Are you a beginner who’s trying to master the art of breathing right while swimming? Or are you a regular swimmer who wants to improve the energy expenditure and efficiency of a swim and go further, faster? Either way, breathing techniques could change the way you swim. In fact, correct breathing has the potential to improve your efficiency as a swimmer. It can even improve your timing by as much as 33 to 66 percent when you are snorkel surface swimming or underwater scuba swimming.1
Why Is Breathing Right Important When Swimming?
For any kind of exercise, your body needs more oxygen and higher ventilation or breathing volume. To be able to breathe better, the muscles around your lungs have to work well so your lungs can, in turn, be at their best. The more intense your workout, the better these respiratory muscles need to be. For instance, if you intend to swim longer distances or more laps, or take on more challenging strokes in the pool, the muscles surrounding the lungs must contract faster and with greater force to keep up with the sudden rise in metabolism and demand for oxygen.
By boosting the stamina or strength of your respiratory system, you will use less energy for the actual breathing. This can then be diverted to powering your motor muscles which actually do the swimming. You will be able to breathe deeper and slower and inhale more oxygen, without needing to take multiple breaths to get that same level.2
Breathing Techniques And Tips For Swimmers
You can make use of some simple tricks to get you breathing right. This includes land practice and tuning in on your own breathing technique before you begin to combine it with different strokes.
1. Count Or Use An “In/Out” Rhythm
It is important to get the carbon dioxide that builds up in your lungs when you breathe out of your system. And that’s often as important as inhaling enough oxygen. Counting can help ensure you inhale and exhale regularly. You could try mentally thinking the words “in” and “out” to remind you to breathe in and out. Another option is to simply count, exhaling on even counts.3 If you do this, small “sips” of air should do because the next one isn’t far away. Contrast that with the “gulping” needed if you wait too long between breaths.
2. Don’t Hold Your Breath
If you forget to exhale and you’re underwater, you could end up getting water in your sinuses. Inhaling water isn’t just unpleasant, it could also slow you down if you’re doing the backstroke or flip turning. If you don’t exhale, you also feel out of breath because of the carbon dioxide build-up from holding your breath.4
3. Practice Breathing Before You Actually Swim
To understand your own breathing better and perfect your technique, start by learning to breathe properly with the aid of a kickboard. That way, especially if you’re a beginner, you can focus on the breathing rather than trying to simultaneously get your arm and leg movements right too.
Alternatively, stand by the edge of the pool and hold on to the edge with your hands. Simultaneously, turn your head to breathe and practice counting to keep the rhythm.5
4. Try Yogic Breathing For Improving Technique
If you’re looking for ways to work on your breathing even when you’re not in the pool, try this dryland breathing exercise for swimmers. This is an exercise derived from yoga, designed to help you get accustomed to the quick inhalation and long exhalation needed when you swim.6
- Inhale quickly to the count of one.
- Exhale counting to two.
- Slowly build up to lengthen to counts of three and then eventually to five or even higher as you exhale.
- For bilateral breathing (more on that below), try breathing out on an even number count (two, four, six).
Once you have learned this technique of nasal breathing, try it out in water. But be prepared that you may end up exhaling through both your nose as well as your mouth in water. This is absolutely fine, so allow your lips to part to exhale when your face relaxes.
5. Learn Bilateral Breathing
Bilateral breathing is a useful skill to add to your repertoire. Simply put, it means you alternate which side you breathe on when you’re doing a stroke like freestyle. In actual races and sprints, pro swimmers have been spotted sticking to one-side breathing to give them better speed. However, if you plan on swimming numerous laps or long distances, it is better to balance the load between both sides to reduce the wear on one shoulder. If you aren’t careful, one-side breathing can also cause your stroke to become asymmetrical and even lopsided.
Besides this, if you are swimming in open water, bilateral breathing allows you to look on both sides to check that the water is clear of obstacles. No nasty surprises on the non-breathing side!7
To do this, breathe on odd number strokes when you swim freestyle or crawl. This will ensure you take turns coming up for a breath from your left and right side and don’t only breathe from one preferred side. Simply count numbers in your head, breathing on every third, fifth, seventh stroke and so on.8 It takes practice but you may find it actually improves your form overall.
