Q & A With Natalie Coughlin: Breathing and Hand Position Tips

You asked, and Natalie Coughlin listened!

The 2008 Olympic gold medalist and swimming team co-captain answers your swimming questions on maximizing your freestyle breathing and fine-tuning your hand position at the beginning and end of your stroke.

Q: Natalie, can you comment on breathing techniques in freestyle? Do you breathe every other stroke and alternate sides, or do you breathe every stroke?

A: I think it's important to alternate breaths as much as possible. I breathe on either side every three strokes. This helps balance out your stroke and helps prevent muscle imbalances. When it comes to race time, do whatever is most comfortable.

Q: Do you exhale while underwater? If so, do you blow through your mouth or nose?

A: When I am doing my underwater kicks, I am not exhaling at all. I plug my nose with my upper lip so that the air doesn't escape.

Q: Hi Natalie! I am having trouble knowing exactly where my hand should enter the water in relation to my body during the freestyle stroke. Should it enter the water next to my ear, the top of my head or farther out past the top of my head?

A: Everyone is different and I don't think it's possible to give a general place to start your catch. You need to decide what works best for you while keeping a few things in mind:

  • You want to have a slight curve in your arm, and you want to be able to engage your lats as soon as you start pulling. (That would be impossible if you are over-reaching.)
  • Think of your arm as an anchor and your body rotates around that anchor point to move you forward.
  • Pay attention to the "thickness" of the water and your "hold" on the water.

Q: In a sprint race, how many breaths do you take? I have heard some people take one during the first length and two on the way back (in a short course, 25-yard/meter pool), or they don't breathe at all on the way down and only take one breath on the way back.

Also, do you take your hand out of the water at your hip, or do you finish your stroke? I have been told recently to do it out of my hip, but I'm not sure because of contradicting views between coaches of mine.

A: I don't take any breaths during a 50 (yards or meters). It's barely over 20 seconds and from a physiological standpoint you don't need to breathe. I don't recommend trying this for the first time in a big race because this takes some getting used to. The main thing is that you want to stay relaxed in terms of your breath.

As for the exit in your freestyle, I can't give you a specific place because it's different for everyone. You definitely don't want to get stuck in the back of your stroke because you're too focused on "finishing." There is very little power at the back part of the stroke, so I like to always focus on the catch.

Visit H2O Audio's Ask Natalie page to post your question on technique, training, nutrition or whatever swimming query you have. And for more from Natalie Coughlin, watch her swimming video tips, presented by H2O Audio.

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