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Two drills that will improve your breathing when swimming

These simple drills from top coach Andrew Sheaf will transform your breathing and, vis-à-vis, your triathlon swimming…

Young man swimming backstroke for school sports

Effective breathing in freestyle is one of the most important and most challenging skills to learn in swimming, particularly if you’re racing in open water.

A poor breath can cause all sorts of problems in your stroke, really hurting your speed. 

One of the key skills in effective breathing is rotation. Rather than lifting your head or pulling it to the side to breathe, you want to use rotation to ease the head clear of the water to grab a quick and easy breath.

Effective rotation is about how much rotation and when it occurs. We’ll tackle both here…

Stroke and roll

With stroke and roll, we’re going to exaggerate the amount of rotation to help you understand how to roll to take a good breath, rather than lifting your head to breathe.

You’re going to experience a full rotation to the back, which will let you enjoy a good breath without having to move your head.

Once you feel that rotation, you can try to recreate a similar although less extreme movement in your regular freestyle. It’s about rotating your head and body to breathe, rather than lifting.

Underwater recovery

Underwater recovery is useful for helping to feel the appropriate timing of the rotation and your arms.

There’s rotation when the arm reaches forward and rotation when the arm reaches back. Nailing that timing is critical for your head, arms and body all being in the right place at the right time.

Everything has to move together or else it’ll take a lot more rotation and a lot more effort to take an effective breath. By getting the timing right, everything is smoother.

Alternate the drills

These two drills both work on helping you learn to improve your rotation and rotation timing to breathe.

However, they do so in slightly different ways working on slightly different skills. 

Stroke and roll works on how much rotation you create, and underwater recovery works on when you rotate.

By performing these two drills in an alternating fashion, you can ensure that you’re working on both skills in succession, really improving your breathing skills.

Combine the drills

You can take the previous strategy to the next level by actually combining the two drills. 

Perform underwater recovery and, when you breathe, roll over to the back like you would with stroke and roll.

This allows you to work on both the timing and the magnitude of the rotation, enjoying the best of both worlds.

You can mix this drill combination in with regular stroke and roll, regular underwater recovery and regular freestyle.

Check out these swim drills and swimming advice to help improve your swimming further.

Top image credit: Liliboas/Getty Images

Profile image of Andrew Sheaff Andrew Sheaff Swim coach


Andrew Sheaff has been helping people improve their swimming for over 20 years. He’s worked with everyone from children learning to swim to Olympic medalists to masters triathletes and swimmers. He specialises in helping triathletes improve their swimming skills through online coaching. He is also the author of 'A Constraints-Led Approach to Swim Coaching'. For more information about improving your swimming and to work with Andrew, please visit www.masteringflow.info or www.youtube.com/@masteringflow.