Front Crawl Breathing

Front Crawl Breathing

Front crawl breathing is one of the most challenging swimming skills to master and correct breathing technique is a hot topic for discussion as many different styles work. Let’s start by watching the full stroke in action so we can see the importance of timing.

How to get started?

As with any new skill, watching the end result can be a bit overwhelming, especially for a beginner. The best way to learn is to master the basic elements first and then put all the pieces together later on.

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The most efficient way to master front crawl breathing is to find an experienced swimming teacher and take a few private swimming lessons. This will save you lots of trial and error as a good teacher will be able to see your specific strengths and weaknesses and show you exactly what areas to work on.

In this article we start with the mechanics of breathing first before moving onto the different types of breathing patterns. We finish with 6 key points for anyone looking to learn an effective front crawl breathing technique.

If you require skills of a more basic level we have two articles for you, one on mastering the basics of swimming and one on treading water and staying afloat which covers skills like balance, co-ordination and floating.

1. Breathing in and out

The key to an effective front crawl breathing technique is relaxation, pattern and repetition. This video demonstrates the best way to build confidence in the early stages with some simple breathing exercises.

Stay relaxed and count as you exhale to help you concentrate on the timing

2. Timing

Combining both breathing and swimming elements can be challenging, there’s lots to think about. Using progressive drills will allow you to practice in slow motion, before speeding things up later on when moving onto the full swimming stroke.

hold your breath for a count of 2, then slowly release roughly 20% of the oxygen through your nose, followed by 50% out of your mouth. There’s no need to force out every last drop of air.

3. Head Position

Any movement from the head away from the streamlined position causes resistance, it’s vital to keep the head as still as possible unless your rotating to breathe. Head movement from side to side can cause the body to do a ‘snake-like’ action, which can result in a loss of control and balance.

Draw an imaginary black line on the bottom of the swimming pool floor and keep your eyes fixed on it. After each breathe return your eyes to the black line and  focus on a still head position (If you’re lucky the pool will already have a black line down the middle). 

4. Rotation

Rolling the head to breathe must be accompanied by a rotation from the body. Both head and body have to be in sync with one another to maintain a streamlined position and reduce the risk of shoulder injury.

Be careful not to over-rotate, the goal is keeping everything aligned with minimum disruption to the natural flow of the stroke.

Common Mistakes

With so many things to remember there’s bound to be a few faults creeping into your stroke, Don’t worry, mastering swimming is all about continuous improvement and stroke correction. Here’s a few things to keep your eye on as you aim to minimise resistance and increase propulsion.


Breathing Patterns

As a front crawl swimmer one of the key decisions you’ll have to make is which side to breathe on. You’ll also have to consider if you’re going to stick to one side or mix it up and breathe to both sides. You may even decide that every now and again you need to breathe to the front. Whatever you choose, make sure it feels right for you and causes minimal disruption to the natural flow of your stroke.

Bi-Lateral (both sides)

In most cases its either 3 or 5 strokes per breath, alternating sides from left and right. A bi-lateral breathing pattern is great for distance swimmers, triathletes and open water swimmers. The benefit is that you can take a quick peak right and left at what’s going on around you and where the other swimmers are.

The 2 main downsides to bi-lateral breathing is increased head movement and breathing to a side that’s less effective than the other. Experienced swimmers are often able to overcome both of these issues through hours of practice and execute an efficient bi-lateral breathing stroke.


Unilateral (one side)

Unilateral breathing is great for speed over a short to middle distance. If you favour breathing to one side over the other, then it makes sense to use this to your advantage and stick to your most effective side.

The negatives to continuously breathing on one side is repetitive strain injuries and muscle imbalances from continually rotating to one side and not the other. Elite athletes who rack up thousands of meters per week have specific stretches, mobility exercises and resistance band workouts to combat thees issues, and you can too. Here’s some workout videos to build strong shoulders for swimming.



