How Bilateral Breathing Will Make You a Faster Freestyler

Michael Butler
Written by
Last update:

Does Bilateral Breathing Really Make a Difference?

What is Bilateral Breathing?

Bilateral breathing is an alternative to the traditional chest breathing. It focuses on breathing with both your diaphragm and your upper chest, which creates a more consistent flow of air into the lungs.

In competitive sports, the breathing style of an individual is affected by the movements of their body. When a body position requires more muscular support like while sprinting, the athlete will hold his breath. This can slow down their performance.

Some elite athletes have won competitions even when they were not the most skilled but were the ones who were able to breathe the most effectively.

Why is this the case?

Because breathing provides oxygen to the body, and the more effectively an athlete’s body receives oxygen, the better the athlete’s performance.

How is Bilateral Breathing Better Than Chest Breathing?

Breathing using the diaphragm has several benefits over the traditional chest breathing.

First, using your diaphragm allows your lungs to fill up with as much air as possible. It also helps you breathe less often and more efficiently.

Breathing with your chest limits the amount of air that you get into your lungs and uses more energy than diaphragmatic breathing. It also makes yo more likely to breathe through your mouth, which can cause you to inhale more carbon dioxide than oxygen.

Why Swimmers Avoid Breathing Bilaterally

Often when we’re swimming, we hear instructions from a coach about the importance of breathing with the belly. The face and chest are the perfect place for gasses to escape via the “buh-breathe” method. It’s inefficient and requires a lot of unnecessary movement. So over time, if you breathe using this method, you’ll obviously get better at it.

On the other hand, it can take a while to learn how to breathe bilaterally. You’ll need to use the core muscle groups in a stabilizing capacity, which will make you a stronger swimmer.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: breathing bilaterally sounds like too much work and there’s no benefit to it. Well, you’d be right if you’re asking that question if you’re still swimming the “buh-breathe” freestyle.

Why Bilateral Breathing Is Critical

There are a lot of reasons why we practice freestyle at all and one of them is to get better and enjoy the more difficult things that take place in the water: playing around and riding waves, turning and spinning, making sharp cuts and doing various technical flips and turns.

When we effortlessly breathe during freestyle, we are able to do all of these movements faster.

Why is bilateral breathing so important for fast freestyling?

In essence, bilateral breathing means breathing to both sides, as opposed to breathing to one side only, which is called unilateral breathing. If you are breathing only to the right with one out of your two lungs, you may get a stronger left side kick and may as well use less energy on breathing by only using one of your lungs. But you miss out on the strong right side kick because you will not be using the other one.

If you know how to breathe with both lungs, you will get a strong left kick as well as a strong right leg kick instead of swimming only with one leg at a time. Since bilateral breathing makes freestyle faster, it is a skill that requires some practice. If you have trouble breathing on both sides, keep practicing.

But, but…elite swimmers don’t breathe bilaterally, so why should I?

Breathing bilaterally is not only better at conserving energy, it makes you faster by increasing your cadence so that you do not have to cross over your center of mass and waste that time in the water.

You will also become more balanced and decrease your drag by breathing bilaterally.

How to Become a Bilateral Breather & Balance Out Your Stroke

When you took your first swimming lessons, you probably were told to breathe with your mouth. For most people, that is how they swim to this day. But have you ever wondered if that’s the best way to swim?

The truth is that pretty much every freestyle stroke was designed by humans to breathe with only one lung. But humans don’t swim. Fish do. And they’re unbelievable at it. So wouldn’t it make sense to get a little advice from the greatest living swimmers on the planet?

Bilateral breathing simply means using both sides of your diaphragm to breathe.

Fish do it. And so should you.

Breathing with both sides of your diaphragm will allow you to get a more balanced stroke (both sides) and also will help you go faster (more oxygen to your muscles).

Swim on your back for a breath, reach your hand up for the next breath, and repeat.

This will feel very unnatural at first, but the benefits of a balanced stroke and the speed gained with more oxygen far outweigh any initial awkwardness.

You can literally feel the difference in how you swim when you shift from a chest breathe to a proper diaphragmatic breath.

The Takeaway

Freestyle swimming involves the use of a dolphin kick to move your body forward. It’s a much different style of swimming than breaststroke, backstroke, or butterfly. The dolphin kick is actually a combination of an up-kick and down-kick. Both kicks are performed in sequence. To retrieve air, you must exhale while your head is out of the water.

But when your head is out of the water, how can you continue breathing? The beginning of an up-kick is when you start exhaling and breathing in at the same time. Both actions happen in a quick sequence. You also need to know how to do a bilateral breathing to be able to breathe while you’re swimming freestyle.

So what exactly is “bilateral breathing”? Simply put, it’s breathing with both nostrils instead of just one nostril. Somebody who breathes bilaterally uses both the left and right nostrils.

Bilateral breathing involves breathing in and out through both nostrils … and the secret to a fluid and continuous swimming motion is being able to breathe bilaterally. If you want to swim faster, bilateral breathing will help you achieve that goal.


What is bilateral breathing?

Bilateral breathing is a training technique used by swimmers to improve the coordination of their breathing during freestyle swimming. Sophisticated swimmers and triathletes use it to increase their breathing efficiency and to increase their maximum lung capacity.

Bilateral breathing is also used to help with nerve related issues. “Nerves are best controlled by breathing efficiently during long or frequent workouts,” according to world and national record-holder, Zach Lang, ISCA Level 2 Coach and Founder of Total Immersion. Lang says that bilateral breathing is recommended after a long day of training. He states that, “Breathing bilaterally enables the athlete to maintain a lower stroke count because the rhythm is synchronized with breathing. This helps keep the athlete comfortable and relaxed while training.”

Let’s get into to why bilateral breathing is such a valuable technique.

Bilateral breathing (½ Breathe) is the act of breathing out and then breathing in on the same side (side breathing). For example, you breathe out as you’re bringing your arm forward, and you fill your lungs as you’re bringing it back.

By breathing out underwater, you’re able to give your lungs time to refill without using your hands to give yourself a breath.