How to Breathe While Swimming
Breathing while swimming is the key to success in the sport. That’s true whatever your ability. Yet getting the rhythm right can be tough.
Let’s break it down.
The first thing to understand is that swimming is aerobic exercise, just like:
You wouldn’t hold your breath while running a kilometre. So why would you hold it while swimming 100 metres?
When you perform aerobic exercise, your muscles need a constant supply of oxygen. When they lack oxygen, the body creates lactic acid.
Have you ever worked so hard that your muscles burn, and you have to stop and catch your breath?
For new swimmers, or for swimmers who have never mastered what’s called “aquatic breathing”, here is a set of steps to develop good habits:
- Imaginary straw – Take a breath in. Purse your lips. Blow out as if blowing through a straw. Try to blow a steady stream for as long as possible. Repeat this exercise until you find a comfortable flow of air. Not so fast that you run out immediately. Not so slow that you need to pant for breath afterwards.
- Blowing bubbles – This is the imaginary straw exercise, except in the water. Take a breath in, lower your mouth and nose into the water, and blow a steady stream of air out into the water. Bring your face out of the water as soon as you start to reach the end of your exhale. If water gets in your eyes, try to resist rubbing your eyes. Blink it away.
- Face down – Let’s get your whole face in the water. Hold a float such as a pool noodle that supports your upper body. Take in a breath, put your entire face into the water and look directly at the pool floor while blowing out a steady stream of air. Come up for air just as your stream of bubbles is reaching its end.
- Pattern of breaths – Now it’s time to develop a rhythm. The pattern is to blow a stream of bubbles with your whole face in the water, come up and take a breath, and return to face down in the water to breathe out another stream. Repeat x 3. The goal is to do nothing except take a breath of air when your face comes out of the water. No wiping your eyes or moving your hair out of the way. Just take a breath and get straight back into the water.
Breathing With The Stroke
All breathing while swimming can basically be broken down into two styles:
Trickle breathing is a slow, steady stream of air out for a long duration. This is used for front crawl, back crawl, and—for some swimmers—the butterfly stroke. Even though the swimmer may spend a long time underwater, they are still breathing continuously since they exhale the entire time.
Explosive breathing is a powerful push of air into the water followed immediately by a huge intake of air. It’s suited to breaststroke and butterfly where the swimmer breathes frequently and regularly.
If you’re a good technical swimmer but your aquatic breathing needs work, try these exercises:
- Front crawl: Lay on your front with one arm extended holding a kickboard. Put your other arm down by your hip. Kick front crawl using trickle breathing, taking a breath from the side where your arm is down. Swap arms on each length.
- Back crawl: Lay on your back with your hands behind your head. Keep elbows flat to the water and kick back crawl with your chest up. Practice continuous breathing and blocking your nose (see below).
- Breaststroke: Extend your arms in the streamline position (pointed like an arrow in front of your head). Kick breaststroke three times before coming up for a breath, then return immediately to the streamline position and repeat.
- Butterfly: Extend both arms and hold a pull buoy in your hands. Kick butterfly on your front. When you need to breath, give an extra powerful kick and push down slightly on the pull buoy to lift your upper body. Keep your face looking forward while you take your breath, then lead with your forehead back into the water, and keep kicking.
No matter how much you practice, at some point water is going to go up your nose. It’s not a nice feeling. If you have consistent problems with water up your nose, here are a couple of solutions:
- Nose clip – This device gently pinches your nostrils shut while you swim. No more water up the nose. On the other hand, you may miss out on the benefits of nasal breathing during aerobic exercise.
- Block your own nose – You can create a block in your own nose using your tongue and soft palate in the roof of your mouth. Put the middle of your tongue against the soft palate as if you’re about to make the “k” sound. Then just don’t make the sound. A little puff of air may come out of your nose and then… nothing. It’s blocked.
Still feeling nervous? Here are some tips to help overcome aquatic breathing anxiety :
Wet your face with your hands
Before you even start practicing breaths, dampen your face with your hands. That way, it’s not a shock to get your face into the water. It’s already wet.
Practice blowing through a real straw
Breathing in the water requires pushing air against the pressure of the water. You can practice on dry land by blowing through a straw into a cup of water.
Keep your feet planted
Hold a float like a pool noodle or the pool edge and lean over to practice getting your face in. Having your feet down will help you feel secure and in control.
Thank you for taking the time to read our guide on breathing while swimming and we hope you have found it useful.
If you would like to go a step further, we offer private swimming lessons throughout the UK. Our instructors will create a tailored programme for you and can focus on areas like breathing.