The Case Against Breathing Every Two Strokes - Does Your Stroke Look Like This?

Sam with Paul (left) and Adam on
the Sydney 3 Day Coach Ed Course
First up, you'll be very pleased to know that the Swim Smooth Podcast is back!

Yesterday Paul and Adam released their brand new interview with Pro Triathlete Sam Bradley (formerly Warriner) to your favourite blogging platform:

Sam gives us her insight into her highly successful coaching philosophy and what made the biggest difference to her as an athlete at the highest level of the sport, culminating in her ITU World Cup series win and a Commonwealth Games silver medal.

A great listen!

The Case Against Breathing To One Side Every Two Strokes

Do you always breathe to the same side every 2 strokes? If you do then you have multiple challenges developing your swimming.

Over time the act of rotating to breathe to one side tends to develop more and more rotation of your shoulders and hips to that side. Without any non-breathing strokes to help counter-balance this, you tend to over-rotate to your breathing side, beyond the recommended 45-60 degrees of rotation:

This over-rotation causes a loss of balance in the stroke and your legs to scissor kick apart to regain that balance, in turn creating huge drag at the back of the stroke:

Conversely on the non-breathing side your rotation never develops properly and you become very flat:

That makes the recovering arm swing around the side and have a strong tendency to cross-over the centre line on hand entry, causing you to snake down the pool:

But the bad news doesn't end there! Whilst you are breathing your focus tends to be heavily on making sure you get a breath in, so by breathing every two you never provide any focus on the catch from the lead arm at that point in the stroke. As we can see here that means the catch never properly develops, in this case collapsing downwards without any real purchase on the water:

If you were breathing every three strokes then two out of three strokes on that arm would be on non-breathing strokes so you would have a good opportunity to develop your catch technique on each arm.

Interestingly enough, on our Sydney Coach-Ed course, podcast guest Sam Warriner tried swapping her breathing pattern from her dominant right-side-every-two pattern to breathing to her left. She was instantly 3-4 seconds per 100m quicker! For an athlete of her level that's a huge improvement, despite it feeling much less natural to that side. All because it allowed her to improve her catch with her left arm.

All That Because You Only Ever Breathe To One Side!

This sequence of cause-and-effect stroke flaws is incredibly common with unilateral breathers:

So common in fact that we refer to this stroke pattern as the "Classic Unilateral Breather Stroke". Next time you are at the pool take a few minutes to sit in the stands and watch some of the swimmers - you'll see this stroke everywhere.

How do you fix this? A key part of the process is to learn to breathe every 3 strokes to balance out your symmetry and give yourself a decent chance of improving these technical aspects of your stroke.

Many swimmers have tried bilateral breathing and failed to conquer it, simply finding it too hard to sustain. If that's you then don't miss next week's post - we're going to look at the key reasons why swimmers find bilateral breathing hard and how to overcome them.

There's definitely some initial challenges with learning to breathe every three but as you can see above, the benefits are huge. More on that next week!

Swim Smooth!


Sam said...

Hi there!
I totally get your point but would be great if you could discuss oxygen intake since (even well renowned coaches like Gary R or Matt D) many coaches argue that you need to breathe every two strokes to guarantee sufficient oxygen intake. Especially when it comes to swimmers with lower stroke rates. Keep up the good work!

Jonas said...

I fully agree with this post. In my case it is even that I don't feel comfortable breathing unilaterally. I also think that, for a balanced, symmetrical workout of your muscles (including the ones in the neck area), it is of course much better to breathe bilaterally.

But I'd like to ask Swim Smooth why do most athletes breathe unilaterally in races. Does for instance Michael Phelps rotate the same on both sides when breathing unilaterally?

Chris said...

Seems like a bit of hyperbole to prove your point. Many of the elites breath to one side, they just dont only breath to that one side and alternate which side they're breathing. Ledecky's 1500 wr was breathing mainly to her right. Sun yang also mainly breathed to his right and just about every itu racer will breath to one side at a time.

Ed said...

Along lines of above - Gerry Rodrigues and others say breathe every other stroke when racing. Air is good.
But learn to breathe bilaterally when training to even out your stroke.
So key distinction is between training and racing, no?

Eric said...

I'm not a swim smooth coach or anything, but I've read/watched/listened enough to know how they might answer the three comments above. The truth is that many elite swimmers do race breathing only to one side, but they often train breathing bilaterally in order to develop a symmetrical stroke and avoid the pitfalls described in the article. Once the stroke and muscle memory is developed to be symmetrical, breathing to one side in a race won't cause these problems in the stroke. I would still, of course, love to hear an "official" response from the swim smooth certified coaches.

Anonymous said...

That's me. In spades. Under rotation on non-breathing side, over rotation and crossing centreline when breathing. I've been trying to train myself to bilateral breathe. Inability to bilateral seems to be tied to my lack of propulsion and lack of a pocket of air. Look forward to next week's email.

