5 small tweaks that will improve your breathing

Breathing is a crucial part of swimming. It is especially important to swimming great Freestyle. Many beginner and intermediate swimmers struggle to get breathing right. They often opt to lifting their heads, swallowing water or just prefer to swim with their heads out of the water the entire time. These bad habits not only make you less efficient in the water but can actually make your overall breathing significantly harder causing swimming to be far less fun. Developing good breathing technique is one of the hardest thing for new or intermediate swimmers to master. By having poor breathing, you can cause other issues with your stroke like scissor kicking, poor body position, crossing-over and lop sided strokes, just to name a few.

We're going to look at 5 simple ways to improve your breathing technique. Even if you don't think you have a breathing problem in swimming, try these and you might discover that you have some areas to improve on as well. 

Breathing into the pocket

Let's start by picturing our bodies like speed boats. When a boat moves through the water, it creates what is called a "bow wave". This is due to the water spreading apart from the front of the boat at the start of its wake. As swimmers, we are creating this same effect using our bodies. What this bow wave creates for us is a small trough next to our cheek through our neck area. In order to create this trough, you don't need to be swimming fast either. Swimming calmly and slowly will create a decent pocket of air for you to utilize.

Trough and Bow wave

This trough area contains a large pocket of air much lower to the surface of the water than most swimmers expect. Swimmers should strive to breathe into this trough using a much smaller movement than you would expect. This means that you don't need to lift your head to inhale. You simply rotate your head into the trough while keeping one goggle under the water, inhale and then rotate back to your starting position. This is sometimes referred to as "breathing into the pocket". This smaller movement will give you enough air to continue to swim and will reduce any issues to body position or alignment.    

Keep your head down

Since most swimmers don't realize that this trough of air exists next to their heads, they have a tendency to lift their heads to breathe.  When you think about breathing, always try to remember to keep one goggle in the water, then after the breath you should rotate your face back down so that you are looking at the black line on the bottom of the pool. Many swimmers either lift their heads before the breath or during the breath which can cause significant other issues with their strokes.  

If you lift your head after you get your initial breath, you will be causing your body to create a see-saw effect. Your upper body will go up and your legs will sink. This increases your drag meaning you'll need more effort to move through the water. Another issue with breathing forward is that you reduce the size of the air trough that your body is creating in the water by filling it with water rather than air. 

Keep your head still

To follow up with not lifting your head during any part of the breathing portion of your stroke, moving your head around can cause issues as well. Learning to keep your head still while you aren't breathing will actually help you become a better breather when you do need to breathe. I see a lot of young athletes (and I'm guilty of this as well) almost swing or bob their heads when they aren't breathing. This usually stems from the rotation of their bodies in the water. Don't roll your head as your body rolls. They should be two separate movements. 

Instead of moving your head, try to focus your eyes on one point at the bottom of the pool. Then when you breathe, take that quick breath and come immediately back to that point in at the bottom. For those of you who drive cars, this is the same idea as when you check your mirrors. You quickly check them without moving your head too much and then refocus your view on the road in front of you.

If you are a swimmer that moves your head in-between breaths than you may find holding your head in one spot quite uncomfortable and that's ok. As you become more comfortable with holding your head in one spot this will become more natural. 

One technique I use with swimmers who have this issue in their stroke is that I have them visualize a cup of water on the top of their heads. Then while they swim, they have to pretend not to spill any of that water into the pool. Sometimes doing this sort of visualization in the pool can greatly benefit your stroke. 

Focus on the exhale, not the inhale


The most common issue that swimmers have with their breathing is not exhaling underwater. Our natural reaction when to putting our heads underwater is to hold our breath. So when you don't exhale while your head is in the water then you need to exhale when your head comes out, but at the same time inhale. This usually results in the swallowing of tons of pool water and choking.

By holding your breath, you are also causing your body to become tense. The sensation of drowning from the CO2 buildup in your body will cause your brain to panic. As well, having lungs full of air is extremely bad for your body position as it will make your chest too buoyant. 

To make things easier, remember to exhale out of your mouth while your face is in the water. This will help relax your body making it easier to rotate and balance your stroke. If you aren't comfortable with exhaling in the water, take a step back from your swimming and work on becoming more comfortable with this. Spend some time in the deep end of your pool just sinking and slowly exhaling while you do it. Think of it as a form of mediation. The goal is to become so relaxed that you are sitting on the bottom of the pool just watching your bubbles drift to the surface.     

Use your body roll

Our final tweak is to encourage more body rotation while you swim. So many swimmers swim very flat in the water. They keep their shoulders level to the surface of the water. This is a huge missed opportunity for a couple of reasons. The first being the efficiency of your pull. By remaining flat in the water, you are not able to reach and grab the water to execute the greatest propulsion needed for efficient Freestyle. Think about swimming like someone twice or even three times your size. The second is that it by not rolling, you are making it harder to turn your head to breathe. If you execute a good roll, you'll be opening up your chest making it easier for your head to turn into the air trough and inhale some air before your arm recovers for the next stroke. Remember though that your head turn shouldn't be part of the body rotation. They should operate as two different movements. The body rotation should be consist throughout your entire stroke. Breathing or not.  

Wrapping Up

With these 5 simple tweaks and improvements to your stroke, you'll become a much more efficient, relaxed swimmer. If you are just starting out with swimming take the time to master your breathing, this will help you reach your swimming goals and help you fully unlock your swimming ability.