A Simple Exercise To Make Your Breathing Easier

(If you missed Jono Van Hazel's amazing stroke from last week, see it here.)

Many swimmers struggle with their breathing when swimming freestyle, feeling short of breath and in some cases desperate for air. Let's take a look at an exercise to help your breathing technique become much more effective. Even if you are a more advanced level swimmer this can make a surprising difference so give it a try yourself.

Breathing 3-5-7-3

Push off from the wall and swim freestyle at a steady pace, taking your first breath after three strokes. Then take five more strokes before breathing and then seven more before breathing. Then return to three strokes, carrying on through the 3-5-7-3-5-7 cycle.

When swimming freestyle, whenever
your face is in the water you should be
exhaling smoothly through your
mouth or nose.
Try this for 100m continuously and make sure you are exhaling smoothly into the water on every stroke between breaths. This shouldn't be forced, relax into your exhalation as if you are sighing into the water.

Don't think of the five and seven as longer to hold your breath, instead turn the psychology around and think of it as giving you longer to breathe: specifically longer to exhale!

This exercise is a very powerful way to develop a good exhalation technique because it demonstrates to you how much air you have in your lungs and how it feels to exhale properly (during the five and seven).

Try the following sequence, it's perfect as part of a warm-up or drill set :
100m breathing 3-5-7-3
100m breathing every 3 strokes
100m breathing 3-5-7-3
100m breathing every 3 strokes
(take 10 seconds rest between each 100m)
The magic happens when returning to breathing every three strokes: suddenly it feels much easier and more relaxed because you have improved your exhalation during the 3-5-7-3.

If you struggle to breathe 3-5-7-3 for 100m, trying using a pull buoy to give you some extra support and reduce the oxygen demand from your kick. Conversely, if you find the exercise very easy try 5-7-9-5!

The Importance Of Exhalation

Improving your exhalation technique feels so good because:

- It rids the lungs and blood stream of CO2, the build-up of which is what leads to feelings of tension or even panic. Blow the CO2 out into the water and your swimming will feel much more relaxed.
- It makes swimming more aerobic by improving the gas exchange in your lungs.
- It means that when you do go to breathe you only have to inhale, not exhale and inhale in the short window available to you.
- It reduces the buoyancy in your chest which helps keep your buoyancy balanced, bringing your legs up higher towards the surface.

Exhaling into the water sounds very basic but many swimming coaches (even some illustrious ones) have overlooked how important it is for good swimming technique. If you are a triathlete, try holding your breath for a few seconds whilst running or cycling and see just how bad it feels!

Note: This Isn't A Hypoxic Exercise

Swim coaches have traditionally asked swimmers to take fewer breaths believing that the oxygen deprivation improved their aerobic fitness; this was known as 'hypoxic training'. That isn't the purpose of the 3-5-7-3 exercise, instead we're using fewer breaths over short distances to give you enough time to exhale fully and get the feel of doing so.

Give it a go in your next session, you will be surprised what a huge difference it makes to how you feel in the water.

Swim Smooth!


James said...

I've been trying this for a while but I find it doesn't really work in a 25m pool. 3,5,7 leaves me 1-2 strokes short of 25m then a tumble turn means I'm desperate for breath!

What I've adapted it and started doing is a length of breathing every 3, a length of every 5, length of 7, length of 3, which ahs the added advantage of helping me to count lengths in the warm-up or cool down! Would you recommend continuing with what I'm doing to doing it as a "3/5/7/touch-turn-and breathe"?


Bob said...

Thanks, I will give this a go. Struggling to extend my endurance and I think poor breathing is behind my problems.

TriScott said...

Thanks for the post (as always!). One question: are we trying to maintain the same exhalation rate, or the same exhalation volume? Do you exhale much more aggressively when breathing every 3 strokes than every 7 strokes, to keep the total volume of air exhaled the same?

Dmitri Likhachev said...

