Breathing is such an important part of straight-line swimming – and it’s also the number one thing that stops people from reaching their swimming potential. This is where I always start when I’m coaching, whether the person in the water is a first time beginner or a time-chaser.
Why? Well, we all have a built-in instinct to want to have constant access to oxygen. Swimming forces you to override this, which is why you see people taking huge lungfuls of air when they get into the water (we call this ‘lion breathing’).
How to breathe while swimming
The problem with this is that if you’re breathing that amount of air in, you have to breathe out the same amount, which means your breath starts spiking up and down erratically, and that just isn’t sustainable over any kind of distance. If you were going for a jog you wouldn’t run for a bit, then stop and gulp for air, then run again.
You’d breathe as you were going along; make it a part of what you were doing. Swimming should be the same. When David [former Olympic swimmer and fellow coach David Carry] and I are at the pool we often see people sprinting 50 metres, then having to stop for about two minutes just to get their breath back. They’re not unfit – they just need to be more efficient when they breathe, and incorporate it better into their front crawl swim stroke. The thing to remember is that breathing when swimming should feel really natural.
What you have to do is calm the whole process down. Breathing sets the rhythm for your front crawl swim stroke – keep it relaxed and consistent, and you’ll be amazed by how much easier you find it to swim, and you won’t be running out of breath.
How can you make this happen?
The trick is to breathe in through your mouth when your head is to the side, and breathe out through your nose when your head is in the water. Breathe out nice and steadily, then turn your head and take another breath. And that’s it. It doesn’t matter whether you only breathe on one side or on both (bilaterally); the most important thing is just to stick to a regular rhythm, and take in only as much air as you actually need. Between every two to three strokes is usually about right.
Like most things, efficient breathing can take a little bit of getting used to, but once you’ve got the hang of it you’ll feel so much more relaxed.