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The TBN #31-Triathlon Swim Paradox: Bilateral Breathing: Yes. Using It? Think Again…

Updated: Apr 8

Read time: 2:30min.

By Coach Yan Busset

Today, let's talk about breathing tempo in triathlon. Should you breathe every 2 or every 3 strokes? Bilateral or not?

Quick answers: Should you learn bilateral breathing? Yes! Should you breathe every 3 strokes? No. Let me explain why.

Why is bilateral breathing important?

In triathlon, it’s useless to be the fastest swimmer if you swim in the wrong direction. In other words, navigation skills are super important. You need to learn how to swim straight to be as fast as possible, and bilateral breathing can help you achieve that. It allows you to look on both sides and therefore navigate more accurately.

Secondly, you will have more chances to even out your arm stroke technique and make them symmetrical. Almost all of us have a weaker side in our front crawl, partly because we see only one side of it. We can control and improve our technique better when we see what our arm is doing on the side we take our breath. By learning to breathe on the opposite side, we can auto-correct our technique via direct visual feedback.

If you are used to breathing only on one side, it’s not easy to change. Your neck mobility is often more limited on your weaker side, and we often feel “lost” on how to place our head to breathe correctly.

My tip on how to get used to it is to use a standard, yet effective, triathlete skill: stubbornness! For the next 2-4 swim sessions, do all by ONLY breathing on your weak side until you feel you've nailed it. It won’t be easy, but your mobility will improve fast, and your sense of head placement will get better. I used this method myself back in the days. It took me one week of stubbornness to nail it. It may take you a longer or shorter time, but you will succeed if you are patient and consistent.

Now that you know how to breathe on both sides, should you breathe every 3rd stroke? It’s okay for short intervals, but for longer distances and even on open water race days: No. Prefer a higher frequency of breathing every two strokes.

Why so? Because the pause between three strokes will be too long to hold your breath without creating an oxygen deficit that you will pay for later. You wouldn’t run and hold your breath for 3 strides, right? It wouldn’t feel natural. Similarly, when the effort level is high and for a longer duration, you will need air more frequently. Some fast triathletes race with an every third stroke pattern (though they are a minority), but it's because their stroke rate is much faster (75-95 strokes/min), whereas an average age-grouper would have to hold their breath for too long (50-60 strokes/min).

Let me quote Master Pro Coach David Tilbury-Davis's words of wisdom on this topic: "Many folks don’t realize the oxygen deficit implications...... An Age Grouper with 60spm & 2:00/100m breathes every 3 seconds during 100m; a Pro with 85spm & 1:15/100m breathes every 1.7 seconds during 100m. Lesson = NEVER copy the pros unless you are as fast as the pros!"

So, the best way to take advantage of bilateral breathing and still have an every two strokes breathing pattern is to alternate sides at regular intervals or whenever needed for navigation purposes.

You will know that your breathing skills are good when no side is a limiter and that you don’t breathe right or left but instead, just when you need!

Oh, and did I mention frontal breathing while sighting? Well, we can keep this for another post dedicated to orienteering skills and sighting on race day.

Looking for More Tips?

Check out some of my past articles that are in connection with this article:

Thank you for reading and see you next week!


Whenever you’re ready, there are 4 ways I can help you:

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4. If you are looking for support for your triathlon journey, I recommend you book a 30min 1on1 video consultation with me here.


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