Bilateral Breathing (Swimming) 

Bilateral breathing, meaning to breathe on both sides, is the recommended breathing technique when swimming the front crawl. Swimmers usually turn their heads to breathe every three or five arm pulls when they breathe bilaterally, although some do this less frequently. Bilateral breathing promotes good stroke technique, eliminates bad habits and can be useful to open water swimmers.

Swim Technique

Bilateral breathing encourages an even front crawl technique. Turning your head to breathe as you swim causes your hips and body to roll, which can upset your streamlining and send your stroke off balance. Swimmers breathe bilaterally to counteract this negativity. Breathing to both sides gives your stroke rhythm, creates a sense of balance and can even up your strokes. Competitive swimmers can improve their race times by breathing bilaterally because it allows them to swim in a straighter line.


Breathing bilaterally can help reduce the risk of pain and fatigue in the neck and shoulders, and also your risk of developing an uneven physique due to over-development in the muscles on one side of your body. If you breathe only to one side, you put a certain amount of stress on one shoulder and it will tire quickly. Breathing to both sides allows you to distribute the workload over both of your shoulders to avoid over-stressing one side of your body. You also reduce the risk of muscular imbalances caused by over-training if you breathe to both sides.


Breathing to both sides gives you an increased awareness of your stroke and what is going on around you. When your head is turned to the side, you are able to look at your arm and access its position. You can check the height and bend of your elbow, the position of your hand and its entry into the water. While you are accessing your hand, check that your fingers are together. Bilateral breathing also allows you to check out your position during a race. You can see the competitors on either side and decide if you need to maintain your pace or speed up if you are falling behind.


Open water swimmers use bilateral breathing as a navigational tool. Lifting your head to both sides allows you to accurately access your surroundings. You have the advantage of being able to look out for directional markers and dangers on both sides. You also can turn your face away from incoming waves or swells and avoid getting a mouthful of water as you breathe.