How to Breathe While Swimming

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Breathing while swimming is not the most intuitive activity, and it takes a lot of practice to get right. While the basic techniques are relatively straightforward, body mechanics and automatic responses to being underwater can mess with your strokes. Keep an eye on your body position, tension levels and unconscious tendencies to really breathe well while swimming.

Freestyle or Front Crawl

  • When one of your arms is out of the water and making a half circle over your head during a freestyle swim, turn your face to that side and inhale when your mouth is fully out of the water. Exhale, preferably through your nose, once your face is back underwater. If you’re doing a sidestroke, you can keep your face out of the water at all times, or submerge and turn your face, breathing when your mouth is out of the water. Freestyle requires your torso to rotate slightly from side to side as you lift and lower your arms. This can pull your head along with your body. However, the constant rocking can make you feel unsteady as you move. Practice isolating your head and keeping your face pointing down when it’s in the water, no matter what your arms do.

Breaststroke and Butterfly

  • Breathing through butterfly and breaststroke is much easier. When your hands are in the water and pushing back and down, your head and shoulders will be out of the water. Inhale then, and exhale through your nose when your face is back underwater. Styles like the butterfly and breaststroke have breathing frequency built into them. You’re supposed to breathe when you launch your face above the water, and breathe quickly.

Breathing Frequency and Bilateral Breathing

  • During the freestyle, it’s common to see swimmers breathing every three strokes or so. Breathe when you need to, even if it's with every stroke. But breathing every three strokes allows you to exhale at a more relaxed pace, reducing tension. It also helps you do something called bilateral breathing, which makes your stroke less lopsided. Be careful doing this in intervals of more than three strokes, however. While the Swim Smooth swim school says five or seven strokes are fine, USA Swimming says these longer intervals are called hypoxic training, which restricts oxygen flow to your muscles.

Don’t Hold Your Breath

  • Train yourself early on to exhale through your nose underwater. This gives you three advantages: you won’t waste time trying to exhale really fast as you lift your face to inhale, you won’t be as tense, and pushing air out through your nose helps prevent water from getting into your nasal cavity and sinuses. However, if you are really having trouble with water getting into your nose, wear nose clips and exhale through your mouth. As for inhaling, time your inhale for when you’re in something called the “pocket.” This is a small depression that forms in the wake of your hand. The surface of the water is temporarily lower at this point, giving your face a little more clearance to breathe.

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