Five Common Breathing Mistakes in Freestyle

Fix these five common technique problems and dramatically improve your efficiency.

At the start of a swim, the first thing every swimmer takes note of, whether beginner or advanced, and whether momentarily or constantly, is breathing. Even the best swimmers begin with an automatic air exchange, subconsciously checking their breathing motions before greenlighting all the other systems.

As if a fear of swallowing water isn't fearsome enough, for a beginner, learning to swim is compounded by the addition of two equally challenging factors: body balancing on an unstable platform and creating propulsion using arms instead of legs.  Although these two factors are important, we'll be focusing on air exchange and the five most common breathing mistakes in freestyle.

At its core, breathing is a basic life skill that doesn't need to be taught; however, a little assistance in perfecting the motions that lead up to and away from the actual intake of air often require some coaching. Swimmers don't need to be told to inhale. It's a given. Beginners might need reminders to do it faster or deeper, but everyone knows to inhale. The majority of breathing problems - and the associated head and body position problems they create - occur while a swimmer is holding and exhaling air. In fact, in freestyle, breaststroke, and butterfly, the most common technical errors are mainly associated with breathing issues.

1. Breathing late and over-rolling. The timing of the head roll should be early in the arm motion, not late. The basic underwater stroke sequence flows from catch, to the anchor, and through the extension, after which the hand leaves the water by the swimmer's hip to begin the recovery. The swimmers who rotate the head too long after the catch and anchor cause the opposite shoulder to drop. In so doing, they often create a pause in their timing, an exaggerated hip roll, scissor kicking, and a crossover arm entry.

To correct this: Begin rotating your chin as soon after the catch as possible. While swimming, imagine lying down along the length of a circus high wire and balancing your nose, sternum, and pelvis along the thin, straight line of the wire. As you alternate arms from right to left, maintain your symmetry and balance even while turning to inhale. During the exact moment of inhaling, the extended arm should still be out in front just below the surface, with your lower ear resting on your submerged shoulder. When this earlier breath is taken correctly, some swimmers are so subtle and so quick that their breaths are hidden.

2.Holding your breath. Holding your breath leads to an incomplete exhalation, and worse still, extra time spent above the water line. The exhalation exchange should be immediate and continuous as soon as your face returns to the water after the breath has been taken.

To correct this: Focus on exhaling all your air. Lungs too full of air can cause a swimmer's body to float unnecessarily high on the water. It's also important to allow the facial muscles to relax while exhaling.

3.Exhaling through your mouth. Exhaling through the mouth instead of the nose is a common problem. Beginners often exhale through their mouth and over-purse their lips, forcing the air through too small an opening, resulting in an incomplete breath exchange and an eventual buildup of carbon dioxide in the body. Too much carbon dioxide means you can't swim as fast.

To correct this: Exhale through both nostrils instead; twice as much air will be released as when you exhale through a pursed mouth. To prevent sucking water up your nose, push your tongue against the roof of your mouth to seal off the airway at the end of the inhalation. Exhale continuously even as your face rotates up through the surface for your next breath. As the remaining air from your lungs escapes into the air, release your tongue seal and gulp in a rapid breath.

4.Lifting your head or looking forward while inhaling During a breath, your line of sight should be diagonally backward and at water level. One goggle lens should remain in the water while inhaling. This position helps your body remain in a horizontal plane, keeping your feet up behind the torso instead of dropping below it. Breathe into the trough created by the bow wave coming off your head. It's a subtle motion and you can easily miss the bow wave if you lift your head too high.

To correct this: Turn your head to the side as though you're rotating a doorknob, rather than the up-and-down motion you would make if you were flicking on a light switch. Your head should move rotationally, not vertically. Some swimmers can access more air faster by inhaling through the side of the mouth, a la Popeye.

5.Lifting your eyes and head forward while exhaling This is the inverse of the preceeding problem. Rather than lifting your head to exhale, keep your head motionless and eyes looking downward between breaths. From an above-water view, there should be no skin wrinkles visible at the nape of the neck. Keep the neck muscles firm but not ridid, allowing your head to float out in front of your shoulders. If your head is too high during the exhalation, that position can contribute to shoulder impingement problems, as the recovering arm has to swing around lower than necessary.