freestyle breathing technique
Developing a good breathing technique is perhaps the biggest challenge for beginner and intermediate swimmers. Problems with breathing can easily knock on into other parts of the stroke. For instance, breathing can cause scissor kicks, poor body position, cross-overs and lop sided strokes.
Many swimmers have a problem with their stroke that is related to their breathing technique without realising that their breathing is the cause of the problem.
Below we're going to take a quick look at good breathing technique and common problems. We'll also give you 7 tips to improve your breathing, try them even if you don't think you have a breathing problem - you may be surprised!
tip 1. focus on your exhalation not your inhalation
The most common problem swimmers have with their breathing is not exhaling under the water. If you exhale under the water between breaths you only have to inhale when you go to breathe. This makes things much easier. It also relaxes you and helps greatly with bilateral breathing. This is so important and can make a massive difference to your swimming. We're hot on this - check out our key article on exhalation: You Know Your Problem, You Keep It All In!
tip 2. when you're not breathing, keep your head still
In between breaths, hold your head still in one position. Don't roll it around as your body rotates - this will make you dizzy and will really hurt your co-ordination! Mr Smooth Stationary Head Keep your head stationary when not breathing, just like our animated swimmer Mr Smooth. If you've think you roll your head, concentrate on looking at one point on the bottom of the pool. Only turn your head to breathe. This will feel a little strange at first but should quickly start to feel much nicer. You'll find you feel much more coordinated with the rest of your stroke too. If you're struggling to co-ordinate holding your head still - try this visualisation. Imagine a half-full glass of champagne is sitting on the top of your head and you've got to keep it very still or it'll spill! Sometimes thinking of it like that can do the trick. You can practise at the shallow end or on dry land by bending forwards at the waist and performing pretend strokes while holding your head still.
tip 3. breathe into the trough - your bow wave is your friend
When you move through water you create a 'bow wave' with your head and body, just like a boat does. The shape of the bow wave means the water level drops along the side of the swimmer's face. Breathe into the trough or 'pocket'. This creates a trough either side of your head and body that is beneath the surface level of the pool - so there's air lower than you might expect there to be. Breathe into this trough and you don't have to lift your head to inhale. Sometimes swimmers call this 'breathing into the pocket' as it feels like there's a pocket of air there by your head. You don't have to swim fast to create a bow wave, even swimming slowly creates a decent pocket for you to breathe into. Many swimmers don't realise the bow wave is there and try and lift or over-rotate their head to take a breath. That's a big mistake, as we'll explain in
tip 4. tip 4. don't lift your head
Don't lift your head when you breathe! The problem with lifting your head to breathe is that your body acts like a see-saw and your legs sink. This adds lots of extra drag. With the trough or pocket of air by your head you don't have to lift your head up to breathe. To breathe into the trough you just have to rotate your head a little without lifting it. If you try and lift your head you disturb the bow wave, reducing the trough. Also, when lifting your head you tend to breathe too far forwards - and try and breathing over the high front of the bow wave. So, lifting your head disturbs the bow wave - it's a vicious circle. Instead of doing this, trust the pocket to be there and keep your head low. Look at the shape of the bow wave. Don't lift your head and try and breathe on the peak of it. Instead, breathe into this pocket. If you are struggling to find the pocket, a good drill to practise is to swim with fins (flippers) in a superman position - one arm out in front of you and the other resting by your hip. Kick gently on the side of your lead arm and look down at the bottom of the pool. When you are ready to breathe, simply rotate your head slightly to find the pocket and breathe. Don't hurry this, kicking with the fins will keep your moving forward so you can feel the pocket with your mouth.
tip 5. don't over rotate your head
A similar problem to lifting your head is rotating it too far - so you are looking upwards instead of to the side when you breathe. Over-rotating your head and breathing to the sky effects you balance and often causes scissor kicks. This is bad technique because it causes your body to over-rotate onto your side and cause a loss of balance. To support yourself you tend to cross-over with your lead hand creating a banana shape with your body. This causes you to snake down the pool from one side to the other. A scissor kick is also very likely. To correct this, you need to get used to breathing into the trough. Use the kick on the side drill we suggested in tip 4 and when you breathe try and keep your lower goggle in the water so you have one eye below the water and one above. If you are struggling to do this, swim in one of the side lanes of the pool and have someone walk on the edge of the pool beside you and ask them to keep their feet about level with your shoulders. As you swim and turn to breathe, look at their feet square on. Mr Smooth Stationary Head Mr Smooth has good body roll - he hardly has to rotate his head at all to breathe. If you develop a stiff neck whilst swimming, it's very likely you are either lifting or over-rotating your head to breathe. This puts great strain on your neck muscles. Improve your breathing technique and the stiffness should quickly go away.
tip 6. a lack of body rotation could be hurting your breathing
Good body rotation is a massive help to your breathing. That's because once you have rotated you don't have to turn your head much further to breathe. If you are struggling to breathe, perhaps to one side, poor body rotation could be your problem. For the full story on developing good body roll, check out our technique article on body rotation.
tip 7. learn to breathe bilaterally
Mr Smooth Bilateral Breathing What is 'bilateral' breathing? It's jargon for breathing to both sides. You could do this every 3 strokes as Mr Smooth demonstrates here. Or swap sides occasionally, e.g. breathe twice to one side then twice to the other. Here at Swim Smooth we believe that learning to breathe bilaterally is an investment that will pay you back every swim for the rest of your life. That's because it helps develop a symmetrical stroke technique which will make you cut straighter through the water. If you only breathe to one side it's very likely your rotation will be poor to your non-breathing side and you won't swim in a straight line. We've seen these problem time and time again with swimmers who only breathe to one side.
For help and tips on developing a good bilateral technique, see our article on bilateral breathing.
For further information on breathing, see our related articles: Breathing - Exhalation and The Power of Bilateral Breathing. About swimming's page on freestyle and swimming breathing.
Article © Swim Smooth 2009
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