Tips To Improve Your Freestyle Breathing

** Stop Press: SS Head Coach Paul Newsome interviewed about our Swim Type System on Ben Greenfield's excellent podcast. Listen: here - starts at 53mins. **

Do you struggle with your breathing when swimming freestyle? Perhaps you take on water or feel like you have to crane your head up high to reach air? This year we've received more questions and forum posts about this problem than perhaps any other. It can even be a problem for advanced level swimmers when they become tired. Here's our advice:

When your head travels through the water it creates a bow-wave around it, with a slight increase in the water height in front of your head but a large drop in height as it passes your head and neck:

When we breathe in freestyle we need to keep our head as low as possible because lifting your head causes your legs to sink. Great breathing technique involves breathing into the trough by the side of your head to keep it as low as possible:

Take a close look at the shape of the bow wave and how it's dropping quite steeply as it passes your head:

The correct place to aim your mouth is into position A but swimmers who struggle with their breathing are often trying to breathe slightly forwards into position B. The bow wave isn't very deep or well formed there and it will be a real struggle to reliably take on air:

To get the position of your breathing right it may feel like you're breathing very slightly behind you - you should just be able to see your arm-pit as you do this. This will only feel like a slight adjustment - you don't want to breathe too far backwards (position C) as this will twist your body and drag your lead arm across the centre line:

The next time you swim, experiment a little with your breathing position and try and find that sweet-spot where you can reliably find the bow wave trough but not breathe too far behind you and lose your alignment in the water.

Two other quick tips: Aim to keep your lower goggle underwater when you breathe and experiment with angling your mouth towards the surface like Popeye chews his spinach:

(image taken from our DVD Boxset)

Do you struggle with your breathing when swimming? Have you tried this tip? Let us know how it works for you on the comments section: here

Swim Smooth!


Anonymous said...

One drill I've used is to swim with one eye open - the eye that comes out of the water.
With nothing to see, the closed eye stays in the water.
I did this drill breathing to one side only, which I know you don't recommend. Breathing every three strokes, the drill might be confusing and dizzying.
You might try it breathing every five, or concentrate it in a drill where you swim down the pool breathing to the right and swim back breathing to the left.

Morgan McArthur said...


Several yrs ago I attended a swim workshop that was led by Shane Gould. Her tip for breathing was to 'just sneak a sip' of air in that bow wave cavity. The sneak bit has stuck with me and it keeps my head turn from being too pronounced.

Great posts and refreshing approach.

Morgan McArthur

TriathleteMama said...

Recently I was filmed while swimming. There were many surprises! I was not aware that my head is COMPLETELY underwater when I swim. The result, I suspect, of months of working on pressing my chest down to get my legs to come up. I just wonder what happens to the bow wave and the cavity for breathing when your head is submerged?

Tom M said...

I like to do a breathing drill that I call the "pirate drill". Go down the length of the pool ONLY breathing to one side. If you are breathing to the right side, keep your RIGHT EYE closed. If you are breathing correctly, you should only see water with your left eye. Repeat this on the other side closing your LEFT eye. Breath to your LEFT and again, you should just see water! Give it a try and let me know what you think,

Tom M.

umi4smooth said...

A real problem here occurs if you start into some gliding: the bow does not build up since there is no force pushing you forward. so this is also some good litmus test for your stroke: only if you prevent gliding and create pull with your leading arm early enough you will enjoy the pleasure to haver sufficient space for breathing in.

Anonymous said...

I find everything you say absolutely correct ... in fairly smooth water. I struggle when there are significant waves. Here's how it goes for me:
Breathing OK until the waves sync with my stroke.
Turn to breath - oops I'm under a wave.
Try again - oops I'm under the next wave.
I'm slowing down by now so there's less of a bow wave trough.
I try the other side - damn another wave.
Desparate for air I heave myself high out of the water and gasp for air.

I'd appreciate any tips on breathing in rough water.

By the way, this is a great blog and so generous for it to be free.

Swim_butterfly said...

I've tried it but angling the mouth in breathing makes me exert more effort as compared to opening the mouth small and normal.

Paul said...

@ Anonymous # 1

Great suggestion - will try myself next session. Just to clarify, we are not against unilateral breathing, but would encourage everyone out there to develop their ability to breathe equally well to either side for times that require a single-sided rhythm, i.e rough water / drafting etc.

