I’ve been asked about breathing while swimming freestyle.  Generically, the query was related to how often to breathe, techniques for breathing, and any drills related to breathing to help swimming.  In short, the answer is, as usual: it depends.  If you’re absolutely proficient at breathing and your stroke is balanced, how often you breathe won’t impact anything related to your swimming.  We are mere mortals, so how often we breath and how we breath can have an impact our swimming in ways you might not realize.  For example, do you find yourself always bumping into shore or swimming across the bay when you daydream and swim?

You might remember the following from an earlier post:

Our goal when swimming is to develop forward propulsion to drive our body through the water while minimizing the amount of drag that is created by our body.  Any activity that doesn’t provide forward propulsion or increases the natural drag of our body is working against achieving this goal.

With this in mind, let us consider how often to breathe, when to breathe in the stroke, and some drills to show the impact of our actions.

How Often to Breathe

As a simple observation, with a bit of levity, breathing doesn’t provide you with any forward propulsion.  We can certainly agree that, if you don’t breathe, you’re not going swim for very long.  But, taking a breath during your stroke can possibly alter the balance of your body in the water and increase drag.  So, as with all things, there must be a balance.

How often you breathe is a choice for balance between your physiology, your swimming stroke, the environment, and the type of swimming you’re doing.

For most of us, breathing less often can help you swim faster, for a period of time.  For example, at a constant level of effort, breathing every two strokes is slightly slower than breathing every four strokes. I do mean slightly…on the order of about 1 second per 25 meters. This reflects an imbalance in my stroke.

When swimming my natural stroke and not focusing on my breathing, taking a breath slightly delays my recovery. So, with this knowledge, I can choose my breathing frequency.

Examples that might impact your breathing frequency:

  • Type of swimming – Sprinting
    To be clear, sprinting means swimming at a pace where the amount of energy that you have is completely spent at the end of a given distance. As an Open Water swimmer, it’s unlikely that you would find yourself sprinting, but this might provide some context.  For his example, let’s consider sprinting for 40 seconds at a pace where you’d need about 5 minutes for your heart rate and breathing to recover.  For this pace, if you know that your stroke has some imbalance, you might consider breathing only 2 or 3 times for the time period.  It doesn’t sound like that would be enough air, but realize this only means holding your breath for about 10-15 seconds at a time, and, after 40 seconds, there is no more swimming and plenty of cake.
  • The Environment – Waves
    Waves impact our choice for breathing frequency in two different ways. First, the direction and size of waves may force you to breathe only on one side for a period of time.  If the waves are choppy, for example, you might want to always breathe to the leeward side.  If the waves are rolling, your breathing may not be impacted at all.  Second, even if you decide to breathe, you may, in fact, not be able to due to a wave.   Most of us have a preferred side on which we like to breathe.  We should practice breathing on both sides in order be able to adjust to our environment and deal with various situations.
  • The Environment – Sighting
    As an Open Water swimmer, you are aware of the need to lift up your head to sight. However, have you considered that you might need to lift up your head at all to sight in some cases?  You can change the side on which you breathe to be able to sight off of various markers such as: a boat, a buoy, another swimmer.  Being able to change your breathing side a will allow you to not only be aware of your environment but also allow you to swim more comfortably.
  • The Environment – Swimming in a Straight Line
    Do you find that you often end up drifting to the same direction every time you swim? This may be an imbalance in your stroke and your breathing may be part of the cause.  We are all stronger on one side of our bodies, and breathing to the same side may actually exacerbate the situation.  (Coach Brian might actually end up swimming in circles.)
  • Your Physiology
    If you have asthma, you might need to consider how often you breathe and consider that each breathe might just need to give you enough air to be comfortable until your next breath. You don’t need to fully inflate your lungs, just take in enough for about 5 seconds.
    If you have limited neck movement (either due to injury or other causes) consider rotating a little further to allow you to avoid discomfort.
    If you have one shoulder that feels over-worked, you might consider breathing to that side.  Doing so can force you to rotate a little further to that side as well as avoid the downward pressure on that shoulder that many place on their non-breathing shoulder at the start of their stroke.
    Be aware of your own abilities and current limitations so that you give yourself the time to take in the air that you need.  It’s a journey for all of us, enjoy it.

Regardless of how often you choose to breathe, try to find a rhythm.  Breathing rhythmically might not only help you maintain your chosen breathing pattern for longer but can help you pass your time swimming.  Think of it as an underwater version of whistling while you work.

In summary, how often you breathe does depend on the type of swimming you’re doing.  Keep that in mind while you’re practicing and when you’re out in the water.

The Mechanics of Breathing

When Should I Breathe?

You should try to breathe during the recovery of a stroke.  It may be obvious that you breathe in when your mouth is out of the water.  You should breathe out when your mouth is in the water.  Your exhalation should be complete before you turn your head to breathe in.  Otherwise, you’re not giving yourself the opportunity to inhale during the entire recovery.

Do I Need to Turn My Head to Breathe?

You might recognize this image of a swimmer in the prone position in the water.

As a swimmer rotates through your stroke, you have to naturally raise your shoulder and arm in order to bring it forward during their recovery.  If you kept her head absolutely straight (90 degrees from your shoulder line), your face would be angled to the side.