Since the day I started reading you letters, especially about the breathing techniques, I wondered what you think about the hypoxic training. I would be grateful if you explained the contemporary attitude towards swimming under oxygen deprivation. Is it actually beneficial for improving endurance? You mentioned greatly that one feels bad when he tries to hold his breath while running, then what is the purpose of hypoxic training while swimming? Thank you very much in advance.

Adam Young said...

Hi James, yes I think that would work very nicely. It's probably slightly harder than rotating through 3-5-7 but like you say it's certainly easier to coordinate in a 25m pool.

Hi TriScott, you are probably going to slow down your exhalation slightly during the 7s but I wouldn't over-think this, just try it and see what happens and how it feels. The exercise is an experiment on yourself so try different things and see what works.

Hi Dmitri, no we don't believe in training in oxygen debt and don't do hypoxic training for that reason. We do occasionally mention Hypoxic in some of our earlier training plans but that just relates to improve your exhalation technique as in this post.



Dmitri Likhachev said...

Thank you, Adam!

Unknown said...

Nice article and point well made. I use this drill with kids in my lessons too, it's great for self-discovery. I have never understood what the benefit of hypoxic training is, it is beyond anaerobic after all. The focus needs to be more towards the development of the core, diaphragm and inter-rib muscles for inhalation and exhalation; and the development of the circulatory and respiratory systems to increase the aerobic capacity.

Do interval training to develop your aerobic capacity, drills to develop your technique, and therefore your endurance.

Joe Fred said...

Dear Adam,
Thank you for the interesting exercise. I do try to exhale continuously once my face hits the water, but I find that any more than 5 strokes, I have force the exhalation rather than breath out comfortably. I can get to 7 strokes before taking a breath, but I must interrupt my exhalation. Any suggestions?
Thank you in advance.

Paul said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Adam Young said...

Hi Joe, you definitely shouldn't be forcing it... it's more of a relaxation like a sigh. You might need to pace it out slightly more gently over seven but not too much slower!



Anonymous said...

Hi there
Could you clarify some points about exhalation: Many coaches tell athletes to hold their breath or only exhale for a short while when they swim b/ if they fully exhale, they are blowing out good oxygen. I was also told that the tight feeling in the chest when holding your breath is telling your body it needs oxygen -but can be alleviated through relaxation and practice. And that we need to learn to override that feeling and push through it. What are your thoughts?

Rudolf said...

Now that i have been starting to do this 3-5-7-3 technique i have to admit, when i first read it i thought you can't be serious, 7 strokes, somewhere in the middle of a 50m lap, no way.... - but than i asked the National Triathletes coach that is also every day at the pool with his team and he jokingly said "did you mean the 5-7-9 technique"!!
So there i had it, lots to learn and improve, and it's as always, in small steps.
But what troubles me still is the breathing out under water. I notice that i kind of hold back a little of extra air, just in case a wave or whatever swaps over me exactly when i want to inhale - and thus, during the last split seconds before i get my mouth out of the water i let go of that last bit of air in a big blow.
Is this normal??
Sometimes i think it too limits the amount of oxygen i actually take in once over water, but to analyse this on my own while swimming is a bit difficult.
Also, exhaling goes in smaller or slower portions during the 7 stroke part and much harder faster during the 3 stroke part, simply to make sure i am not already empty on stroke 5.
Would be important to learn how to exactly time the amount of air that goes out instantly after re-emerging, or is this normally up to individual feel for each swimmer??

Andy said...

This drill has helped me in three ways in the last week.

I have been doing lots of lengths of 4,6 and 8 as I am not great at bilateral breathing yet.

breathing on 4 is helping to fix

breath management, over rotation on breathing side, stroke continuation (not pausing to breathe) and breathing on 4 and 6 must be good training for dealing with flip turns.

scrabble cheat said...

Thanks for sharing your advice, it worked for me the very first time I tried and was actually very helpful, my coach was right that breathing is very important when swimming.

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