Adapting Breathing For How You Swim
Depending on what kind of stroke you favor, your breathing technique too must change. Here’s a look at what works best for some of the most popular swimming strokes.
Freestyle Or Front Crawl
With freestyle, ensure you do not take your head out of the water and lift it up to breathe. Instead, the ear and cheek on the side you are not breathing must remain in water.9
The inhale-exhale swimming drill can help you with your breathing, aligning it with the natural roll of the stroke.10 Here’s what you need to do:
- Stand in water that comes up to your waist or a little higher.
- Submerge your face, arms extended so you can simulate the arm movement of a freestyle stroke.
- Start with the arm on the side you prefer inhaling with. Push the water back with that arm, simultaneously turning your face to that side to inhale.Your lower cheek must still be below water, but your mouth should be out.
- Inhale deeply just as your hand arrives at the end of the movement.
- Immerse your face again as you bring your arm to the forward position again. You should be looking straight down at the floor of the pool.
- Now use your other “exhale” arm, pushing it back as you exhale with your mouth and nose. You should see little bubbles emerge. Keep exhaling even as your arm returns to the forward position.
- Transition smoothly to the inhale arm and repeat the inhalation as before.
- Continue alternating till you set a steady rhythm with the breathing and strokes.
Once you master this breathing technique, give it a test run with an actual lap in freestyle.
With breaststroke, you must take care to raise your head above water adequately so you can actually inhale. Also remember to breathe out when you are gliding. If you don’t do this, you will not be able to actually inhale when you need to and will interrupt the forward motion of the stroke. Here’s a technique/drill to teach you to inhale at the “high point”11:
- Push off into breaststroke, arms extended in the downhill direction.
- Sweep your arms out, keeping elbows high.
- As your arms reach the corners, before you quickly sweep them in, you should experience a lift in your upper body.
- Your mouth will clear the water on its own, without any attempt to push up with your chin. You should inhale at this “high point”. This coincides with the “praying position” of your hands.
- When you kick and recover, you will find yourself in the downhill floating position again.
- Look down to the floor of the pool and exhale.
This breathing method allows you to make use of the natural movement of your body without expending additional energy to push your mouth out of the water or to return into the water.
Although a more difficult rhythm stroke, this should work fine if you are able to synchronize the breathing with the movement of your head. Here are some things to keep in mind:
- You should be inhaling when your body is its natural high point, as with the breast stroke. Unlike freestyle, you do not need to move your head to take a breath, but simply breathe in while going through the natural movement of the stroke.12
- You may choose to breathe at every stroke or every third stroke, as long as you keep with the rhythm and breathe at the correct time.13
- Try and breathe at the point when your arms come together at the tip of the triangle below you. This allows your hips to stay high.14
- Alternatively, let your chin slide forward skimming the water surface – do not lift your head.15
With the backstroke, there are numerous ways people choose to breathe since the face is exposed throughout, potentially allowing you to breathe whenever you need to. Some may breathe with every stroke, others with alternating strokes. Here’s how to breathe right for the backstroke16:
- Relax your lips and cheeks and take deep breaths just as you would when you are running on land. This allows for maximum oxygen to be taken in.
- Do not purse your lips or take shallow breaths.
- Any kind of panting is a warning sign that you’re not doing it right and will impact your endurance.
|↑1, ↑2||Want to Improve Your Performance? Breathe! American Council on Exercise.|
|↑3, ↑4||Exhaling—The Hidden Secret to Swimming Farther and Faster. U.S. Masters Swimming.|
|↑5||Water Fitness: How to Get Better at Swimming. National Institute for Fitness & Sport.|
|↑6||Breathing for Swimmers. Yoga Journal.|
|↑7||Preparing for the Open Water: Training. U.S. Masters Swimming.|
|↑8||Masters Swimming 101. U.S. Masters Swimming.|
|↑9||Teaching Freestyle by Mike Parratto (1995). American Swimming Coaches Association.|
|↑10, ↑11, ↑12, ↑13||Lucero, Blythe. The 100 best swimming drills. Meyer & Meyer Verlag, 2015.|
|↑14||Butterfly Success Rhythm is key, not power. U.S. Masters Swimming.|
|↑15||Butterfly Success Rhythm is key, not power. U.S. Masters Swimming.|
|↑16||Master backstroke.U.S. Masters Swimming.|