Experiment with different breathing patterns, figure out the one that works for you. Time yourself over a specific distance and check your heart rate at the end of the swim. Fully recover then try again, this time with a different breathing pattern. Record your results. Evaluate your times and heart rate to examine the most efficient pattern. Your aim is to improve your speed and reduce your effort.”

Spotting (to the front)

Wait, did you just say breathing to the front, I thought that was just for Breaststroke and Butterfly?

Well, sometimes you have to breathe to the front as well as the sides, for example, swimming in open water, playing water polo or surfing. Breathing to the front or lifting the head whilst swimming front crawl is otherwise known as ‘spotting’.

Spotting contradicts all the laws of an efficient front crawl stroke. By lifting the head, the hips drop lower in the water causing an unnatural body position and increasing resistance. So we wouldn’t recommend breathing to the front or lifting the head for speed or efficiency. That being said, breathing to the front has it’s advantages, especially for outdoor swimmers and can be mastered just like any other skill. With the right timing, spotting can be executed with minimal disruption to the flow of the stroke.

Practice spotting in the pool first, the water will no doubt be calmer than in the open water, there’s nothing worse than a mouth full of murky water from a rouge wave.


Trickle Breathing

You’ve probably heard the term trickle breathing before, it’s the preferred choice for most front crawl swimmers. If you aim to cruise up and down the pool or swim long distances for fitness or weight loss, learn effective trickle breathing to save energy and stay stronger for longer?

Whilst swimming, turn your head to the side and take a deep breath in through your mouth. Hold your breath as your head returns into the water. Slowly let the air trickle out of your nose, followed by the remaining air out of your mouth, don’t force every last breath out there’s no need to.

Explosive Breathing

If your goal is swimming at high speed or sprinting, this will likely be the style for you. The aim is a to take a big deep breath and then hold for an extended period of time, followed by a deep breath out. Then repeat. Front crawl sprinters often use this style of breathing to minimise resistance and increase the amount of time their head is facing down in the streamlined position. Explosive breathing is hypoxic in nature, it produces lactic acid and causes fatigue so isn’t recommended for endurance or distance swimming

Use explosive breathing for fast intervals or sprinting. Work a different energy system to shock the body into new areas of improvement.

Improving breath holding

By regularly practising holding your breath for longer periods, your heart and lungs can start to work more effectively and aid your muscles ability to utilise oxygen when swimming. This can often be referred to as hypoxic training, which essentially means without oxygen.

Set yourself a target, start with 10 seconds, take a deep breath in, submerge your head under the water. Slowly count to 10 whilst exhaling, then increase your target. Holding your breath for long periods can build up carbon dioxide in your bloodstream so be careful, take regular breaks.

6 Action Points For Anyone Looking To Learn Efficient Front Crawl Breathing

Master the breathing aspect first, before trying to swim the full front crawl stroke. This will save you you time and effort in the long run. Compartmentalising the process is the most efficient way to build your confidence in the water.

Watch slow motion tutorials, so you can see how the head and body stay in sync with one another and how the breathing fits into the stroke cycle. Here’s an example:

Learn the correct technique, so you can swim for longer without getting too tired. Swimming really is the ultimate exercise, but you can only make the most of it if you swim with control.

Persevere with trial and error. Some parts of learning to swim can be really challenging, just remember, it’s never too late to learn to swim or learn a new swimming stroke.

Build your body. Have you ever seen a professional swimmers physique? they’re often ripped. Try some dry land exercises to improve your overall body strength and take your swimming to the next level. Who knows, maybe even shed a few pounds in the process with some HIIT workouts.

Improve your core. The stomach muscles big part in swimming, the stronger your core strength the better your balance and control in the water can be which is particularly important for rotating the body for front crawl breathing.

by Alistair Mills

In 2016 I saw an opportunity for a new swimming company that did things a little bit differently and here we are almost 4 years later, having built a family of teachers and clients that we are all really proud of.


  • Angelina Brown July 22, 2020   Reply →

    You have given some great tips Alistair! When it comes to head position, the water level should be between the hairline and the eyebrows. This ensures there is not too much strain on your neck.

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