How to Breathe in Freestyle Swimming

By: Jill Becker
This freestyle swimmer turns his head to the side to breathe.

"Swimming is the only sport I can think of during which there are moments you are unable to breathe even if you want to," open-water swimming champ Alex Kostich once said, referring to the fact that you can really only inhale when your face isn't submerged. Naturally, this makes achieving proper breathing technique a top priority. But that's no small task. Many swimmers get their motion and body position in the water just right, but adding breathing to it can disrupt their rhythm.

The freestyle stroke, or front crawl, in which you keep your head down in the water and alternately reach forward with your arms while propelling your body forward with small flutter kicks, is the most common stroke in swimming -- the one you're typically taught after learning to dog paddle and float. But failing to master the proper breathing can affect your stamina, speed and ability to see where you're going. It can also result in tense, cramped muscles and even injury, so it's vital you learn good technique.


We'll get into the specifics of proper breathing in the following section, but to get started, let's take a look at the basics of the freestyle stroke:

  1. Start with your body parallel to the bottom of the pool, and try to stay as high in the water as possible throughout your stroke.
  2. With toes pointed, kick your feet up and down, keeping your legs straight but loose.
  3. Alternate rotating your arms in a windmill motion, so that when one arm is extended forward, the other is back by your side.
  4. As you pull your extended arm back in the water, curve your hand toward your stomach, and then aim it out by your hip as it exits the water.
  5. On every third stroke, take a breath by turning -- not lifting -- your head to the same side as the arm that's coming up out of the water.

Sounds easy enough, right? Actually, doing it right takes a little finesse. Read on to find out the most common mistakes swimmers make with their breathing and tips for how to fix them.


Basic Breathing in Freestyle Swimming

If anyone can help school you on the proper freestyle breathing technique, it's Melvin "Pat" Patterson, a former collegiate swim coach at Texas A&M, Rice University, University of Arkansas and the University of Texas at Austin. When asked how most people get it wrong, he didn't hesitate to answer. "They hold their breath and try to blow it all out when their head has surfaced," he said. "You never, ever want to hold your breath." Simply put, he said the goal is to start your breath as a slow exhale and then increase it to the point of getting rid of all of the air before your head comes up for a new breath.

Here are some other common problems facing beginning swimmers -- and even a few advanced ones -- and tips on how to fix them.


Problem: Not getting enough air

Solution: In addition to not holding your breath, you have to be sure you exhale fully before rotating up to take the next breath. You also want to be sure you breathe as early as possible so you can get the most air.

Problem: Losing momentum

Solution: If you decelerate slightly every time you take a breath, concentrate on breathing with your mouth parallel to the water rather than above it.

Problem: Taking in water

Solution: If you suck in water instead of air, try bilateral breathing (see the next section for details). You can also practice improving your balance in the water with the one-arm drill, in which you swim using just one arm at a time and breathe on the opposite side of the stroking arm.

Problem: Jerking your head around

Solution: You want to keep your head stationary when you're not breathing, so try looking at a fixed point along the bottom on the pool, only rolling your head slightly to breathe every third stroke. When you swim, you create a bow wave with your head and body, similar to the way a boat does, and experienced swimmers breathe through the wave, barely turning their heads at all to inhale. You may also need to practice good body rotation, because if you're rotating it properly, you only need to tilt your head ever so slightly to be able to breathe.

In the next section, we'll discuss bilateral breathing and how it can improve your stroke.


Bilateral Breathing

Not only is it vital to learn proper breathing during the freestyle, but experts say you also need to breathe properly on alternate sides. This bilateral breathing -- inhaling and exhaling, in turn, on both your right and left sides -- is most swimmers' preferred breathing method. The main reason: symmetry.

Breathing on just one side can make your stroke lopsided, so that you don't swim in a straight line. The repetitiveness can also mess with your body rotation in the water and cause shoulder pain and injury. But breathing bilaterally doesn't necessarily mean switching sides every time you come up for air. It can mean swimming an entire lap while breathing strictly on one side, then breathing on the other on the next lap. The key is that balance.