@ Morgan

Absolutely - we also refer to this as Sneaky Breathing as I believe it's a great analogy. Watch an elite swimmer swimming and if you blink you miss them breathing it's that smooth!

@ TriathleteMama

Swimming with a totally submerged head is not suitable for every swimmer despite many coaching advice that you will see / read suggesting that everyone must swim this way. You are experiencing there one of the classic reasons why this approach is not advisable for every swimmer...what's even more interesting is that this extreme "head down, bum up" approach for some swimmers (especially females) actually INCREASES frontal resistance by presenting too much of the body to the water, especially if natural buoyancy sees this swimmer already pretty horizontal in the water.

@ Tom M

Have you been spying on Anonymous #1?!!

@ umi4smooth

Superb advice! This is why I'm really not a massive fan of the term "glide" with reference to the freestyle stroke as this invariably occurs when really pushing this point. Interestingly enough, combine the "head-down, bum-up" approach that TriathleteMama discussed with the exaggerated glide phase (as many articles / instructions will suggest) and you have the potential to create real breathing issues for yourself.

@ Tony

Of course rough water swimming will present it's own set of special challenges - breathing being top of that list. Personally Tony, in very rough water I'll resort to using position (C) from the above pictures, but be really mindful of the potential consequences of dragging the lead-arm off alignment in the process. Add a bit of additional rotation and you should be set.

@ Swim_Butterfly

No worries - if your approach works, stick with that! Bill Kirby (Olympic Gold medallist, pictured) makes it look so easy doesn't he?!



Unknown said...

whether each swimmer needs to stretch the muscles, how many seconds each muscle movement and help any swimmer

Unknown said...

I am rehabilitating a shoulder - specifically, "scapular instability". I have to do a lot of drills that are at reduced intensity and, consequently, not at a speed that is high enough to create the bow wave necessary for proper breathing. When I roll to the side, so much water slides over my head and face that I end up taking in water rather than air. This creates a situation where I end up lifting my head to breathe to either side, which is exactly contrary to what I need to do (and contrary to what my muscles need to stabilize my shoulder blade!). Has anyone else had this problem? Any suggestions for breathing correctly while swimming at low intensity? Thanks!!!

Adam Young said...

Hi Libo, approx what speed are you swimming? Say per 100m?

Oldtrier said...

Great Blog lots of good advice, I'm really struggling with breathing, I don't have a coach but any of the sessions I have done with coaches, they all say I "move" my head too much which upsets my body position. Since, I'm obsessed with trying to keep my head steady while still breathing

Ted Curtin said...

Good comments and suggestions here. Directional breathing is key to effective freestyle swimming but one other aspect that swimmers should consider, and that I found very effective, is timing. This is especially true for triathlons.
The timing of your exhale needs to occur as soon as your head re-enters the water and continue through a full deep and relaxing exhale. The goal is to get all of the bad air out of your lungs to make room for the good air on your intake. Exhaling to late or as your head exits the water doesn't give you enough time to fully expel the carbon dioxide (CO2) from your lungs. That creates a sensation of not getting enough air and prevents you from getting into a nice relaxing rhythm.
A coach once told me to concentrate on getting rid of the "bad air" and the good air will find it's way in. With a little practice, you'll actually be looking forward to the swim portion of your next triathlon, whether it's a Sprint, Olympic, or Ironman distance.
Swim, Bike, Run - For Fun, For Life!
Ted Curtin

Anonymous said...

You need to take part in a contest for one of the finest websites online. I'm going to recommend this web site!
aspex-tec |

taayabah makda said...

The advice is great, everything which is said of regardingbrathing inhaling and exhaling was what was needed for me to be able to relax in water and avoid the CO2 causing the havock by exhaling incorrec time and inha ling with head up, that was my huge problem which created the impede ment to tyresome swimming, thanks for great advice

Subscribe to Feel For The Water
And receive the amazing Mr Smooth animation as your optional free gift.
Find out more: here

* required
I consent to receiving tips to improve my swimming and occasional information about our products and services from Swim Smooth. You can unsubscribe at any time. See our Privacy Policy
Powered by Blogger.


Blog Archive

Recent Posts