Breath Better: Breathing Technique in Swimming – Timing the Rotation

Freestyle Breath Head above waterLast night at our masters swimming ‘Stroke Refinement’ Session as this swimmer termed it, I saw some really nice improvement in his breathing technique. Watching the transformation of strokes in a very short period of time is gratifying, and hopefully I can share with you what he experienced.

One of the most common breathing problems is that swimmers feel the must lift their head to get air, rather than rely on support from the water.   While lifting the head, they gain additional clearance by pushing down on the water with the extended hand.

Two Big Problems Caused by Lifting the Head

This solves the one immediate problem of getting air…but it causes two big problems in relation to swimming well.

Problem number 1 is that the hand and arm are pushing down instead of either anchoring or pushing to the rear, robbing the body of forward motion.   If you’ve been told you have a “nice stroke”, but your stroke counts are consistently high especially when swimming hard enough to breath every 2nd stroke, it’s likely that your forward movement is being stolen away by this thief…the perceived need for “space” to breath into.

Problem number two is that a sunken arm, usually locked straight at the elbow, is creating in creased drag and magnifies the rate of deceleration.  The body slows down as the breath is being taken because that arm pushing down is putting on a brake.  in order to get back up to swim speed again, the legs frequently compensate by spreading wide and scissoring back together.

A Mouthful of Water Means You’re Probably Doing it Better…

Obviously air is important.   Modifying the stroke to streamline breathing can be scary.  Occasionally there is no air present, or you take in a mouthful of water.   As long as you are confident that you are on the right path, and that your efforts will provide benefit in the long run, you’ll improve quickly.

Here are two screenshots from last night’s swim session.  I’ll note that the beautiful body position in the first shot was at the end of a 1 hour session of rotating through various recovery arm and leg focal points.   When working on breathing you’ll want to make sure the body is in it’s best alighment.  If that means spending 15 minutes or an hour doing whole stroke balance thoughts or drills, that’s what it takes. The more you practice the easier it gets and the faster you can arrive at your ‘starting point’.

Photo #1

In this photo our swimmer Erik displays nearly perfect breathing form except for one thing which you probabaly cannot see from the photo.  The great elements here include

  • Lead arm patiently extended
  • Lead arm on a wide track
  • Head laying down in the water
  • Water almost “splits” his face down the middle with one google in and one goggle out
  • Mouth is fully clear of the water
  • Eyes are looking to the side, not toward the sky
  • Recovery arm is just beginning to clear the water.

If all we were to see was this single still we’d assume that Erik has his breathing 100% sorted out…yet Erik continues to feel some struggle with his breath.  What you cant SEE from this photo is that he is still exhaling in this still frame, rather than inhaling. He has very good breath control, but spends just a fraction of a second clearing water from his face by blowing out after he’s already reached air.   he doesn’t start to inhale until just after this moment, which results in the next frame below…take a look. Before reading further see if you can ‘feel’ what he is feeling and identify areas for improvement.


Picture #2

In this photo Erik is just finished inhaling, yet his recovery arm is already making it’s entry back into the water.  Look at how much tension has developed in the neck as he continues to turn, turn, turn his neck toward air despite the body being ready to rotate back into left side entry & Skate.

Instead, imagine if in the first photo above, Erik is well into the inhale, having blown out remaining air just as he was rotating towards the surface. He’d start his inhale just prior to photo #1 an have completed it as the recovery arm passed the forehead/ear at which point he would rotate the head back towards the bottom of the pool, either just before or in time with the spearing arm.

(Well which one is it, just before or at the same time??)

I had this discussion with a TI coach over the weekend as I had demonstrated a land based drill which involved turning the head back down PRIOR to the recovery arm spearing.  The head would then be rotating independently of the body.    The althernative is to simply rotate the head back down WITH the spearing arm and body rotation.

I would use the former timing for a swimmer like Erik, pictured above, to reinforce that he really CAN get air and get his head back down without having to rely on the lead arm to push down and help the body to air.  Depending on the swimmers timing and tempo, it may be impossible for him to get the feeling that the head has it’s own component of control separate from the lead arm.  I would want to disengage the pushing down of the lead arm from the breathing movement of the head.

Update [3/1/14]: Here are two good breathing drill sets I just posted.
Breathing Tuneup Sequence A
Breathing Tuneup Sequence B

As soon as the swimmer can feel what it’s like to get to air, with the head supported by water only…and not by pushing down of the leading arm, I would only then encourage him to experiment with later timing of the head rotating back down.
I don’t feel that either is more correct than the other…but when trying to break bad habits, I think it’s valuable to enforce something like this…the quick bite of air with head back down BEFORE the lead arm has moved…in order to convince the swimmers mammalian brain of how easily air can be found while in the water.

Thoughts? What are YOUR biggest swimming concerns as far as breathing goes?

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