|Notice how the swimmer breathes toward the shoulder|
Now, I can’t even begin to count the number of times a coach has yelled at me for breathing too frequently in a race. The way I was taught growing up was to maintain a standard bilateral breathing pattern (meaning breathing to both sides) every three strokes for distance races and possibly even more for sprint races. So, I wondered, why are all these elite athletes breathing every stroke when they too, like me, was probably originally taught not to?
And the answer is that they breathe every stroke in an attempt to supply the body with a greater, more consistent, flow of oxygen. Obviously this makes total sense. The more breaths you take, the less oxygen deprived your muscles become, the looser your muscles stay, and the faster you can ultimately swim….in theory, obviously.
You’re probably asking yourself at this point, why are the elite swimmers breathing every stroke and the rest of us are still taught to breathe every three? Well, you just answered the question yourself. There are two types of swimmers…the elite and then everybody else.
|Me and Gary Hall Jr. after an open water swimming event in '07|
The only reason why the elite swimmers can change their breathing pattern is because they’re good enough to still be able to maintain proper technique. Most of us would not be so lucky.
In summation, although it’s exciting to watch the Omaha Trials and the Olympics, and although there are certain technique pointers we can take away to apply to ourselves, changing our standard bilateral breathing pattern is not one of them. And if you have any doubts, you can refer to my quick “Breathing Cheat Sheet” below. Happy swimming!
Swimming Breathing Cheat Sheet
Practice Pool Swimming:
Bilateral Breathing. Breathe every third stroke alternating sides to maintain rotation. Focus on maintaining a consistent and even rotation pushing your shoulder towards the bottom of the pool as your hand enters the water. As you rotate, instead of turning your head directly to the side to breathe, turn your head to the side and back towards your shoulder. The body rotation causes a small air pocket located directly above the shoulder. Exhale while your face is still in the water and then inhale from that above-shoulder air pocket for quick and efficient breathing.
Try to do some sets practicing longer bilateral breathing to practice breath control. For example, do 8 x 50s breathing every 3,5,7,9 stroke by 50.
Race Pool Swimming (Mid-Distance and Distance):
Bilateral Breathing following the same breathing technique as practice pool swimming. Breathe every third stroke alternating sides to maintain rotation. Take at least one stroke off the wall after a turn before breathing to not break your momentum off the turn. On the last lap, hold your breath from the flags into the wall in order to have a strong finish.
Race Pool Swimming (Sprint aka 100m and under):
If above 50, do Bilateral Breathing following the same breathing technique as practice pool swimming and Race Pool Distance Swimming. Feel free to hold your breath a bit longer on the last lap in order to really drive to the wall.
If only 50, breathe only as necessary. The goal is to finish as fast as possible, try to breathe less often but try not to lose proper body rotation.
Open Water Swimming (Lake):
Bilateral Breathing following the same breathing technique as practice pool swimming. Lift your head every once in a while to spot the buoys but try not to break stroke. It should be a very quick head lift and is not meant to be a break to breathe. Take one breath at most when lifting your head. If necessary, take one Breaststroke stroke to allow more time to spot the buoy but try to integrate the stroke seamlessly into your freestyle.
Open Water Swimming (Ocean):
Be conscious of the waves and in what direction you are swimming. If swimming into the waves, Bilateral Breathing following the same breathing technique with head lifts as Open Water Lake Swimming. If swimming parallel to the waves, breathe every four strokes and only towards the beach side (you don’t want to breathe into a wave and get a mouthful of seawater). Don’t breathe every other stroke even though you might be tempted. Breathe every four in order to maintain proper stroke technique. Otherwise, follow the same Open Water Lake Swimming protocol for buoy spotting.