Swimming: Test Whether Alternate Breathing is Better

Dick Moss, Editor

The usual pattern when performing the crawl is to breathe once every two strokes —

Alternate Breathing Technique
Alternate Breathing Technique
that is, to inhale every time the right arm (or left arm) leaves the water and sweeps upward.

This pattern ensures a good supply of oxygen to the lungs and is especially important in races over 100m. However, certain athletes are able to swim faster using alternate breathing, in which they take a breath on every third stroke and  alternate their breathing back and forth from the left side to the right.

Advantages and Disadvantages
Of course, the main disadvantage to the alternate breathing technique is reduced oxygen supply. However, it does have some advantages:

  1. Better pool awareness. Swimmers who use the conventional technique can see only one side of the pool. Alternate breathers are able to watch competitors to both their left and right.
  2. More efficient stroke. Since body roll is equal on both sides (body roll allows the head to roll above the water when a breath is taken), alternate breathing encourages a stroke that's more symmetrical and efficient. For example, it encourages a high elbow recovery and efficient propulsion on both sides

Alternate Breathing Test
In fact, according to Costill, Maglischo and Richardson, the technique of some athletes is so much better with alternate breathing that they swim faster — even with the reduced oxygen supply over distances longer than 100m. They've developed a way to identify such swimmers.

Have your swimmers perform a series of repetitions over 2000-3000 meters, using alternate breathing on every second repetition. Compare the times. Those swimmers who are consistently faster on their alternate breathing repetitions might try the technique in races.

Good for Beginners
Alternate breathing can also be useful for beginners, since it encourages equal development of both left and right side, which will help them even if they later race using conventional breathing.

1. Dr. Pete Anderson, Teach Yourself To Swim Like A Pro: In One Minute Steps, Trius Publishing, Incorporated, 2012.
2. D. L. Costill, E. W. Maglischo & A. B. Richardson, Swimming, Blackwell Scientific Publications, 1992.

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