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Open-water triathlon breathing techniques

Despite what the text books may tell you, bilateral breathing is not your only option when swimming in open water

Whether you’re a triathlon beginner or a seasoned pro, your breathing technique should form a key part of your swimming training schedule. Here triathlon swimming coach, Dan Bullock, reveals his tips for open water swimming and bilateral breathing.


Bilateral breathing – is it essential?
Despite what the text books may tell you, bilateral breathing, where you alternate to both sides, is not your only option when swimming in open water. Until you’ve mastered the breathing aspect of your freestyle (front crawl) stroke, it won’t be possible to relax into your swim, regardless of what others may recommend.


Although the fundamentals of open water breathing include inhaling through the mouth and exhaling when the head is submerged (without wasting time exhaling to the side), how often you breathe, when, and for how long, is one of those grey areas that’s quite individual to each swimmer. The best solution is what’s comfortable for you and this depends whether you’re racing or training, and at what intensities.


When racing, this means usually breathing each second stroke to keep a healthy flow of air coming in to the body. However, back in your triathlon swimming training sessions, it’s a good idea to mix the pattern in order to prevent bad habits becoming ingrained. This could include swapping sides every alternate length. If you struggle to breathe to a certain side, check your technique for balanced and symmetrical rotation. A lack of rotation to a certain side will impact the head’s ability to turn. If the head repeatedly turns to one side only, this can negatively affect the body’s position and arm movements. As a result, we always try to balance particular movements in training so that they’re not repeated on their own too many times. Keep in mind that the head is a large, clumsy object that allows you to swim faster when it doesn’t move. Therefore, keep head movements small, fast and fluid when turning to breathe.

Some coaches suggest a full exhalation at the last moment before the head turn in order to keep the body high in the water. Others feel that this added buoyancy to the chest cavity will keep the legs low, and therefore suggest exhaling continually. There are arguments for and against both styles, but reducing anything that causes tension is desired. Try exhaling a small amount continually during the face-in-the-water stage, and if your legs sit low, find out why – there are probably contributing factors.


Try the 3.2 breathing pattern


A breathing pattern alternative that I like is the 3.2. Here you take 3 strokes between breaths, then 2, so it mixes 2 breaths to the left then 2 to the right. You could think of this as 2 breaths per 5 strokes, rather than 6, which is slightly less taxing on the system. I try to encourage bilateral breathing (to both sides) at low intensities in training such as warm-ups, subsets and even cool downs.


To help improve your technique, it may be worth investing in a centre snorkel. This is a key piece of swim equipment which we use in triathlon swim camps for breathing drills. It removes altogether the need to move the head to breathe, allowing you a chance to focus on body position and arm movements.


Getting comfortable with the breathing aspect of freestyle is not easy, but once mastered will allow you to relax in the water and start to make big improvements to your swim. Early on in your swimming experience the stroke will dictate when you get to breathe (compared to the bike and run where you’re always in charge), preventing you from relaxing during your swim. As stroke mechanics improve, you’ll be able to take charge of when you breathe, allowing for a much more relaxed stroke. In turn, a more relaxed stroke is less aggressive, more economical, needs less air and the delicate balance of pulling on slippery nothingness becomes easier.

Triathlon freestyle breathing drills


One of my favourite blocks of work to reinforce the breathing concepts we’ve just covered is the swim training drill shown below, across a total distance of 1500m. It is important to perform a sensible warm-up ahead of starting this more intense block of work. Consider this your main set which should then be followed by a cool down. For your breathing pattern, take a breath every 2nd, 3rd, 4th or 5th stroke, as indicated and rest for 25 seconds between each swim.



  1. 500m freestyle (20 lengths in a 25m Pool), swum with fins, breathing pattern 5.


  2. 400m freestyle (16 lengths), swum with paddles, breathing pattern 4 (change sides with each length).


  3. 300m (12 lengths) freestyle pull, breathing pattern 3.2.


  4. 200m freestyle (8 lengths), breathing pattern 2.


  5. 100m freestyle (4 lengths), 3-4 breaths per length, your choice where you use them.