The Keys to Proper Breathing in Freestyle Swimming

The Keys to Proper Breathing in Freestyle Swimming

By Coach Liz Waterstraat

I’d argue that swimmers are some of the most disciplined and technical athletes out there. We hone our skills underwater and push our aerobic capacity with limited access to oxygen.

To that end, efficient, technical breathing is key to maximizing performance in the water. Here are a few simple, yet essential techniques to practice and refine while swimming freestyle.

Head Position 

As you move through the water, it’s important to keep your head in neutral position and in line with your spine. At the end of the pull phase, when it's time to breathe, turn your head slightly towards the side of the arm pulling through the water. 

Do NOT lift your head out of the water for a breath. That will disrupt your body position and put unnecessary strain on your neck. Think rotate. Rotate your face towards the arm and shoulder that is taking the stroke and pull in a quick breath. As you perfect your rotation, you will find that one eye out of the water, one in, laying flat on the ear is all you need.

Put into practice:

Grab a kickboard. As you push off from the wall, extend the board in front of you and begin to flutter kick. Keep your head in neutral position under the water. Exhale out of your nose/mouth completely and when you are ready for a breath, rotate your head to the side and breathe in. Repeat. You can practice inhaling on one side or alternating on both sides. 

Another drill for more novice swimmers is to hang off of the gutter (hands on gutter, body floating on water) and practice exhaling underwater (blow bubbles) then turning your head to breathe. This is helpful for those who have the tendency to lift their head before they breathe. 

Inhale Out (of the water), Exhale In (the water)

After you’ve filled your lungs and rotated your face back into the water, begin to exhale immediately. Blow bubbles from your nose and/or mouth and make sure you have completely emptied your lungs before coming up for a breath. 

You are never actually holding your breath while swimming. Rather, you are rhythmically breathing in and out throughout the duration of your time in the water. This is so important, and worth repeating: we do not hold our breath when we swim. Doing so creates a lot of tension and the build up of C02 which creates that burning, panicky feeling we often get in open water. Think of it as sneaking a breath when you turn your head to breathe; many mistakenly try to fill their lungs with air. 

Put into practice:

Start with a series of sink downs in the shallow end of the pool. The goal is to exhale strongly, consistently and completely as you reach the bottom of the pool. Notice how long it takes to exhale completely. 

Breathing Patterns

For most triathletes and distance swimmers, breathing every 2-3 strokes is optimal. For sprint/pool swimmers, they may benefit from breathing less frequently. 

It's important to include some practice where you vary or limit breathing patterns to get more comfortable with the possibility of missing a breath in open water. For example, breathing every 3-9 strokes teaches you how to properly exhale, relax through the exhalation and mentally work through any anxiety about missing or delaying the next breath. In open water, you must contend with bumps from other swimmers, chop in the water, etc., so this practice prepares you for these scenarios. 

Put into practice:

A pull buoy can make it easier to get the hang of breathing with different patterns but once comfortable, remove the pull buoy and swim.

One of the best ways to hone in your swim form is through a video form analysis. Check out Coach Liz's virtual packages here

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