You actually have to turn your head more to look down at the bottom of the pool/sea (possibly 60o), than you do to breathe (possibly only 10o).  So, with a good rotation, breathing, even in choppy water, can be a lot easier.  That means less swallowed water and more room for cake when you’re done with your swim!

What should you focus on when breathing?

  • Turning your head directly to the side enough to clear the water.
    The amount you need to move your head will depend on the condition of the water.
  • Focusing your eyes where you want your face to be directed.
    Look directly to the side. Looking a little forward will cause your head to raise up.  Looking towards your shoulder will cause you to tuck your chin.

What to think about:

  • Turn your head only enough to breathe.
    Some swimmers feel that, if they shift their lower jaw, they can find it easier to get their head clear of the water.  Be aware of how much pressure you put on your jaw.  Some have hurt their jaws to the point of lockjaw!  For the sake of a couple of degrees of extra neck rotation, you can make your swimming much more comfortable.
  • Don’t over rotate your neck
    Yes, this is the opposite of the point above, but this is to help you find a balance.
    If you can see out of both eyes above the water or you can see the sky above you, you might consider the fact that you’ve rotated your neck too far.

Should I Lift/Lower My Head to Breathe?

The short answer is…no.  You should turn your head laterally in order to breath.

Forehead up

Many people think they have to tilt their forehead up to breathe.  Actually, this causes the need to raise your head because, as you lift your forehead, all sorts of things happen that might not be positive, including:

  • You lower your mouth into the water, meaning you have to raise your head even higher
  • By raising your head, you cause your chest to sink, and you have to push the water ‘down’ to offset this action
  • Finally, by pushing the water down, you cause your feet to sink

Forehead down

Putting your forehead down is a little better as it’s not likely to cause the results that you see in when lifting your forehead.  But, you might experience water going up your nose!

Head Turned Laterally

If you turn your head laterally by twisting your neck only slightly, your body position does not change as a result of breathing.

Drills to Consider

Things to practice:

  • Breath Control

If you are interested in trying to experiment with different stroke counts, I’d suggest having directed sets where you experiment with your breathing.
Some examples:

    • 100m intervals
      • 3/5: Breathe every 3 strokes for 50m and every 5 strokes for 50m
      • 2/4: Breathe every 2 strokes for 50m and every 4 strokes for 50m
    • 200m intervals
      • 3/5/7/3 by 50m
      • 2/4/6/2 by 50m
    • 50m with 2 breaths down and 1 breath back.

When doing this, do you need to change your kick at all?   Does your balance in the water feel different?

Note: When I feel that I’m not getting enough rotation in my stroke, I will switch how I breathe to be either bilateral or on my weak side.

  • Waves
    One coach of mine focused on the little things in races with minute detail.  We had entire sessions focused on starts and turns.  One of the things that was more fun is that he had our teammates create waves in the water and forced one swimmer to try to maintain as normal a stroke as possible.  This taught us to try to learn to change our breathing, our stroke, and even our turns based on the circumstances in the water.

When you’re in the water, spend some time trying to see how you can use the environment to challenge your stroke.
Some examples:

    • Try breathing into waves and see how that feels versus away from the waves.
    • Try changing your direction against the waves to see if there is a difference swimming 45 degrees across the waves versus, say, 30 degrees?
    • When swimming with the waves, can you change your stroke and breathing to gain a little speed from the natural roll of the waves?
  • Head Position
    Being aware of how your body reacts to changes in head position will allow you to find a position that is comfortable.

    • For 50m, see if you can regularly breath and see through one eye above water and he other other under the water.
      This is ideal.
    • For 50m, see if you can see above water in both eyes.
      This will have your forehead too high.
    • For 50m, see if you can keep both eyes under the water.
      This will have your forehead too low.

Try this drill while breathing to both sides focusing on whether you feel a difference in your neck and whether breathing is comfortable.

  • Single-Arm and Catch-up Drills
    Swimming with a single arm (or catch-up) isn’t just a method of torture.
    These drills allow you to focus on a small area of your swimming in isolation.

    • Swimming with one arm, working your weaker breathing side.
    • Also, to think about your balance and rotation in the water, when swimming with one arm (resting arm extended in front of you) see if you can breathe to both sides.

Of course, breathing during the recovery of your swimming arm should be understandable.
If you rotate enough, can you breathe underneath your resting arm?

  • Sightless swimming
    Close your eyes or fill up your goggles with water for 10m or more in a pool and swim.  (Make sure that nobody is swimming towards you in the lane, or you might make a new ‘friend.’)
    Do you hit the lane line on either side?
    Does breathing to either side (or bilaterally) make a difference?

It’s All About Options

Swimming is hard enough already.  Limiting yourself to only swimming when there are no waves so you can breathe only on one side  could limit your opportunities to enjoy cake after your swims.  (Who wants to eat cake when you’ve a tummy full of salt water?!?!)  Being able to alter your breathing based not only on your own experimentation with your stroke but also the swimming conditions can only make the journey more enjoyable.

Being able to breathe comfortably on a sunny day in Salthill with choppy waves coming into shore driven by an onshore wind.  If you could breathe towards the shore in both directions, not only could you easily site the shore but not having to look into the waves and drink a lot of salt water could make the day a bit more comfortable.

As always, this information is a collection of several discussions with our coaches, Seb and Brian.  So, many thanks to them for this and all of the help they provide us.

If you would like to hear more on this topic or others, please contact me.