One of the first things new swimming clients are quick to confide is their inability to breathe to both sides—as if confessing an unconscionable shortcoming.  What usually follows are stories of failed attempts to complete quarter mile swims breathing every third, fourth or fifth stroke.  And then the questions:  How often should I breathe?  Don’t you have to do it to both sides?  

So here’s the short answer:  Breathe when your body tells you to.  Air is fuel.  Limit your fuel intake at your own peril.  

There is much cultural baggage in the swimming community, and the reliance upon slavish breathing patterns and hypoxic (actually, anoxic) training are two of our more durable myths.  They don’t improve lung capacity and they don’t simulate altitude training.  If holding your breath were of such tremendous benefit, wouldn’t we apply it to running and cycling?

I typically take 52 strokes per minute, breathing every two strokes for a total of 26 breaths per minute.  Reduce this to one breath every four strokes and I’m suddenly down to thirteen breaths per minute.  The guidelines to perform CPR (and merely sustain life) call for twelve breaths per minute.  Thirteen breaths aren’t enough to get through breakfast, let alone sustain aerobic exercise like swimming.

So why do misguided theories on breath control persist?  Because in one sense it is true that breathing less will improve your form.  Breathing is the most disruptive component of swimming technique:  the head lifts, the body sinks, the lead arm drops, velocity slows.  By comparison, a string of face-down, non-breathing strokes feels fast, efficient, even skillful. But only in the short run.  As the distance increases, limited breathing translates into muscle failure and panicked movements.  The false choice of less air in exchange for improved technique is painfully, often disastrously, exposed.

The answer isn’t “take fewer breaths.”  It’s “learn to breathe with skill.”  Eliminate unnecessary head lift.  Strive to maintain a long bodyline. Does your breath fit rhythmically and seamlessly into your overall stroke pattern?  Or is there a noticeable hitch as you go for air?  Can you breathe with your face in a horizontal position, the lower goggle lens slightly underwater?  Or do you pull the side off your head off the surface as you take a breath?  When coaching competitive swimmers we use terms like “sneaky,” “hidden” and “stealthy” to describe the non-intrusive nature of skillful breathing.  If you can minimize the technical differences between your breathing and non-breathing strokes then you’re free to breathe when you please.  No compromise in form, and no lung-busting (and futile) breathing patterns.

Learn to do this on one side first, over the course of several weeks, even months.  It’s more important to breathe skillfully on one side than it is to imprint poor breathing mechanics on two sides.  Duplicating errors by alternating right and left breaths may induce symmetry—just not the kind we’re after.