Free Air: How to Breathe Easier
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on December 16th, 2009

If I ask new swimmers what their biggest challenge is,  most say it’s breathing. Many report experiencing one or more of the following symptoms of “airlessness.”

  • They’re out of breath after a lap or two
  • They hold their breathing, because their stroke falls apart during a breath.
  • They’re concerned with taking in water, instead of air.

If any of these are true it’s nearly impossible to build toward a continuous mile. In fact, you become so preoccupied with or distracted by lack of air that it’s hard to think of much of anything else.

If this describes you — or even if you can swim a mile but feel your breathing technique could be better — this blog’s for you. This stepwise series of focal points focus on breathing easier:

1. Blow bubbles. Exhale steadily and strongly enough that you can hear bubbles streaming from your mouth and nose anytime your face is in the water.

2. Inhale like you sing. If you sing at all, even in the shower, you’re familiar with how you often have to grab a quick, sharp inhale between phrases. You don’t have time to fill your chest, so you just take a “quick bite” to get through the next phrase. That’s how you inhale between strokes. The exhale is strong, conscious, sustained. You hardly notice the inhale.

3. Follow your shoulder. If you’re breathing to your left, move your chin in synch with your left shoulder as that arm strokes. Your chin follows the shoulder back, then leads it forward again.

4. Hang your head. Focus on feeling a weightless head, resting on the water, as you follow your shoulder to breathe.  Keep your “laser” aimed in the direction you’re going, as your mouth clears the surface.

"Resting" the Head on Inhale - from O2inH2O DVD

"Resting" the Head on Inhale - from O2inH2O DVD

5. Swim “taller.” With each stroke focus on using your hand to lengthen your body-line, rather than to push water back. Then give particular attention to lengthening with one hand as your chin follows the other shoulder back.

To learn more about breathing skills – in all strokes – check out our O2 in H2O DVD.

23 Responses to “Free Air: How to Breathe Easier”

  1. […] right Tempo Trainer terry laughlin TI Open Water Camp TI Weekend Workshop triathlon « Free Air: How to Breathe Easier How Far Should You Swim? by Terry Laughlin Posted on December 17th, […]

  2. surfsalterpath says:

    Breath control is the toughest aspect for new swimmers. Even well conditioned athletes get panicky when swimming their 1st lap or two trying to adjust. Your blog post is very accurate and informative to help the lass accomplished swimmer adjust.

    Terry, how often do you suggest one breathe? Every stroke? Every other stroke(which would mean rotating sides to take that bite)? …or every 4th stroke?

    When I swim, I breath into the ropes which forces me to breath one one side for a 25yd and then on the opposite site the return 25yds. Helps w/ the balanced swimming technique for me, when I do breath every 3rd stroke.

  3. Surf, I mostly breathe bilaterally. Sometimes every 3 strokes, but if going longer or faster, especially with the frequency of flip turns in a 25-yd pool. I breathe every cycle, but alternate breathing to my right side on odd laps and to my left side on the evens. My left is my natural side so I’ll go to that for the last – fast – part of repeats and the critical parts of races.

  4. kueli says:

    Terry, I was once told by a TI coach that on the breathing strokes the head should return to the face down position before spearing. If you do it that way, the head is in its most hydrodynamic position when the propulsion is strongest. Do you agree? Or do you think that the head should follow the arm both when the arm exits and enters the water? Thanks.

  5. Nancy Carr says:

    Hi Terry-
    I have found that when I breathe every cycle and do alternate breathing per length, my left is my weak side so I us that side to breathe for the last – fast – part of my repeat. I personally go faster breathing on my weaker side (my weaker arm is strengthened on the pull, It seems to have more leverage).

  6. Roland Isnor says:

    Breathing….I don’t think much about it. It just sort of happens when my body and head rotate to the surface of the water. I like making bubbles in the water when I exhale, they curl around my head and excape to the surface.

  7. Nancy
    I’m naturally left-sided in breathing. When I began to do concentrated wrong-side breathing as you describe I was more efficient on the right side, but still have greater “top end” speed on the left.

  8. Jim says:

    Is there a conflict between lengthening your vessel and anchoring your hand? Breathing on the left comes more naturally to me, so I struggle with right-side breathing. Sometimes I seem to do better spearing almost to 3 o’clock (parallel with surface), sometimes anchoring at 4 or 5 o’clock. I also struggle with my legs sinking after a right-side breath, and keeping my head down or floating free. I took up lap swimming about three years ago, and TI shortly after that, but I’m still slow and struggling.

  9. Jim says:

    P.S. Re. being a “sinker,” I’m short and overweight (5’9.5″, 192 lbs.)

  10. Brad Rice says:

    I have a strange Breathing problem that I wonder if anyone has a solution to. When I swim very slow and mindful I am fine. But then if the person in the next lane is swimming faster than me I try and catch up to them. When I do this I end up swallowing air into my stomach which gives me terrible cramps about 1/2 hour later. This also happen if I try and speed up my pace. I can’t figure out what I am doing that causes the air to go to my stomach. Any Ideas?

