Breathing - pool swimming versus open water

Discover how they differ

There are subtle differences in breathing technique when swimming in open water vs. the pool - here's how the two differ.

There is of course only a matter of time in front crawl until you have to take a breath. The objective is to do this with minimal effort and as efficiently as possible. The same principles apply to take a breath whether it is pool or open water.

If we look at the biomechanics, the head is the heaviest part of the body and therefore breathing means excessive lifting with wasted energy. Lifting the head makes the legs and feet drop and after a while could put strain on the neck.

In the Ocean Walker technique, the hips are sent to 90 degrees leading the stroke. Therefore you don’t need to lift the head independently and just allow it to follow the hips keeping your head relaxed looking downwards in a neutral position. The head should be sent to a perfect breathing position with no strain and one goggle showing with ear and side temple resting on the water like a pillow. In order to help the stability, the front arm will be extended as wide as your hips with fingers pointing downwards approximately 1 foot under water. The arm does not move from that position whilst you take a breath. This will support your stability and prevent you over rotating.

Depending what your event is, conditions can determine how often you breathe and which side. For instance, there is a physical effect which occurs when swimming in cold open water which can create the need to breathe more frequently as it compresses the diaphragm requiring shallower breaths. There are also other factors which can affect when and how you breathe in open water versus pool.

Lets have a look at the comparison:

Pool swimming

As the water temperature in a pool will generally be around 29 degrees centigrade, it is easier to breathe. I believe it is important to take regular breaths every 2 or 3 strokes to take oxygen in and release the CO2 that builds up in your lungs and blood stream. In shorter races such as 50 metres some competitors hardly breathe at all, trying to save time. The issue with this is that by holding your breath for a long time will result in physically tensing the body and holding onto the excess CO2 build up, which could also break your concentration. However, some competitive swimmers have trained themselves to hold their breath for extended periods of time.

In longer competitive pool swims, such as 400, 800 and 1500 metres you will not be able to hold your breath for that length of time and as such it is important to stay relaxed, breathing as efficiently as possible again every two or three strokes, depending on whatever you feel most comfortable with. The key is to breathe as close to your natural breathing rhythm as possible and not to force a big breath in immediately followed by a forced exhale.

Open water swimming

Temperature has already been mentioned regarding frequency of breathing, however waves and swell can also effect when you take a breath. It is still key in rough conditions to remain relaxed and not fight for a breath. The more experienced you are swimming in these conditions, you learn to sense when the waves are coming in and find the pockets of air to breath. If you are swimming alongside a boat, you can change which side you swim, in order to protect you from the waves and breathe away from the direction they are coming in from. This is why it is also important to be able to breathe both sides and bilaterally.

Bilateral breathing is used not only in open water races to help with direction and to see where other competitors are, it is used to keep even muscular symmetry in the pool if you are used to lifting your head. If you take me as an example, I have an even 90 degree rotation on both sides, it’s my hips that take my head, I am not using back muscles in order to lift and cause an overuse on one side. I am comfortable swimming mostly to one side, however I will practice both in case I have to switch due to the conditions in open water.

The key to breathing in pool and open water is timing, taking a natural breath in and gradually exhaling as your arms go back in for another stroke. The exhale which can be done through nose or mouth will relax your body. A relaxed body equals a relaxed mind, which is crucial in longer open water swims.

A simple breathing drill

  • In order to feel comfortable exhaling under water, this basic static drill will help build confidence.
  • Stand up in the shallow end hips facing forwards with bent front knee and head three-quarters immersed.
  • Rotate head to 90 degrees keeping contact with ear and temple with the water.
  • Take a normal breath in for 2 seconds as low to the water as possible, showing just one goggle.
  • Then put your head back into the water looking downwards and exhale through nose or mouth for 3 seconds blowing bubbles.
  • Repeat this 10 times.
Adam WalkerWritten by Adam Walker

Adam is a swim coach and motivational speaker who became the first British person to swim the hardest 7 ocean swims in the world. He teaches people swim stroke, psychology and all aspects in order to achieve their specific swimming goals.

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