks sloppy, but you have to swim differently in waves.

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Have a look at the technique of two guys in this 10km OW from 4:06 onwards. Get a good view of their recovery and catch as well as breathing.


That’s what i call asymmetrical. Totally different from the “gliding” symmetrical technique Sun Yang is using in a pool.

Any clips on Jordan Wilimovsky’s stroke. He is more of a ‘normal’ build at 1.78cm (5foot9), compared to the giant San Yang at 200cm (6foot7).

I think its really impressive that someone who is under 6 foot and fairly slight in build is able to mix it up with the big boys.

For me, my breathing rate is an indicator for the effort. I donˋt breath how much i „should“, i breath how much i need to.
I do sprint and olympic triathlons. In competitions, the effort is so high, that i have to breath every 2. stroke most of the time.

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