Open water swim breathing with the FORM Smart Swim Goggles

Five Breathing Tips for Open Water Swimming

Open water races require an extra level of effort. You’re battling waves, wind, currents, sun, and the flailing arms of a hundred other swimmers. With all these added stressors, being able to breathe consistently is more important than ever. But, breathing while open water swimming comes with its complications.

If you’ve never swum outside the lane ropes of your local pool, you might be a little surprised by how different open water swimming is. The water is serene and calm at times, but it can also be stormy, unpredictable, and wavy.

Here are five breathing tips to help you thrive during your next triathlon or open water race.

Learn to breathe bilaterally.

Bilateral breathing—or breathing on both sides—is one skill most swimmers learn at a young age. But, as years pass, many swimmers revert to breathing to one side. While it’s a good skill for all swimmers to feel comfortable breathing bilaterally, it’s especially beneficial for open water swimming.

mirror image Ous Mellouli wearing the FORM Smart Swim Goggles

In open water races, some variables will force you to breathe on both sides. You might be next to a group of swimmers on one side, so you need to turn to the other side to avoid getting splashed whenever you come up for air. In other races, boats will come by, and you’ll need to breathe on the opposite side to avoid inhaling a swell. Additionally, by turning to both sides to breathe, you’ll get a better sense of the racers around you.

Just because it’s essential to know how to breathe to both sides doesn’t mean you need to breathe every third stroke. There’s some debate over how often long-distance swimmers should breathe, but swimmers need to find the breathing pattern that’s right for them. Maybe it’s every third stroke or second or alternating between the two—as long as you’re getting the air you need to swim comfortably and smoothly.

Try hypoxic breathing.

The first 200 meters of any open water race or triathlon is always intense. The adrenaline and excitement levels are high. There will be high adrenaline levels, there will be flailing arms, there will be excessive splashing, and there won’t be many opportunities to breathe. Hypoxic breathing/training is a technique to help you get used to going further on fewer breaths.

The best way to practice this is to find a section of open water that equates to around 50 meters. Swim the distance once, breathing every three strokes. Next, breathe once every five strokes. Then, every seven strokes. Eventually, try breathing once for the entire 50 meters.

Work this drill into your triathlon or open water swim training. After a bit of practice, you’ll be ready to weather the first few minutes of your race, even if you can’t take as many breaths as you’d like.

Techniques for breathing in choppy water.

What makes open water so unique is its unpredictability. On race day, the water could be calm, peaceful, and glass-like; it could also be windy, choppy, and have the makings of a typhoon. It’s essential to know a few techniques to help get a full breath of air, no matter which scenario you face.

Choppy open water swim with the FORM Smart Swim Goggles

Look to the sky. To remedy waves lapping into your mouth, turn your body slightly further than you usually would during a breath and look towards the sky. You shouldn’t completely turn on your back, but bring your shoulder back more and point your eyes and mouth up to make sure you inhale a good amount of air.

Breathe in quickly. Whether the water is choppy or not, it’s always a good idea not to spend too much time on your side. When the conditions are stormy, it’s even more important to take a quick breath to minimize the potential of gulping in water.

Lift your head slightly. Typically, you should always try to keep your head in line with the rest of your body. But desperate times call for clean breaths. When waves are high, lift your head slightly above the water, get a quick breath in, then return to your stroke.

While most races won’t let you swim in extreme weather, they will continue in less-than-ideal situations. These tips should help you succeed, regardless of the conditions you’re facing.

Practice creates confidence.

Breathing is mainly about confidence. When you’re swimming in open water and take in a mouthful of water, it can be scary for swimmers at any level. When you can’t breathe, you start to panic, which can lead to hyperventilation. Hyperventilation can stop even the most confident open water swimmer and force them to tread water or even pull out from a race. That’s why an essential way to get used to breathing in open water is to practice.

Most open water is often a lot colder than your average pool, so you need to get your body used to the water before you start swimming. During your first few sessions in a lake or ocean, start by submerging your body entirely in a shallow area and splashing your face. This is also an excellent time to test out your wetsuit. Wetsuits can be restricting on your diaphragm, so it’s best to get a feel for what it’s like to breathe with one on in colder temperatures.

Start by swimming a few hundred meters in a shallow area. Be careful not to breathe too much or too quickly; this can cause an imbalance of oxygen molecules in your lungs and lead to dizziness.

If you ever find yourself hyperventilating during a race or workout, try slowing down and breathing every four or five strokes. It might seem counterintuitive to breathe less, but it helps you get your breathing back on track.

Simulate Open Water Conditions in the Pool

If you are restricted to only pool training before your race, consider mimicking open water race conditions. Grab a couple of friends, and line up two or three abreast and two deep. When you practice swimming in close quarters with other swimmers, the water will be choppy, just like open water. If you’re able to, another option is to remove lane lines and drop an empty gallon jug (attached to a weight) in the pool under the flags. You can practice racing your friends to the jug and turning around it as if it’s a buoy.

split image of open water swimming and pool swimming

You might be confident about breathing in the pool, but breathing in open water has its challenges. By practicing these skills, you’ll be able to power on during workouts and races, even when the water conditions are less than ideal.