“Coach, I need to Breathe!”

Breathing is an essential part of life. Functionally as humans, we cannot live past 6 minutes without a breath of oxygen. After 3 minutes, serious brain damage occurs.

Did you know the average human takes 16 breaths per minute, which equates to 23,040 breaths per day? And about 95% of those breaths are involuntary?

With the increased reports of shallow water black outs and drowning, hypoxic training is being veered away from. After all, 3 minutes is not a long time. Plus, if you include the factors of mental toughness (killer instinct with most elite athletes), air is only made up of about 21% oxygen, chloramines in enclosed pools, and increased activity level with fitness (higher heart rate)–it is an equation for disaster.

With all that being said, when we are swimming Freestyle: What’s the ideal breathing pattern? How much oxygen does our body need to sustain our speed level? When do I inhale and exhale? In our next series, we plan on answering all these questions and more.

If you have questions about when to breathe–that I don’t touch on, feel free to comment below. Or if you’d like to add a question for me to answer in this series– email me at [email protected].

Part I: When Do I Breathe During Freestyle?

Most swimmers have been taught to breathe (in Freestyle) in conjunction with the arm pulling down. That means as the opposing arm is about halfway through the recovery, the head starts rotating towards the arm that is pulling. The inhale occurs at the maximum point in head rotation. Or in other words, when you turn your head to the side and achieve the “one goggle in and one goggle out” head position—you breathe.

While breathing in conjunction with the arm strokes may be the easiest way to teach someone (as it makes it more rhythmic)–it is not the fastest, but I’ll explain more on this later.

I’ve coached many masters and beginner swimmers who “miss” their breaths due to the fact they are holding their breath throughout their stroke. If you take the time to turn your head to breath, you might as well get air (after all, it required energy to move your head in the first place)! Also, if you don’t take advantage of breathing while you have the chance, your speed and energy level will drastically reduce.

With all that being said, How Am I Supposed to Not Hold My Breath?

The key is learning how and when to exhale. In order to fully understand this concept, you need to understand a bit of anatomy and physiology—so bear with me.

As we go throughout the day, we inhale when our body needs oxygen (O2) and exhale when our body has an abundance of carbon dioxide (CO2). Essentially, when we inhale–our oxygen levels rise and when we exhale–our carbon dioxide levels deplete. While these two defined actions are needed for everyday life, it’s what happens in between them that’s important during swimming.

So just like everyday life, as you swim–your O2 level depletes, but at a much faster rate. This depletion happens faster due to the increase in heart rate and demand for energy in our muscles.

Not only does your O2 level rapidly decrease during swimming, but your CO2 level rapidly increases. This increase in CO2 is due to the fact that O2 combines with Carbon as a part of the body’s natural energy making process. This energy (or ATP) created from the combination of O2 and Carbon is what fuels our muscles.

So think of it this way: our brain is signaled to breathe when we are low on O2 and high on CO2. With swimming, we cannot change our strokes to breathe more than one inhale at a time without disrupting our technique or reducing our speed. So the key is dealing with our increased CO2 levels. This is where exhalation comes in.

Instead of focusing on when our next breath is–let’s focus on exhaling. If we can reduce our CO2 levels, we will delay the time between inhales and when our brain signals to us—we need O2.

Side note: I’m not saying by reducing your CO2 levels that you can get away with breathing very sporadically, or that you should push past your point of exhaustion. Always breathe if you need to, or if you are feeling light headed, dizzy, or that you may pass out.

I’m saying that if you become more proficient with your breathing strategy, you will become a faster and more powerful swimmer. You will also get in better physical shape.

Try this:

Next time you’re swimming Freestyle, breathe every 3 strokes. On your 3rd stroke, inhale as you normally would. Then as you put your head back in the water—slowly start exhaling (through your mouth). If you find that you do not have enough air to exhale for the entire duration between inhales, hold your breath for 1-2 strokes before you begin exhaling. You will actually increase your body’s buoyancy by holding air in your lungs —but that’s for a later discussion.

By using the above breathing strategy, you inhale O2 (when needed) and slowly exhale (depleting your CO2 level) while swimming. This strategy will help you extend the time between inhales and keep your from holding your breath. That way you can take full advantage of the fact you used energy to turn your head to breathe—therefore, you might as well get some air!


After all, we only have 3 minutes allowed without it! 

[CLICK HERE] for part II, as we discuss buoyancy, the oxygen ratio, and more!

-Abbie Fish

6 Responses

  1. Your series of information are FANTASTIC! I am a 69 yo Masters Swimmer (with about 80 swims from 15 years of USMS swimming in the Top Ten) with a passion for the sport that your writings fire up even more! Anyway, my question comes from your breathing tip for sprinters to breathe more often at the beginning of the race to prolong the time it takes for lactate to build up. But most elite sprinters swim a 50 with minimal, often NO, breaths. Help me reconcile what I see as a contraction. I also want to find tips for training that help me tolerate lactate. TY so much. I love your energy! Melinda Wolff

    1. Hey Melinda – great observation. Both is true. It really depends on your physiology and whether you have Fast Twitch Muscle Fibers that create a ton of Lactate and are more of a sprinter, or you are more of an endurance-based athlete. Based off of how you feel after sprinting, I think should be your answer to this question. Are you gassed? Then, you may want to breathe more. If you could continue (not comfortably), then I’d argue to breathe less. This gave me a good idea for a blog series, so I’ll dive into this more soon! Thanks again – hope this helps!

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