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How to Breathe When Swimming

The fundamentals of how to breathe when swimming so you stay comfortable, relaxed, and fast in the water.

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Inhale. Exhale. Repeat…right?

Believe it or not, when it comes to learning how to breathe when swimming, there is more to optimal air exchange than those few words. Out of the water, breathing is basic; so effortless and fundamental that we rarely think about it. But in the water; gravity, buoyancy, propulsion, water resistance, and your own body join forces to shove water up your nose, down your lungs, and make breathing way more complicated than it should be. (Thanks a lot, physics.)

Let’s explore the fundamentals of how to breathe when swimming so you stay comfortable, relaxed, and fast in the water.

RELATED: A Complete Guide to Triathlon Swimming

Does it really matter how you breathe when swimming?

Yes, it it matters – a lot. Bad breathing habits can undermine your swim and, even worse, they can set off a chain reaction that affects your overall race performance. If poor air exchange shoots your heart rate to Zone 5 and you’re redlining a few hundred meters into the swim, you have to ease off the pace or stop altogether until your heart rate returns to manageable levels. A setback like this can blow up plans for a PR, leaving you gasping for air and wondering how things went so wrong, so fast.

The main considerations when learning how to breathe when swimming are effectiveness (getting enough oxygen) and efficiency (getting oxygen without impeding form or speed).

Air exchange effectiveness is especially challenging for triathletes who are self-taught swimmers. It’s not just the rookies – high-performing athletes (the ones who easily hold sub-six-minute miles on the run) can also crack because of ineffective air exchange.  

But effectiveness alone won’t produce the results you want. Swimming breaststroke is a great way to enjoy effective air exchange…but you won’t enjoy your swim split. That’s where efficiency comes into play. You want to insert effective air exchange into your stroke seamlessly, without slowing down or disrupting your perfect and hard-earned technique.

RELATED: Dear Coach: How is Breathing Related to Performance?

Common misconceptions about breathing when swimming

Inhaling water is inevitable.  

This may be the best news you hear all day: yes, you can avoid taking in water when you breathe. Adjusting body position, breathing to the side, relaxing your head and neck, and increasing the time spent swimming on your side will all contribute to gaining control of how and when you breathe.  

Always feeling winded is normal. 

It’s easy to mistake oxygen deprivation for real, honest, exertion. As you improve air exchange, you’ll begin to feel more relaxed and more in control of your swim. Don’t be surprised if you unlock new levels of stamina and speed in your swim. 

How to breathe when swimming: Inhale

Inhale during the pull phase of your stroke. It’s usually better to start taking your breath early in the phase so you have enough time to breathe deep. As your body leans onto the side of your extended arm, rotate your head to the side just enough to inhale without taking in water through your mouth or nose. Keep your head in line with your body. Three good cues are:

  1. Make sure the head is in a neutral position, not straining your neck, or tilting your head up or down
  2. Keep one goggle in and one goggle out of the water
  3. Make sure your ear stays right against the shoulder of your extended arm 

Make the breath count; one full deep inhalation. If you feel the need to take multiple breaths during the pull phase, that’s a sign that you’re taking short, shallow breaths and aren’t getting enough air. Make the inhale count. You only want to take a single inhale per stroke, so this breath should be deep and full; at first, it will probably feel more exaggerated than what you’re used to on the bike or run. That’s normal, and you will get used to it.

How to breathe when swimming: Exhale

You should always exhale whenever you are face down in the water. You may think it’s smart to hold your breath, but don’t – it’s a trap! Holding your breath will throw off the timing of your stroke. If you wait until your lungs are screaming for oxygen to dump your ‘spent air’ in your lungs, you’re overdrawing from the bank. Exhale through all the other phases of your stroke, just do it face down. Limit the time your face is out of the water to inhaling, and nothing more. You can control the rate of exhalation to accommodate a breathing pattern that suits you, preferably one breath every three, four, or five strokes. Blow a steady stream of bubbles in the water as you count the strokes. This will help avoid breathing too often, which can lead to hyperventilation. It will also minimize excessive head movement, which can cause disorientation. You should be ready and hungry for your next breath.

RELATED: A Beginner’s Guide to Learning How to Swim for Triathlon

Tips and tricks for learning how to breathe when swimming

Although not the hottest topic, perfecting air exchange can dramatically improve your swim and pay dividends on your overall race performance. The main goal is to gain more control over your swim.  Below are a few key points, drills, and checklists you can reference for training purposes.

Swimming mistakes to avoid

Holding your breath while swimming.

You wouldn’t hold your breath during your run, so don’t do it on the swim. Holding your breath disrupts a normal breathing pattern.

Lifting your head out of the water to breathe.

You may be tempted to lift your head up and away from the water for a clean breath, but it’s more efficient to turn to the side. The average human head weighs 10 to 11 pounds, so the instant you lift your noggin up, it loses the benefit of buoyancy. Now you’re hoisting a bowling ball above water while you swim. 

Breathing to the front.

Can you see straight ahead while you breathe? If so, you’re swimming in a more vertically oriented position or “swimming uphill” and you are swimming flat and increasing your body’s drag resistance like a barge instead of a speed boat.

Breathing too often.

This might be contentious because some swimmers swear by a two-stroke breathing pattern. The main drawbacks are: such a short breathing interval can lead to hyperventilation, and the excessive head motion can throw off a good rhythm to your stroke and cause disorientation.

RELATED: Now is the Time to Correct Your Biggest Swim Mistakes

Breathing Drills for Swimmers

Bobs

Bobs are the best way to practice effective air exchange and become comfortable with your face underwater most of the time. and only come up for a single deep breath. Take one full inhalation and submerge. Stay submerged until you’ve exhaled almost all of the air in your lungs, then pop up briefly for another single full inhale and then back down you go. You should only come up to inhale otherwise, spend the rest of your time exhaling underwater. 

Do 10 bobs at the start of practice or whenever you feel like your stoke is getting out of control and you can’t catch your breath.

Side kicking

Begin streamline kicking on your front; maintain a steady kick and hold one arm fully extended out in front (12 o’clock) and lower the other arm down to your side (6 o’clock). Maintain a clean, straight body line.  Lean onto the side of your outstretched arm – anywhere from a 45 to 90-degree lean is good. As you kick, position your head face down, toward the bottom of the pool, eyes looking past your armpit. Unless you are inhaling, your head should remain facedown. Whenever you need to breathe, roll and rotate your head face-up (toward the ceiling), get your air, then rotate back to the facedown position. Do not lift your head up. At first, you may feel off balance, like you are going to ‘fall.’ This feeling goes away as you strengthen your kick and gain balance. 

How to breathe when swimming: Air exchange checklist

Inhale
Maintain a long, straight body line during pull phase
Lean to the side of the extended arm
Ear rests against the shoulder of the extended arm
One goggle in, one goggle out
Rotate head enough that mouth and nose clear the water
Looking out to the side during the inhale
Breathe full and deep
Rotate face down
Exhale
Neck relaxed and head in a ‘neutral’ position
Force air out
Eyes looking straight down
Control rate of exhale to time the next inhale
Lungs almost empty before inhale

Joel MacCaughey has 14 years coaching experience in USA Masters swimming, age group and senior swimming, high school swimming and diving, and triathlon.