How to Breathe in Swimming

  7 SwimSwam | November 23rd, 2016 | Masters, Training

Courtesy of Gary Hall Sr., 10-time World Record Holder, 3-time Olympian, 1976 Olympic Games US Flagbearer and The Race Club co-founder.

First, I want to dispel one myth about breathing during intense exercise. In no sport does an athlete ever take a complete inhalation or expiration. The breaths during intense exercise are relatively quick and shallow, meaning that a little O2 comes in and a little CO2 goes out with each breath. It is an air exchange, not a deep breath.

The most detrimental part of breathing in swimming is likely not the associated increase in frontal drag, though that can be significant, depending on how the breath is taken, but rather the slowing of the stroke rate. Particularly in shorter races, a long, ‘star-gazing’ breath that slows the stroke rate can have disastrous consequences for both speed and inertia. To help with stroke rate and frontal drag, getting the breath quickly and with the least amount of change in body position is vital. In freestyle, that means turning the head minimally (keeping one goggle lens in the water during the breath), elevating the mouth to one side to meet the air, and rotating the head posteriorly (backward) rather than straight to the side or forward. In butterfly, it means extending the neck forward maximally for the breath, keeping the mouth close to the water, while maintaining the body in a more horizontal position. Or in cases where swimmers can’t seem to avoid lifting the shoulders too high for the front breath, breathing to the side in butterfly may be a better option.

While in land-based sports, the inhalations are immediately followed by expirations and vice versa, or, in other words, there is no ‘breath holding’, in swimming, there may be a theoretical advantage in doing so. On land, our weight does not change appreciably with each breath, but in the water it does. The weight of a swimmer ranges from zero with the lungs inflated to around 8 lbs (4kg) after a maximal expiration (there is always some residual volume of air in the lungs). The buoyancy of the human body also goes from neutral to negative after expiration. The question is, do we hold the air in our lungs for as long as possible after putting our face back in the water, then exhaling with a quick burst prior to capturing the next breath? Or, do we do as the Red Cross teachers told us to do as children, trickle the air out of our nose or mouth, prior to the next breath?

The changes in body weight and buoyancy can impact frontal drag of a swimmer, particularly while swimming on the surface. The higher the swimmer can be on the surface, the less frontal drag and the faster the swimmer can go. A swimmer is faster in salt water, where there is more buoyancy, than in fresh water. The density of water is so great that just a few millimeters of difference in body position on the surface can have a significant impact on a swimmer’s speed. So, it would seem logical that swimmers would want to keep the air in the lungs as long as possible, weigh less, be more buoyant and burst the air out of their lungs at the last moment, before turning the head for the breath.

But that is not what great swimmers do. Katie Ledecky, Sun Yang, Grant Hackett, Ian Thorpe, Michael Phelps and virtually all of the other great freestylers release some air through the nose immediately upon planting their faces back in the water after the breath. The great butterflyers of the world do the same. With the speed of their bodies moving forward, those air bubbles from the nose move underneath their bodies before finding their way to the surface. The rest of the exhalation comes just before and while the head is turning or elevating for the next breath. In that manner, the inhalation can begin immediately once the mouth reaches air, so the head can return promptly to the face down position without slowing the stroke rate.

I did not recognize the significance of those bubbles until one of my swimming colleagues at the pool in Islamorada, Florida brought the Emperor Penguins to my attention. The Emperor Penguins of the Antarctic Ocean have evolved to develop a unique way of swimming faster in order to escape the wrath of the hungry seals chasing them. Under the plumes of their feathers, they manage to trap air bubbles. When the seals are chasing the penguins for lunch, the penguins release the air from under the feathers and gain a significant amount of speed, presumably while kicking with the same amount of force with their webbed feet. By releasing the air bubbles, surrounding themselves with air instead of water, they effectively lower their frontal drag forces, which enables them to spurt forward out of harm’s way.
Could it be that the air bubbles under the swimmer’s body released after the breath do the same to a lesser degree? Perhaps. What I do know is that great swimmers usually do the right thing, whether they understand the reason for doing so or not. Releasing some air through the nose after the breath may just be another example of that. So that is what I do and recommend others do.

In the upcoming third and final article of this series, we will examine the most controversial breathing topic of all and that is how often to breathe.

Yours in swimming,

Gary Sr.

Gary Hall, Sr., Technical Director and Head Coach of The Race Club (courtesy of TRC)

Gary Hall, Sr., Technical Director and Head Coach of The Race Club (courtesy of TRC)

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7 Comments on "How to Breathe in Swimming"

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Stuck in the Slow Lane

How am I supposed to hold my breath after flip turn???????? I guess I should ask coach… Sorry!

I seem to recall reading somewhere that holding the breath causes more fatigue of the inspiratory muscles than it does to have a slight exhale going on through the stroke, so in theory the more sustainable breathing pattern would be to not hold one’s breath between strokes (at least in the 200m and above). Assuming my memory is not mistaken, I’d say that’s probably the reason many great swimmers do it.

Amine Berkane

Thank you so very much

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