Freestyle Swimming Technique - Efficient Breathing

This series of freestyle swimming technique articles will help you improve your stroke, this time focusing on efficient breathing while swimming front crawl.

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Breathing I think we would all agree is a necessity. On land when we breathe, it doesn’t take much thought, we just do it. However, add water to the equation and you have whole different kettle of fish.

Well why is that? This is often due to the fear of not clearing the water to get the necessary oxygen required.

I have taught a lot of good technical swimmers, however when it comes to the breathing their stroke can become inefficient. Mastering an efficient rhythmical breathing technique can be crucial to speed, stamina and state of mind for the event or race you have entered.

Common errors when breathing can be:

  • Holding your breath too long, not knowing when to exhale and then having to panic breathe.
  • Trying to take in too much oxygen, resulting in tightening of the chest and the feeling of being light headed.
  • Exhaling too long under water between breathes, again having to gulp for air.
  • Lifting head too high resulting in legs dropping and an inefficient body position. It also can put strain on the neck, utilising unnecessary muscles and energy.
  • Breathing every stroke (right then left) using a lot of energy and potentially affecting the line of direction as the head is never still. Your head is your rudder!

When I swam with a flatter more conventional stroke, I used to believe that increasing the amount of strokes before I would take a breath was a good thing. Why?

In my mind I was reducing the number of times I would lift my head creating an inefficient body position and slowing me down. You see I had a very high breathing technique, with my head leaving the water. As the head is the heaviest part of the body, it meant that my hips and legs would drop. The lifting also put strain on my neck and used up a lot of energy. Swimming this way, meant when I was training for the English Channel, I would have one physio session a week on my neck purely due to the strain lifting caused.

When I changed my stroke to the ‘Ocean Walker technique’ due to injury, I started utilising rotation to power the stroke. I soon realised other key benefits to this method. For instance, there was no need to lift my head to breathe as I was rotating 90 degrees to 90 degrees and therefore I could allow the hip rotation and pull to send me on to the breath. Like rotating on a skewer.

Since swimming this way, I have never had another neck problem...
-Adam Walker

I developed a deeper head in the water, around three-quarters immersed. Along with a deeper front arm, this resulted in my hips and legs being closer to the surface to ensure I was as streamlined as possible. Now when I take a breath, I ensure I maintain contact with the water with my lead temple lying on the water like a pillow as I rotate the hips on to the breathe. As my head is lower throughout the stroke it results in an efficient one goggle breath and no pressure on the neck. Since swimming this way, I have never had another neck problem and needed physio for it.

I breathe every two strokes when swimming long distance in a channel swim as I have a boat alongside me, during a race I may switch to bilateral if I have a competitor each side of me to see where they are. It sounds obvious but breathing regularly keeps you physically relaxed and energy efficient. Holding your breath too long will sap your energy and tighten up your body.

Top tips when breathing:

  • Ensure you breathe just before the pulling stroke ends at the groin.
  • Be patient for the hip to come up before taking a breath.
  • Hold front arm into extension whilst taking the breath, don’t allow it to drop (if it drops it can sink you meaning you will have to lift head to take a breath).
  • Front arm should be in line with the hips under water, if it moves across the centre line you will over rotate and could end up lifting to breathe upwards and backwards instead of 45 degrees with no lifting.
  • It doesn’t matter whether you breathe left/right or bilateral as you are rotating on to the breath, not lifting.
  • Breathe regularly, inhale from the mouth and exhale either through mouth or nose when you are face down in the water between breaths.
  • Try and exhale one more second more than you inhale. Every time you exhale you relax the body. If you are physically relaxed, it will help you be mentally relaxed.

Freestyle Swimming Technique - The Benefits Of Keeping A Still Head -->