How to Master the Top 5 Challenges of Breathing in Freestyle Swimming

How and When to Get the Air In

Man Swimming Front Crawl
Simon Wilkinson / Iconica / Getty Images

The freestyle stroke is the fastest and most efficient swimming styles used in swimming competitions. In fact, it is a popular form of swimming for professional swimmers and athletes. The most common questions heard in the triathlete world, about the mysteries of swimming efficiently, often involves curiosities around breathing. 

In freestyle, the first step for a swimmer is to get their body position right. Then, for many, breathing comes in second and becomes a challenge for swimmers. This has to do with lack of balance, using their head instead of their core to breathe, as well as a few other factors.

Below are the top five challenges in learning how to breathe in freestyle, along with the remedies on how to get over these.

Not Getting Enough Air

There are a couple of reasons for not getting enough air in freestyle swimming. First, swimmers should make sure that they breathe out all of their air before rotating to take a breath. When learning, some swimmers try to exhale and inhale while they are rolling to the side for air. There simply is not enough time for this. Swimmer exhalations should only be in the water in the form of bubbles. At first, the timing may seem difficult, but eventually, swimmers will get used to it.

Second, swimmers may be sinking as they breathe. Swimmers should make sure they are rolling to the side to breathe, and not rotating their head and looking straight up. Practicing side kicking and shark fin drills will also help swimmers with this challenge.

Extended Arm Sinks While Taking a Breath

Extended arm sinks is mainly a balance issue. While swimmers breathe to one side, their 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 swimmers to not use their hands, therefore improving swimming balance in the water.

Speed Is Sacrificed Because of a "Pause" While Breathing

A typical scenario with speed and swimmers is when they are cruising along just fine, and then take a breath, and it feels like they have just lost all momentum. To remedy this, swimmers should concentrate on breathing to the side and then position their mouth parallel to the water, rather than over the water. The latter will take a while to master, but it will take care of the pause and improve swimming speed overall.

Difficulty Breathing While Navigating in a Race

Swimmers need to look up to see where they are going, and at the same, time-grab a breath. To achieve both, swimmers can start with bilateral breathing, which is breathing on both sides every three strokes. This will help swimmers to see where they are without lifting their head up as much.

When swimmers need to lift their head up to see, it is recommended to not to look straight ahead. This is because it will make their hips sink and throw them off-balance. Instead, swimmers can take a quick peek at their target, roll to the side to breathe, and bring their head right back down into position.

Sucking in Water While Taking a Breath

In practice, sucking in water will sometimes occur when swimmers are not getting enough air, or when they are extending their arm sinks. In a race, the waves may cause the inhalation of water instead of air (bilateral breathing will help here as well).

There are drills to practice which can improve balance and avoid this unpleasant occurrence. This includes the side kicking and shark fin drills, as well as the one-arm drill. To perform the one-arm drill, swimmers should swim a full stroke with one arm while the other arm rests at their side. Then, swimmers should breathe on the opposite side of the stroking arm. This is a difficult drill and takes some practice, but it pays off.