Breathing Part II: Freestyle Breathing Technique


Proper breathing is a fundamental skill for freestyle swimming.  For adult-onset swimmers, breathing can be problematic since it is dependent on stroke rate, can throw off body position and alignment, and disrupt timing.  Part I focused on breathing patterns, whereas the focus of this article is to improve your breathing technique in order to minimize drag forces, keep body alignment, and maintain momentum with a higher stroke rate.


Stay on the long axis

Think of your head as an extension of your spine.  You will be more streamlined if you can keep all body parts except your stroking arms aligned and rotating around an imaginary skewer down your long axis.  As with most sports, your body tends to follow your head and when your head deviates from the long axis, the rest of your body will compensate.  When you take a breath in, you should only allow one goggle out of the water and you sneak a “Popeye” breath in the bow wave.  Two common mistakes:


  • Raising your head forward before or as you rotate to breathe. Underwater you will see the swimmer look forward and lift the head just before or as they initiate the breath.
  • Lifting your head toward the sky to breathe. In some cases the head comes completely out of the water, the stroking arm presses down on the water and hips and legs drop.

Two examples of head not in line with the long axis


Head reset point

Drag is minimized when your head is aligned with the rest of your spine and your gaze is straight down or slightly forward.  Your head should be completely or mostly submerged in this position, imagining just a small circle on the back of your head out of the water the size of a tiny yamaka.  Imagine holding your fist between your chin and your sternum while keeping your neck and head aligned (slight chin tuck).  This is the position your head should be in most of the time except when you rotate to breathe.  Reset to this point as soon as possible and be careful not to “wag” your head with your stroking arms.

Example of the head reset point


Move head independently of body

Although the head stays on the long axis, it does not always rotate with the rest of your body.  Between inhales, your head stays in the “reset” position while your body rotates on the long axis.  When you rotate your head to breathe, it is most natural to move it with the body’s rotation.  After your inhale, return your head to the “reset” position quickly and independent of the rest of the body.  One cue is to get your head back into the water before you see your recovery arm.


Focus on the exhale

This is the most fundamental skill and should be mastered first.  A common mistake is to hold your breath for a moment while your head is underwater and continue the exhale while you are rotated to breathe and you end up both exhaling and inhaling while your face is out of the water.  One telltale sign of is to see water spray out as the mouth comes out of the water.  Another is to see breath holding even as the face comes out of the water.  Instead focus on blowing bubbles while your face is in the water so your exhale is longer and more complete.  This allows the inhale to occur quicker and more passively.  A simple drill is to practice bobbing in the water and exhaling the entire time you head is underwater.  This drill is also taught as a survival technique and you should be able to bob in the water for hours, expending very little energy.

You can see this swimmer still holding her breath and has yet to start her inhale.  She is lifting her head toward the sky to breathe and scissoring legs to balance.


Keep your Timing

For most swimmers, breathing slows down your stroke and disrupts timing.  The tendency is to pause during the inhale, lay on the outstretched arm while the elbow drops, and often the legs scissor to balance.  Timing and momentum will be greatly improved if you can keep your head on the long axis, sneak your breath and get you head back in the water faster, and initiate the catch of your outstretched arm quicker.  A beeping swim metronome such as the Finis Tempo Trainer can give you an audio cue to keep your timing.

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