How To: Open Water Swimming Breathing Patterns

The variety and utility of different breathing patterns for open water swimming is a subject of different concerns to pool swimming, as with so much of our side of the swimming sport. I once read an US coach who said about breathing patterns; “if they gave medals for bilateral breathing, I’d coach bilateral breathing“. I thought it was a great and illustrative quotation of what are often the differing concerns we have. Bilateral breathing is a regular subject for discussion amongst open water swimmers, usually between those who do, those who can, and those who don’t or can’t. Let’s look at the common breathing patterns and their advantages and disadvantages.

  • Breathing every arm stroke.

This is often called Head-Up freestyle or Tarzan stroke. This is generally a beginner’s stroke where the person is unable to swim without lifting their head from the water to exhale. It is much more tiring than regular front crawl and stresses the arms, shoulders, neck and lower back. However, it is also a pattern that more experienced swimmers should be able to use as it can be useful in circumstances such as rescues of other swimmers, allowing fairly constant eye-contact, or where a swimmer is swimming into land over or through rocks or obstacles and visibility is most important. More experienced swimmers should ensure they can still do this for short distances. Inexperienced swimmers who only use this pattern should work with a stroke coach to develop proper front crawl.

  • Breathing every second arm stroke (once every full arm cycle).

Most experienced swimmers will have this in their repertoire and use it when they are swimming faster. However it can also be used at lower speed and for some swimmers this is their preferred breathing pattern. It’s disadvantage can be if the swimmer is unable to maintain this pattern on either side. And with all single-sided breathing patterns the swimmer will have more difficulty keeping a straight line. Professional marathon swimmer Mallory Mead, pointed out on the forum that it is due to swimmers having a longer (delayed) stroke on their breathing side. Other concerns include possible compromise of breathing options in rough water (you may not want or be able to breathe into a sideways wind with spray or chop). Navigation and communication can similarly be difficult. Stroke imbalance can be exaggerated and lead to shoulder injury for the less experienced or those using it for very long swims. And finally single-sided breathing can allow a blind spot in races of which competitors can take advantage. [youtube=].

  • Breathing every third (or fifth) arm stroke. 

Usually called bilateral breathing. There are significant advantages to bilateral breathing for open water swimming.

  • It’s easier to swim in a straight line as stroke and breathing imbalances are evened out.
  • Navigation is easier if the swimmer can see on both sides.
  • Communication with kayaks and boat crew can be easier.
  • The swimmer’s options for positioning in rough water are increased.
  • Swimmers can more easily see attempted passing moves in races.

If the swimmer can retain this pattern during maximum speed it doesn’t have any real disadvantages. (I can’t myself, and must switch to 2-stroke).

  • Breathing on fourth stroke.

Like breathing every second stroke, this is single-sided breathing with the same advantages and problems, though swimmers who are more comfortable on a fourth-stroke pattern will usually be very smooth and more efficient swimmers. Bilateral breathing offers an open water swimmer more flexibility that in rough water and bad weather this can be significant. However I have seen and know very fast and excellent swimmers, faster and better than me, who can only breathe on a single side and it has not been a huge problem for them. I’ve seen English Channel swimmers who were forced to swim on the rougher windward side of the boat because that was the only side on which they could comfortably breathe for long periods, some were successful, some not.

All of the above are regular breathing patterns. However a swimmer can also use an:

  • Irregular breathing pattern.

Is a bit more difficult to quantify as it in personal and well, irregular. It might be a combination such as 3,3,3,2,2,3. Another could be 2,2,2,3,2,2,2. I know myself that when in a steady bilateral 3-stroke cycle, I will occasionally slip in a breath on a 2-stroke for that little extra oxygen. This can occur subconsciously as the swimmer wants a little extra breath, a better view, adjusting to conditions or is just more comfortable doing this. I seem to have developed the bad habit of sneaking an extra breath before a tumble-turn in the pool, which has filtered back to the sea. An irregular pattern may allow the swimmer the advantages of bilateral breathing combined with at least some of the speed advantage of single-side breathing. It may also allow the swimmer to partly ease built-up tension in the neck and opposing shoulder. As Mallory Mead pointed out, “being able to breathe on both sides is important, being able to breathe bilaterally is not”, a subtle but important distinction.

  • How do you train your breathing pattern?

To change an embedded breathing habit is very difficult if at all possible to do so completely. However it will benefit the swimmer to be able to adjust it for periods. The usual way to train breathing patterns is through hypoxic sets, often called lungbusters by swimmers. The simplest is doing underwater lengths (aka dynamic apnea , on a fixed time, increasing the number of repetition and/or distance as the swimmer improves, which allow the swimmer to develop better breath control. Thee other common way is to swim sets with increasing number of strokes between breaths;

Swim consecutive lengths breathing ever, 3, 5, 7, 5, 9, 3 strokes and repeat for 500 metres. Or swim 400 metres breathing every 4 strokes on your bad side, followed by 400 metres breathing on your good side (if you are a 3 strokes per breath person for example).


5 thoughts on “How To: Open Water Swimming Breathing Patterns

  1. I’ve been swimming as in water as cold as 2 degrees, but only breast stroke. How do I do crawl in cold water without getting a splitting headache?


    • Hi Paul,

      Two answers:

      1. Many swimmers will use two silicone swim caps (“double-capping”), or the old style bubble caps. You could also use a neoprene hood or cap for maximum protection.

      2. It does reduce with repetition.


  2. I an very curious and I cannot find an answer anywhere. Are there any differences in the training effects of 3 versus 5 strokes or even 7 strokes? I imagine one breathe every three strokes would be more anaerobic and work the muscles slightly more while 5 or 7 would be slightly more aerobic. Are there any efficiency differences in bilateral 3,5, or 7 stroke breathing?


    • I’s going to depend on the swimmmer’s ability and conditioning I guess. Three strokes is optimum is most aerobic for me, and quite lot of swimmers. More than three strokes puts most swimmers into hypoxia (oxygen debt) so hypoxic swimming is done in training occasionally to increase cardiac conditioning. I can maintain 4 stroke on my good side for a long time, not an my weak side (though it will quickly stress my left shoulder), and I can’t maintain five or more for more than say a kilometre. The muscles won’t have enough oxygen to function efficiently, so I’ll swim slightly slower. Being out of breath doesn’t necessarily anaerobic. Beginner swimmers regularly run out of breath but not because of exertion. Hope that helps.


  3. “…single-sided breathing can allow a blind spot in races of which competitors can take advantage.” This is very true, everyone knows that if you want to pass Ned Denison you do so on his left-hand-side – it never fails!


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