Plenty of air and a smoother freestyle

In my last article, Inside-out breathing: Get the air you need, I covered breathing fundamentals. In this installment, we'll examine the specific techniques of breathing in rhythm with your stroke. The three most common breathing technique errors I see among unskilled or uncoached swimmers include:
  1. Lifting the head for air. This hurts your body position and leads to use of the arms to "brace" or support the head's weight, when they should be lengthening the body or "holding on to your place" in the water.
  2. Turning only the head for air. This awkward action increases strain and torque in the neck and spine, and hurts your form.
  3. Losing your front end. Having the lead hand collapse while breathing is almost universal among unskilled or unbalanced swimmers. When it happens you become less hydrodynamic and much of the propulsive potential of that stroke is lost.
The best way to imprint an efficient breathing form -- one that provides all the air you need and keeps your stroke long and efficient -- is to practice the Skating, UnderSwitch and ZipperSwitch drills from the TI Freestyle progression, but you can also improve your form with Mindful Swimming -- whole-stroke practice of focal points that specifically address breathing mechanics. Here are those I practice most often myself.

Breathe with your belly button. Not literally, but rolling to the air as if you intend to do so will help overcome #2 above. You should attempt to feel as if you roll your body to the air and your head goes along for the ride.

If you think of keeping your chin and sternum aligned -- then allow your chin to travel a bit farther on its own -- you ought to get ample body rotation and avoid the strain of just turning your head while your body remains prone. I also sometimes imagine that my breather is on the side of my rib cage, six inches below my armpit. If I take that part of my torso to the air, I always get plenty.

Keep the top of your head down. Between breaths, your balance is best if you point your nose at the bottom and lead with the top of your head. While doing so, get a sense of having a laser beam, shining from the top of your head, at the leading edge of your "head-spine line." You should keep that laser beam pointing straight to the horizon, or at the end of the pool, both between breaths and during your breath. You can work at this in three ways:

  1. Keep the top of your head as close to the surface as possible, while rolling to breathe.
  2. Press in the side and back of your head as you breathe.
  3. Tuck your chin toward your shoulder as you breathe.

Get taller as you breathe; stay tall as you come out of your breath. You'll maintain far more momentum and speed during your breath, and get a more effective stroke following it, if you keep your leading hand forward, and in a good "gripping" position during your breath. To achieve this, concentrate on having your opposite hand continue to extend forward as you roll to breathe, and begin your stroke only as you begin to roll back down again. And the next stroke will be far stronger if you keep your fingers tipped down throughout. In virtually all unbalanced swimmers, the hand turns up (think of Diana Ross singing "Stop in the Name of Love") during the breath, acting as a brace, not a gripper.

A breathing-skills practice

Swim a series of three sets of repeats, with each set lasting six to 10 minutes. Choose any repeat distance from 25 to 100 yards. To recover between repeats, do three (for shorter repeats) to six (if longer repeats) bobs, bubbling out as you bob underwater and getting air quickly and easily as you bob to the surface.

Rest for an additional one to two minutes between sets. Breathe every two to three strokes (not cycles) throughout. Swim the first round concentrating on breathing with your belly button. Swim the second round, concentrating on keeping the top of your head down. Swim the third round, concentrating on getting taller as you breathe. Which focal point helps the most?

This article is excerpted from a special e-book and mini-video on breathing skills to be published shortly by Total Immersion. For more articles like this, visit

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