Freestyle Breathing


Breathing in the freestyle stroke is not as basic a skill as it may seem, and many swimmers make errors while breathing. With some practice though, the good news is that this skill can be mastered!

A few basic things to keep in mind:

  • Your head movement should be coordinated with body rotation so that you can take a breath without breaking your lateral alignment. This means you are just turning your head to the side to take the breath (your opposing ear should stay in the water). Swimmers doing the breathing incorrectly tend to lift their entire head out of the water, which throws off the lateral alignment. The best rule to remember is not to lift your entire head out of the water or to pull it away from the midline of your body.
  • The breath should start to occur as your arm is sweeping up at the end of your underwater armstroke. You are able to breathe into the bow wave that is created around your head. Your breath takes place as you perform the first half of your recovery stroke and your face should be returning to the water during the second half of the recovery stroke.
  • Returning your face to the water should coordinate with the roll of your body into the entry of the stroke toward the non-breathing side.
  • Each swimmer will develop his or her own pattern of breathing, but as a general rule in practice and in longer distance events, it is advisable to breathe once every stroke cycle. You do not want to go into oxygen deprivation at the beginning of a 6000-yard practice! However, if you are sprinting, it is not recommended to breathe every stroke cycle. This will impede your necessary speed for the race. You will work out your own pattern, but you may breathe once on the first 25 of a 50-yard freestyle race, and perhaps twice on the second lap.
  • Alternate, or bilateral breathing as it is sometimes called, describes the pattern of breathing on both the right and left sides. Traditionally, coaches have recommended this method as a way to minimize shoulder stress and to help reinforce symmetry. We recommend it to all beginning swimmers because it does help to encourage the roll to both sides. You can incorporate bilateral breathing drills into a regular or hypoxic pulling set to hone this skill. If it does not feel comfortable to you as you evolve your stroke, a one-sided breathing pattern is satisfactory. Alternate breathing is probably more common for females than males.
  • Remember to adjust your head position accordingly. As a general rule, the best head position is one where the water line falls about where your cap sits on your forehead. If your head is too low in the water, you will have to wrench your head out of the water in order to breathe. Since your head position does change when you are sprinting (generally higher), you will need to practice your breathing before you compete. Make this part of your pre-race warm-up.