Stressful, disruptive breathing is one of the top complaints brought to us by swimmers seeking coaching help. 

Sometimes the swimmer can experience a great improvement in ease with just one or two little adjustments. But often there are underlying structural problems in the stroke, and these need to addressed first before breathing can be made better. Some of these issues are in the body and some of them are in the mind.

The main problems we would scan for are…

  1. inefficient movement patterns which would cause an excessive demand for air exchange
  2. poor breathing technique, making getting to breath harder and more disruptive to comfort and forward movement
  3. misunderstanding of how exertion should feel while swimming, while using an asymmetric breathing rhythm

The solutions for each are…


Remove Excessive Demand For Air

When the body is moving in a stressful, uncoordinated way, provoking excessive drag, then the swimmer is going to experience a high heart rate, high respiration rate, while still not moving forward very well. When there is a desperation for air, the land-mammal brain does not allow the swimmer to concentrate on much else; the appendages are diverted away from the action of swimming forward to the action of keeping the head above the surface where the air is. This creates a downward spiral of swimming exhaustion.

If we establish fundamental stroke skills, then the swimmer can slide much farther on each stroke, with lower heart rate, lower respiration rate, and require less frequent breaths and less air exchange on each breath. In this situation of stable energy control, the brain feels more relaxed and will permit the swimmer to concentrate on developing technique more than getting the next breath. This underlying work is obviously the first priority in making breathing easier.

It is not likely that a swimmer can just fix fundamentals and then breathing will suddenly feel perfectly easy because the technique for breathing is developed around these fundamental stroke skills, what I call the stroke choreography. Think of a group of ballet dancers moving around each other in a rhythmic way – a dancer slipping onto the stage needs to blend with the choreography of those already there. Or, imagine a child hopping seamlessly into a large jump rope whirled rhythmically by two other children. If that old stroke choreography is then transformed into something new, a new breathing choreography will need to be learned, one that can slip smoothly into that new stroke rhythm. Hence, the next solution…

Improve Breathing Technique

Getting the fundamental technique of the stroke working first is necessary because the action of breathing is dependent on those fundamentals. They are the foundation, the platform on which easy breathing can happen. The weaker that foundation, the more troublesome the act of breathing will be, and vice versa.

It is a paradox then that the swimmer must work on fundamental stroke skills in order to get into position for easier breathing, yet he needs to breathe in order to work on fundamental stroke skills. How to do both?

This is why we teach and have the swimmer acquire basic integration of fundamental stroke skills in short non-breathing segments before focusing on rhythmic breathing directly. We need to get some of this essential support structure in place before we add the action of breathing to it. Not only will the swimmer feel less desperation while practicing rhythmic breathing, making it easier to concentrate on technique, he will find it much easier to make the air exchange.

So, we will work on the fundamentals in short segments for a while then later on set up drill activities that simplify the support structure and allow the swimmer to focus more easily on breathing technique, without actually trying to take breaths. The positioning of the lead arm and head, and the timing for easier breathing is counter-intuitive. Once the brain is convinced that this counter-intuitive positioning and timing is actually better than original land-mammal instinct predicted, then the swimmer can practice taking that easier breath.  

Good breathing technique, built upon that essential stroke foundation, allows the swimmer to get to air easier and return with less disruption to forward movement and stroke rhythm. We want the action of breathing to contribute to energy conservation, not work against it.

Although breathing is absolutely necessary every few seconds, understand that breathing skills are dependent skills – dependent on other stroke skills before they will work. Fundamentals of the stroke often need to be addressed before breathing itself can be improved. It may be well-intentioned but misguided for a coach to work on a swimmer’s breathing before working on certain essential features of the stroke which support the action of breathing. If you have received lessons to work on your breathing that didn’t work, you might suspect that certain essential supportive skills were overlooked, or taught to you out of proper sequence. Or it is possible you tried to move on from work on the fundamentals too soon.


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