Kevin Koskella, the author of "The Complete Guide to Triathlon Swimming," switched to bilateral breathing after a massage therapist noticed how much more defined the lateral (back) muscles on his left side were than the ones on the right. "Putting two and two together," he wrote in an article for, "I realized that years of right side only breathing in the pool had caused me to use the muscles on my left side far more than my right." When, as Koskella points out, you roll to your breathing side as much as a thousand times during an hour-long swim, you develop muscle strength on just that side. To develop and maintain strong lateral muscles on both sides, you need a breathing technique that works the right and left sides equally.

In the next section, we've given you some tips for the best bilateral breathing technique.


Bilateral Breathing Training

US swimmer Michael Phelps fully exhales while swimming in a qualifying heat of the 200-meter freestyle at the Olympic Aquatic Centre during the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Sunday, Aug. 15, 2004.
AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

Proper breathing technique is fundamental to the freestyle stroke. Following are some rules and exercises for perfecting your bilateral breathing.

Rule: As with one-sided breathing, it's important to exhale fully whenever your face is in the water. Holding your breath even a little makes you tense up and causes the sensation that you can't get enough oxygen. But it's really a buildup of carbon dioxide in your lungs that you're struggling with. A popular saying in swimming: Blow them bubbles, and it'll end your troubles.


Drill: Sinking exercises are good for this. An example? Go to the deep end and tread water. Then take a deep breath and let yourself sink down. As soon as your head is underwater, begin exhaling forcefully but smoothly. The goal is to be able to sink all the way to the bottom of the pool and stay there, exhaling the entire time, until you need to push off the bottom and come back up.

Rule: Coordinate your strokes with your breathing.

Drill: While standing in the shallow end with your head in the water, take a few practice stationary strokes, using your arms and repeating bubble, bubble, breathe on right side; bubble, bubble, breathe on left side.

Rule: Rotating your body properly helps you breathe more efficiently and effortlessly.

Drill: As you're swimming, imagine that you're breathing through your navel, so that with each breath, you roll your entire body -- not just your head -- up toward the sky. As you do this, concentrate on keeping everything from the top of your head to the tip of your toes in perfect alignment.

For lots more information about the freestyle stroke and bilateral breathing, visit the next page.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Bean, Matt. "7 Steps to Successful Swimming." Men's Health. (Aug. 6, 2010)
  • Crowley, Sharron. "Bilateral Breathing for Young Swimmers." Swimming Technique. Jan.-March 2005. (Aug. 6, 2010)
  • Dillman, Lisa. "Pieces Of Eight." Los Angeles Times. Aug. 17, 2008. (Aug. 10, 2010)
  • Koskella, Kevin. "Bilateral Breathing." (Aug. 10, 2010)
  • Kostich, Alex. "Breathing right will put you on your way to swimming right." (Aug. 17, 2010)
  • Laughlin, Terry. "Breathing Mechanics That Will Help Your Freestyle." Total Immersion. (Aug. 6, 2010)
  • Lewicki, Pawel. "4 Steps to Easy Breathing in Freestyle." Total Immersion. (Aug. 6, 2010)
  • Mills, Glen. "Freestyle: Breathe Early." Swimming Technique. Jan.-March 2005. (Aug. 6, 2010);col1
  • Swimmer Tips. "Breathing Mistakes of the Beginner Swimmer." Nov. 25, 2009. (Aug. 10, 2010)
  • Swim Smooth. "Breathing Technique - Exhalation Technique." (Aug. 6, 2010)
  • Swim Smooth. "Breathing Technique In The Freestyle Stroke." (Aug. 6, 2010)
  • Swim Smooth. "The Power of Bilateral Breathing In Freestyle." (Aug. 6, 2010)
  • Time, Inc. "Phelps claims Olympic-record eighth gold medal with relay win." Aug. 17, 2008. (Aug. 10, 2010)