Mastering the Top 5 Freestyle Breathing Challenges

The most common question I hear about the mysteries of swimming efficiently usually involves something with breathing. In freestyle, it is the first step to get your body position right. Here are the top five challenges in learning how to breathe in freestyle, along with the remedies on how to get over them:

1. Not Getting Enough Air

There are a couple of reasons this typically happens in freestyle. First, make sure you breathe out all of your air before you rotate to take a breath. When learning, some people try to exhale and inhale while they are rolling to the side for air.

There simply is not enough time for this! Your exhalations should only be in the water in the form of bubbles. At first the timing may seem difficult, but eventually you will get used to it.

Second, you may be sinking as you breathe. Make sure you are rolling to the side to breathe, and not rotating your head and looking straight up. Practicing the side-kicking and shark fin drills will also help you with this challenge.

2. Extended Arm Sinks

This is mainly a balance issue. While you breathe to one side, your other arm should be extending. For many swimmers, this extended arm pushes down into the water (elbow drops) and they are sinking while trying to inhale. The side kicking and shark fin drills will also help to improve this. Another drill that will help with this challenge is the fist drill, which forces you to not use your hands, therefore improves your balance in the water.

3. Losing Speed During Breathing Pauses

A typical scenario is that you feel like you're cruising along just fine, and then you take a breath and it feels like you've just lost all your momentum. To remedy this, when you breathe, concentrate first on breathing to the side (as in No. 1), then on having your mouth parallel to the water, instead of over the water. The latter will take awhile to master, but once you do, it will take care of the pause and improve your speed overall.

4. Difficulty Breathing During a Race

Open water swimmers and triathletes need to look up to see where they are going, and at the same time grab a breath. How can you do both? Start with bilateral breathing (breathing on both sides every three strokes). This will help you to see about where you are without lifting your head up as much.

When you need to lift your head up to sight, try not to look straight ahead--this will make your hips sink and throw you off balance. Instead, take a quick peek at your target, roll to the side to breath, and bring your head right back down into position.

5. Taking in too Much Water During a Breath

In practice, this will sometimes occur because of No. 1 and No. 2 above. In a race, the waves may cause the inhalation of water instead of air (bilateral breathing will help here as well). The drills to practice to improve balance and avoid this unpleasant occurrence are the side kicking and shark fin drills, as well as the one-arm drill.

To perform the one-arm drill, swim a full stroke with one arm while your other arm rests at your side. Breathe on the opposite side of the stroking arm. This is a difficult drill and takes some practice, but it will pay off!


Kevin operates the website www.TriSwimCoach.com, a resource for beginning through intermediate level triathletes looking for help with swimming. The site features a free email newsletter offering tips and articles on triathlon swimming. Kevin has also written an electronic book titled The Complete Guide to Triathlon Swimming which is sold on his website in downloadable form.

Related Articles:

      • 4 Steps to Easy Breathing in Freestyle

      • Breathing Mechanics That Will Help Your Freestyle

      • Extra Air and Fast Turns in Distance Swimming

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