  11. mike says:

    Question, on breathing over long distances is it possible to over breathe, meaning trying to inhale more than is needed, Its hard to decsribe maybe you know what I am trying to say

  12. Herb says:

    On Dec 30 Kuelli asked a question that you have not yet answered, which I too was curious about. He said he “was once told by a TI coach that on the breathing strokes the head should return to the face down position before spearing. If you do it that way, the head is in its most hydrodynamic position when the propulsion is strongest. Do you agree? Or do you think that the head should follow the arm both when the arm exits and enters the water?” What say you?

  13. Adam B. Schwartz says:

    This is one issue with TI that has confounded me for years.

    “With each stroke focus on using your hand to lengthen your body-line, rather than to push water back.”

    But lengthening body-line (presumably by reaching forward) is not mutually exclusive with the movement taken by the pulling hand. When the hand finishes the pull, it has to do something, and that something is to push water back–which pushes the body forward. (Newtons’ Third Law of Motion.)

    If the pulling hand doesn’t push water back, what does it do–just float there? And no matter what it does, its action is not dependent on what the lead hand is doing.

    I’d love to get this question answered, and I bet there are many other TI swimmers who are just as curious about it as I am.

  14. Mark says:

    I’ve never really noticed this before, but after reading your article I’ve seen that I tend to hold my breath & only exhale once my mouth is clear of the water – I actually exhale quickly before taking another quick breath.

    So now I’ve tried concentrating on trying to exhale under water but find that I’m wanting to inhale straight away – I’m almost starting to get hypoxic – I guess I’ll just have to persevere with this until my brain gets used to it as I’m sure it is a better way of breathing.

  15. Quite right Adam. The distinction I’m making here is not one of action, but of attention and intention. For most people, the focus is on all the aspects of how to push water back. How you minimize resistance is secondary or ignored. What this idea suggests is to give primary focus – at least sometimes – to the drag-reducing potential of how you use your arms and legs, rather than exclusively to how they create propulsion.

  16. Herb The head follows the shoulder going to breath, precedes it returning.

  17. I’d say it’s possible to over-breathe. The breath should be taken quick and sharp, kind of the way you breathe between phrases while singing.

  18. Brad
    You’ll probably get a better reply and suggestions if you post this query on the O2inH2O conference on the TI Discussion Forum.

  19. Laurie Kelly says:

    All great points given here. The main issue I struggle with is asthma. With this condition, it’s not so much the taking in of air that’s difficult, but rather it’s the reduced ability to exhale CO2 completely. When you can’t fully exhale, there’s less room in the lungs for oxygen to come in on the inhale. So you can see the problem here (and it’s not just confined to swimming – as a triathlete, this is my biggest issue in running as well.) Another side effect is production of excessive mucus in the lungs and back of the throat, which can even block your airway at times. The inhaler helps, but its not long lasting…and artificially increases your heart rate as well. Any other TI swimmers out there who also face this asthma challenge?

  20. Richard says:

    I have found that bilateral breathing is a must for me. It was surprising how short of a time it took to learn to breathe on the ‘wrong’ side. This allows me to breathe whenever I feel like it, I’m not stuck with every stroke or every other stroke.

    I also have swum an ocean swim in which the wind was off shore and that side (my right) was likely to get me a mouth full of water. No problem; I breathed on the other side!

    Also, bilateral breathing makes both stokes (left and right) the same.

  21. darren says:

    Since learning to swim last august I feel I have improved on a lot exept for the breathing,can a persons lungs
    be too small to swim,I breath good at the start but as my heart rate goes up I cant get enough air,I dont think
    I’m exhaling enough before taking a breath,after getting your books and dvds I have slowed down my kick
    and stroke,I have worked on teaching my mind to realize my body does want to float but I cant get the breathing,could it be about relaxing,since I was little I have feared the water,HELP!!!

  22. Darren
    I can give you assurance on one point. It is extremely unlikely that your breathing difficulties are due to too-small lungs. Usually a sense of breathlessness does not relate to lack of lung capacity. Swimmers most often feel breathless because they are failing to exhale fully or dynamically enough to clear out CO2 from the lungs’ lower lobes. This, in turn, may be caused by caused by
    1) A high stroke rate or turnover – leaving too little time to take a full breath, or
    2) Poor balance, or a sinking sensation, which creates general tension.
    3) A combination of (1) and (2). Call this survival stroking, the feeling that if you don’t keep moving your arms and legs you might sink.

    I can suggest two approaches to fixing this
    1) Improve your balance, sense of support, comfort, and sense of ease by practicing the drills in Lessons 1 and 2 of the Total Immersion Easy Freestyle DVD.
    2) Improve your breathing mechanics, in both drills and whole stroke, with the Total Immersion O2 in H2O Breathing Skills DVD.

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