Paul said...

Hi everyone

We look forward to discussing in next week's post many of the great points you're raising above...suffice to say (as we suspected) this is a very polarising topic and always has been!

On the topic of "sufficient oxygen intake" only being possible by breathing every 2 strokes, I would say this: a lot has to do with the frequency of the stroke...someone rating at 40spm compared to someone at 80spm is obviously breathing half as frequently, consequently the amount of oxygen intake would be halved too over a given time frame, thus, the over-gliders of the world (with low SRs) will struggle significantly by virtue of the fact that it's their stroke rate being slow that is the primary culprit to how much oxygen they intake. Second to this point though, for many swimmers, inhaling every 2 often doesn't give enough time to exhale fully and clear the lungs properly for a full / satisfying breath of air in - so my point here would be to consider turning the psyche around from "how much air can I get in" to "how much air can I get out in order to get a proper breath of air in".

To Jonas, Chris and Ed - salient / well observed points, however, have you considered how many of the athletes you use in your examples are fully able to switch to breathing either side as the conditions dictate? Alistair Brownlee breaths every 2 strokes, he's the greatest triathlete of all time. Should we be copying his first place exit out of the water at the 2018 Commonwealth Games - he's on a left hand turn course which favours breathing to the left for ease of navigation. This is also his favourite side to breathe. He's drawn on the pontoon on the left-most side of the course giving him the shortest line to the first turning buoy, and yet, despite all these advantages, he breathes every 2 strokes to his right for the first 300m. Why? Because his younger brother Jonathan has been drawn on the right side of the pontoon, approximately 30m to his right. He's using his versatility in his breathing pattern to breathe to the side which assures him his brother and team mate is with him coming out of the water to decimate the bike leg together. As soon as he knows he's there...he switches back to the left. Similarly, the great Ian Thorpe deposes of Pieter van den Hoogenband and Michael Phelps in the final of the 200m freestyle event at the Athens Olympics in 2004 by breathing exclusively to his right from 0-50m and 100-150m, but exclusively to his left from 50-100m and 150-200m. Why? Because that's the side his biggest threats to a gold medal are on. All of these swimmers are able to breathe bilaterally, and frequently do in training, plus whilst we discuss breathing every 3 as "bilateral" in the article above, you could say that Ian Thorpe breathed "bilaterally" in the 200m freestyle by spending as much time breathing to his right as he does to his left.

The point of the article is about versatility and the ability to iron-out stroke deficiencies by recognising the errors which can occur within the stroke when breathing exclusively to one side and never practicing the other side and / or breathing every 3.

Eric and anonymous - I'm glad you liked and appreciated the article and that you're excited for next week's post.

Dan B said...

What a great article! That’s my stroke U are talking about!

Adrian said...

Again guilty, if I start a session with drill carry on bilateral but my natural instinct is every 2 and left hand side. I have been observed arm crossing. Will be interested to see how I can make bilateral feel natural, 636 and bubble bubble breath drills help.

Matt Talbot said...

I would strongly urge you to modify your position on two stroke breathing Paul. The video examples above (and the many I have come across since following your posts over the past few years) show over-rotating in weaker swimmers, not champions who are on the podium at the Olympics. For someone like Jason Lezak - a two 2 stroke breather with the fastest 100m freestyle relay split in history – I could not see that over-rotating was a problem. It was negligible. The head simply went along for the ride without any noticeable changes in body position. And all that extra oxygen in the tank from breathing 2s meant that he finished like a steam train. 2 Stroke breathing is a better reflection of our normal terrestrial breathing that we practise 24 / 7. In and then out. Not in... hold... then out.

What I have observed in my own swimmers is that yes there is a degree of over-rotating. But they have poor balance across the long line (I refer to this over-rotating or crossing over the centre line with the arms as falling off the balance beam). They drop their opposite shoulder while breathing. They have poor core strength and they have minimal awareness of what the body is doing. Their catch is poor. I could help them to "fix" this by encouraging them to breathe every three strokes. With opposite poorly performed forces awkwardly balancing each other out then yeah it would help to some degree. But only superficially. Those other issues to do with poor balance etc have not actually been solved. Better to work on drills that reinforce balance, spatial awareness, correct catch and feel for the water.

I have searched the archives of my own memory and confirmed with you tube videos and I cannot recall any 3 stroke Olympic medalist from distances 50 to 1500m this century. Somebody please prove me wrong!

DTD said...

I still don't think your discussion of oxygen uptake really gets to the point of why several are disagreeing (myself included). You can't ignore tidal volume in each breath nor the fact that majority of slower swimmers have slower stroke rate. Sure bilateral is a great "tool" but as several have said why not just switch side you breathe each length when "working" in the pool.
If you can show me math on spm & VO2/tidal volume and slower vs. faster swimmers enforcing your point I'm all ears....

