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How to master the top five challenges to breathing in freestyle

Kevin Koskella provides remedies for the top five challenges in learning how to breathe in freestyle.

The most common question I hear in the triathlon world about the mysteries of swimming efficiently usually involves something with breathing. In freestyle, it is the first step to getting your body position right. Then, for many, you throw in breathing, and everything goes haywire! This has to do with lack of balance, using your head instead of your core to breathe, and a few other factors.

The top five challenges and their remedies are:

1. Not Getting Enough Air

There are two reasons why this typically happens when swimming 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 is not enough time for this! Your exhalations should only be in the water in the form of bubbles. Initially, 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 drills.

2. Extended arm sinks while taking a breath

This is 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 will also help to improve this. Another drill, discussed in Issue 8 of Your Personal Trainer, which will help with this challenge, is the first drill, which forces you not to use your hands, therefore improving your balance in the water.

3. Speed is sacrificed because of a "Pause" while breathing

A typical scenario is that you feel like you are cruising along just fine and then you take a breath and it feels like you have just lost all your momentum. To remedy this, when you breathe, concentrate first on breathing to the side (as in #1), then on having your mouth parallel to the water, instead of over the water. The latter will take a while to master, but once you do, it will take care of the pause, and improve your speed overall.

4. Difficulty breathing while navigating in a race

It would help if you looked up to see where you 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 where you are without lifting your head as much. When you need to raise your head 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 breathe, and bring your head right back down into position.

5. Sucking in water while taking a breath

In practice, this will sometimes occur because of #1 and #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 improving 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!

Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • KOSKELLA, K. (2006) How to master the top five challenges to breathing in freestyle. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 38/ December), p. 11

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • KOSKELLA, K. (2006) How to master the top five challenges to breathing in freestyle [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Kevin Koskella coaches masters and triathlete swimmers in San Diego, CA. He operates the website, a resource for beginner to intermediate level triathletes looking for help with swimming.