Most competitive swimmers want one thing: to be the fastest in their heat or final. You can train your muscles, perfect your stroke, and even shave your entire body, but you may never reach your full potential if you neglect your breathing.
Bad breathing adds resistance to your swim and fatigues your body. The better you are at breathing, the more oxygen you give to your body and the better you will perform. This blog will provide competitive and experienced swimmers with different strategies, exercises, drills, and tips to improve breathing techniques.
Let’s start with the basics.
How often should I breathe when swimming?
How often you should breathe while swimming depends on a few variables, including the stroke you are performing, how fast you are going, and if you are sprinting or swimming long distance. Many swimming styles allow swimmers to choose when they breathe. For example, in a freestyle, swimmers may choose to breathe every second, third, fourth stroke, or more. Others like the butterfly allow swimmers to breathe every stroke or every second or third stroke. Ultimately, timing your breath to the rhythm of your stroke is favorable.
Can my breathing technique impact my speed?
Yes. Your breathing technique absolutely impacts your swim speed. How and how often you breathe will impact your swimming technique and form—thus impacting your speed. Fuller and more powerful strokes will be made possible by effective breathing patterns.
How to improve your swimming breath techniques
Improving your breathing technique takes time, patience, and commitment. These exercises, drills, strategies, and tips will help you breathe better and more efficiently in the pool and open water.
- 1. Bob progression drills
- 2. Swim with proper body position
- 3. Practice bilateral breathing
- 4. Exhale forcefully
- 5. Train with a respirator
- 6. Practice diaphragmatic breathing
1. Bob progression drills
You can challenge your lungs and build their capacity by performing a simple bobbing exercise. Start by bobbing up to your hairline in the pool or open water, then progress deeper and for longer. Focus on sustaining steady bubbles releasing from your nose during this exercise. You can even release your breath from your mouth if you feel the need.
Take away: Perform this bob progression drill for as long as feels safe. Push yourself to go deeper, and for longer each time you practice.
2. Swim with proper body position
If you are swimming with your head high and your hips low, you are causing more drag through the water and compromising your form each time you take a breath. Practicing proper body position when you swim will allow you to maximize your breathing and stroke techniques as well as your speed.
Take away: Work with a teammate or coach who can watch you and provide feedback to help you improve your form in the water.
3. Practice bilateral breathing
When swimming front crawl, it is essential to practice bilateral breathing. This means breathing on odd strokes by alternating the side in which you take a breath.
This is an important skill to perfect to increase your performance in a swimming competition or triathlon. A bilateral breathing pattern creates symmetrical and balanced strokes, making it easier to swim in a straight line in open water. It also trains you to feel comfortable breathing on both sides; this is incredibly beneficial should you face challenges like another swimmer splashing water into your face or having the sun in your eyes during an open water competition.
Take away: To execute a bilateral breathing pattern, you’ll want to adjust your inhale and exhale ratio to an “out-out-in” count. Despite this change, you’ll still want to maintain a movement of breath the entire time and not hold your breath at any time.
Note: Some short-distance lane competitors may choose to compete using unilateral breathing, but we strongly recommend incorporating bilateral breathing into your training to balance your strokes.
4. Exhale forcefully
Breathing is a series of inhales and exhales. When we think about rhythmic breathing techniques, exhalation can sometimes get overlooked. Many athletes complain about feeling winded during their swim and may believe this is due to oxygen debt or a shortened oxygen supply. In reality, the reason for feeling winded is due to a buildup of carbon dioxide (CO2).
While the body uses oxygen, it produces CO2 as a byproduct that needs to be released. If swimmers inhale big enough breaths to fill their lungs with oxygen but do not exhale fully to reduce the buildup of CO2, they will continue to feel distressed throughout their swim.
Take away: Practice exhaling forcefully through your nose and mouth to release CO2 buildup. Breathing should be fluid and rhythmic. Never pause or hold your breath.
5. Train with a respirator
Whether you’re training for a 50-meter freestyle or a triathlon, a respiratory training device is an excellent exercise for training your breath that doesn’t even require you to put your face in the water. You can use them on your off-days when you’re away from the pool, lake, or ocean.
Using a respiratory training device has been described as “weight training for your breathing muscles.” You’re able to set the resistance on the device to make breathing more challenging. You may also choose to place a plug over your nose as you inhale and exhale through the mouthpiece.
One study found that swimmers who performed 30 repetitions on a respiratory training device twice a day decreased their 100 meter swim time by 1.7%.
Take away: Purchase a respiratory training device and incorporate it into your dryland training. Talk to your coach first to see how often they’d like you to use it.
6. Practice diaphragmatic breathing
Another technique to practice on dry land is the Diaphragmatic Breathing Technique (DBT), also known as belly breathing. This is achieved when your stomach, abdominal muscles, and diaphragm are all engaged while breathing.
Diaphragmatic breathing helps the lungs fill more efficiently and teaches athletes how to control their inhalation and exhalation while breathing. Once an athlete has mastered this technique on land, they can progress to using it in the water—first in training or during a workout, then ultimately in competition. This method can help a swimmer perform better on race day and help with recovery.
Takeaway: Ask your coach about DBT breathing. Start by practicing this method on dry land and progress to it in the water.