Paul said...

Matt said: I have searched the archives of my own memory and confirmed with you tube videos and I cannot recall any 3 stroke Olympic medalist from distances 50 to 1500m this century. Somebody please prove me wrong!

Here’s just a selection of Olympic champions whom have utilised bilateral breathing in some breathing format, whether strictly every 3 or alternating in a 3-2-2-2-3-2-2-3, or alternating sides each length or other such multi-side format:

Laure Manadou (between June 2004 and April 2008, Manaudou remained unbeaten in the 400-metre freestyle, winning 23 finals in succession, with Olympic Gold, Silver & Bronze in Athens 2004 & 400m world record): and - pure bilateral breathing at it’s finest

Rebecca Adlington (x2 Olympic Gold / x 2 Olympic Bronze & 800m f/s world record): and

David Davies (Olympic Silver - 10km / Bronze 1500m f/s): - who’ll be on our podcast next week

Miera Belamonte (x 2 Olympic Silver & 5 world records):

Ian Thorpe (x5 Olympic Gold medallist): - note how he switches sides every length so he’s always keeping an eye on Grant Hackett. Hackett however, only breathes to his right, which he stipulated was a distinct disadvantage in the final of the 2007 men’s 400m freestyle final where he was drawn in lane 8 due to a slow qualifying swim - despite leading at 250m, he faded to 3rd behind Park Tae-Hwan citing he wasn’t able to sight the fast-finishing Korean in lane 5 (

Ryan Cochrane (Olympic Silver & Bronze):

…not so lonely now, hey Matt?

Paul said...

DTD said:

"Paul, I still don't think your discussion of oxygen uptake really gets to the point of why several are disagreeing (myself included)."

Really? Why's that DTD? My point is simple - if you swim at a stroke rate of 80spm vs 40spm and you breathe every 2 strokes, your frequency of breath is twice as much as the slower stroke rated swimmer. From experience (both of my own and of those that I coach), many with strokes rates in excess of 68spm, find breathing every 2 simply too frequent without enough time to fully exhale properly. Conversely, the slower stroke rated swimmer, finds the challenge of breathing every 3 too much because their frequency is inhibited by their overly slow stroke rate, which we warn about within this blog on a very frequent basis.

"You can't ignore tidal volume in each breath nor the fact that majority of slower swimmers have slower stroke rate."

I'm not ignoring it, but I am disagreeing with your point that the majority of slower swimmers have a slower stroke rate - we find many newer swimmers (some of whom we refer to as Arnies on account of how they fight the water) have stroke rates which are too quick and need to be tamed down a bit. This same type of swimmer often completely holds their breath underneath the water and then attempts to exhale and inhale at the same time when going to breathe, which I think we can all agree upon is not effective, nor efficient.

"Sure bilateral is a great "tool" but as several have said why not just switch side you breathe each length when "working" in the pool."

Yup - plenty of examples of that in my post above...equally, plenty of examples of Olympic Champions who either stick to a faithful "every 3" breath count or a modified "3-2-3-2-3" or variations thereof, even when "working". Imagine Laure Manadou's breathing frequency and the affect on her tidal volume if she were to breathe every 2 at 110spm? Exactly why she breathes every 3.

"If you can show me math on spm & VO2/tidal volume and slower vs. faster swimmers enforcing your point I'm all ears...."

Math?! I'm not sure Laure Manadou thinks of the math behind what she does when she's swimming but at 110spm she's breathing 36.3 times in a minute breathing every 3 strokes compared with the classic over glider at 36spm breathing every 2 strokes or 18 times in a minute. She's effectively breathing twice as frequently even though her cycle is 1 in every 3 rather than 1 in every 2 for the over glider.

Whether you're "all ears" or not DTD, means very little to me, it works, it's utilised by more swimmers than you're claiming, and that's about all I have to say on that.

GeorgeB said...

I completely agree with the post but still have difficulty breathing in to the left side. Changing my pull stroke to a higher elbow position helped achieve the left breath with more ease (for some reason), and if I still cant breath in, then I turn to the left to breathe out which is my small attempt to achieve some balance.

Unknown said...

"The case against breathing every 2 strokes" can clearly be showed by the example of the incredibly poor swimmer in lane 6:

Cyndy said...

George, that is an interesting idea to get the motion down to turn to the left, but all your breathing out should be done when your face is in the water. I would suggest practicing kicking on your side and 6/1/6 drills to get comfortable turning your head and breathing. Cheers Cyndy

Maarten said...

100% agree. Reading this article some time a go (i think on the belgian swimsmooth blog) changed my novice/lousy swimming enormously. Possibly the biggest reason for my '10 sec/100m' improvement over the last year or so. Every aspect of the article i can relate to.

Many thanks,

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