We tend to take swimming breathing technique for granted, even while swimming. Breathing should not be taken for granted, particularly in open water, because there are certain challenges with breathing the freestyle swimming breathing technique that make it different than breathing during exercises on land.
There are three important questions regarding breathing in freestyle that should be addressed:
Where should I breathe?
How often should I breathe?
What should I do with the air in my lungs once I place my face back in the water?
The answers to these questions might surprise you.
Where you get your breath is important for two reasons. First, as the head breaks the surface of the water to enable the mouth to meet air, it causes a bow wave to form. The higher the head is lifted for the breath and the faster the swimmer, the larger the bow wave formed and the more frontal drag is caused.
At The Race Club I have found the vast majority of swimmers have their heads tilted forward during the freestyle, resulting in the head protruding from the surface at all times. This head position results in a bow wave being formed at all times, so long as the swimmer is moving. There is never a point at which the head dips below the surface. That means the frontal drag is elevated at all times.
Ideally, the head should dip underwater after the breath is taken precisely as the recovering hand strikes the water in front. This moment is what I call the surge point, as it is typically the fastest point in the stroke cycle. Wave or "surface drag," when measured at elite race speeds of around two meters per second, has been shown to account for about 20-25% of the total frontal drag forces. Most of that surface drag is coming from the head, so it would be nice to eliminate this type of drag force, even if it is only for that important top speed moment in the cycle.
In order to get the head underwater after the breath, the chin must be tucked down nearly to the chest. That means the line of sight is directly downward, not forward. That also means you will no longer see what is in front of you.
At the beginning of a triathlon, which is usually a frenzy of tightly packed swimmers jockeying for position, keeping the head down after a breath can easily result in you swimming into or over another swimmer. Therefore, it is advisable at the beginning of the race to keep the head tilted forward in order to avoid a collision, in spite of the additional drag force. Once the field spreads out and you reach a more comfortable, spacious position in the water, that is the time to start tucking the chin down after the breath.
I have also found that most swimmers over-lift and over-rotate their heads for the breath. In other words, they lift the crown of their head upward while turning directly to the side for the breath. The bow wave formed from lifting the head creates a crest (high point) and a trough (low point). The crest is formed directly to the side of the swimmer’s head and the trough is back by the swimmer’s shoulder.
If the swimmer turns the head directly to the side and tries to breathe in the crest, he will need to rotate the head further to find air and has a higher risk of swallowing water. Swimmers need to learn how to breathe in the trough which enables them to get the breath with less time and effort, cause less frontal drag and reduce the risk of swallowing water. Swallowing salt water can lead to many complications and symptoms, including nausea, vomiting and dehydration.
I once asked Diana Nyad, as she was preparing in the Florida Keys for her famous swim from Cuba to Key West, how she managed to avoid swallowing sea water in the middle of the Gulf Stream with three- to four-foot waves.
“It is simple,” she responded. “I breathe back in the trough, so I never gulp sea water."
There are three important points we teach our swimmers in learning to breathe in the trough, or what we call the low-profile breath.
First, keep the crown of the head pointing forward during the breath. That thought will help you keep your chin tucked near the chest and rotated backwards for the breath, rather than to the side.
The second point is to always keep one goggle in the water during the breath. Most swimmers are not even aware of what they are looking at during the breath, but if you make a point to keep both eyes open and if you are seeing nothing but blue sky during the breath, you are over-turning the head. You should always be seeing underwater with the lower goggle during the breath.
The third point is to elevate your mouth to the side for the breath. By sliding your mouth around toward the breathing side, you can find the air with less head turn, saving you time and effort.
For a great example of a low-profile breath, you can see Olympian Nathan Adrian on YouTube swimming the 100 meter freestyle events.
Nathan trained with The Race Club in 2008 and is one of the fastest freestylers in the world. In his 100 freestyle events, he breathes every cycle back in the trough, yet he is so quick, one can hardly tell that he is getting a breath. For those of you that are in Lane 2 or 3 of The Race Club subscription service, we have produced an excellent webisode on freestyle breathing techniques, using the low-profile breath.
Finally, since sighting is such an important technique in open water swimming, it is important that you learn to sight while swimming by lifting the head forward at the right time interval. While sighting is not easy and increases your frontal drag significantly, it is essential for good racing. Swimming more efficiently or easier in the wrong direction will not help your race strategy.
The frequency of recommended sighting ranges from every six to every 12 strokes, depending on the conditions. The more current and the larger the waves, the more often you will need to sight. Stopping your swim to lift your head out of the water to find the next buoy does not conform well to the law of inertia, requiring even more energy to get going again. Nor will stopping in the water help your swim time. Be careful about breathing while sighting, as you are at greater risk of swallowing water while breathing to the front.
In the next article, we will discuss the important topic of how often to breathe while swimming freestyle and will also answer your questions about the side on which you should be breathing.
Yours in Swimming,
Gary Hall Sr., M.D. is a three-time Olympic swimmer (‘68, ‘72, ‘76) who earned a medal in each of the three Olympic Games. At one time he held 10 world records in all strokes except breaststroke and was the World Swimmer of the year in 1969 and 1970.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.