When I’m at the pool, the thing I notice swimmers struggling the most with is breathing. I’ve seen people try to swim without ever putting their face in the water, lift their head straight up to take a breath, and have to stop mid-lane to keep from drowning.
Breathing is also the thing that people who talk to me about swimming are most concerned with.
It starts with proper swimming form. For a freestyle stroke, just a basic front crawl, your body needs to be elongated with your face in the water, so you’re looking down at the bottom of the pool.
If you’re new to swimming, your instinct might be to lift your head so you’re looking toward the end of the pool you’re swimming toward. If you’re in this habit, it’s something you’ll have to break yourself of. If you’re afraid of running into the wall, remember that the bottom of the pool has a marking line that ends with a T a yard or so from the wall.
When you’re swimming, your arms alternate between being dormant and being active. Your active arm is the one in the water, starting over head and pulling through the water down the length of your body. That arm goes dormant when it leaves the water and you bring it back around over head.
Breathing involves rotating toward your dormant arm, as it leaves the water. Your body rotates as if you were on a spit with your head in line with your shoulders and hips. Your head pushes water ahead of you, causing a little breaking wave that gives you space to breathe, even though you keep one of your goggles and one ear in the water.
Look at the water line in this picture. See how it dips? That little dip is where you breathe
Your brain might try to tell you that you need to lift your head higher or lift it straight up instead of too the side, because your eye is still in the water. With practice it will get easier.
It’s important to exhale under water. You only have a second to take a breath and you don’t want to waste it getting rid of the last one. I’ve seen advice that says the exhale continuously under water. I don’t like that, because it causes you to swim through your bubbles and that sends water up my nose. I usually exhale a little as I put my head back under, and then exhale the rest of the way as I’m turning my body for the next breath. Your goal is to only need to inhale when you get your mouth above the water line.
Swimming is all about energy conservation. If you over rotate during your breath, you’re using energy that is better spent on your stroke. Also, your hips will drop and you’ll waste the oxygen you just took in trying to even out again.
So you don’t want this:
Instead, a good rule of thumb is to keep one goggle and one ear in the water. Like this:
Ideally, you should breathe bilaterally–every third stroke, so that you breathe to your left and then to your right.
Here’s where I say do as I say, not as I do.
You probably have a stronger side. I definitely do. My body lifts higher when I’m pulling with my strong right arm, so it’s by far easier for me to breathe to the left. So much so, that right now, I haven’t even been trying to breathe bilaterally. I’ve stayed aware of it, though, because breathing only on one side causes muscles to build unevenly. Eventually, lateral breathing causes an asymmetrical stroke as well.
When you are very new to swimming, you might find that you need to breathe every other stroke. I know that it’s only after about six weeks that I can even start to think about breathing every third stroke. Now that I’m getting I’m getting stronger, I’m ready to incorporate bilateral drills to help my body get stronger on the left side. I’ll write more about that soon.
The most important thing to think about right now, is proper breathing technique, regardless of how many breaths you need each lap or whether you breathe laterally or bilaterally. The video below gives you some good drills to help you learn the technique.