Breathing While Swimming – Top Tips
Category: Swimming Tips

Breathing While Swimming – Top Tips

Breathing is an essential component in swimming

Breathing is not only the single most important aspect of swimming, but equally in everyday life. Whilst Mahatma Ghandi survived for 21 days in the 1940s with no food and only sips of water during a display of civil disobedience, he certainly couldn’t have survived that long without breathing!
Source: [accessed 19 July 2017]

Most clients who come for our adult swimming lessons tell us that they struggle with their breathing, or at the very least they have identified that this is an area in which they could improve.

You should never feel breathless or panicked at any point while you are swimming, it doesn’t mean that you are swimming hard or taking good exercise, it means that you are breathing wrong! It’s easy to correct, and once you have confidence in your breathing, then your swimming will vastly improve in both endurance and enjoyment.

Why is breathing well is so important, how should we breathe when swimming and what are our top tips for improving an adult’s aquatic breathing ability?

Firstly, to help answer why breathing is so important, let’s look at our body’s three energy systems, and how they relate to swimming. There are three ways that the body generates energy, which can be seen as instant action, which lasts for a few seconds, which is followed by, quick response, which lasts for a few minutes, and then long term.

Energy systems and breathing in swimming

Source: LiRF_Course_British_Athletics_v2.0_April_2014.pdf [accessed 19 July 2017]

1) The alactic anaerobic system, often known as the ATP-CP (adenosine triphosphate-creatine phosphate) system is the first energy system that kicks in as soon as we jump in the swimming pool or push-off the wall and start swimming. The alactic system is fully capable of operation without any oxygen and is often referred to as our body’s mechanism of ‘fight or flight’. However, this energy system is very short lived and only lasts for around 10-12 seconds of our swim before dropping off. We regularly have adults join us for our lessons who can swim around 7-15 metres before they feel very uncomfortable and stop. These are adults who have relied on their alactic energy system to cover their swim and so we recommend that they learn how to swim, tread water, float and relax too.

2) Secondly, we have the Lactate Anaerobic system, this is a linking energy system and is capable of operation without any oxygen but produces lactate (lactic acid) while using fuel stores.

Source: [accessed 19 July 2017]

If you find you are swimming for 50-100 metres before feeling exhausted and out of breath and stop, then you are almost certainly experiencing the lactate system instead of a combination of the lactate and aerobic systems.  This is fine for up to 3 minutes, but after this you’ll need to be working the aerobic energy system too. Both the lactate system and the aerobic system can work in tandem, the fitter and stronger you are then the longer you can use the lactate energy system, dipping in and out of this system to increase the speed of your swims.

Tip 1: If you feel out of breath then slow down your swim, by reducing your body’s work load you can keep going for longer because less oxygen is needed. You’ll then start using more of your aerobic system than lactate system.

Tip 2: Increase the amount of oxygen that your muscles have, thus reducing the build-up of lactate and you can continue swimming for longer, and/or at faster speeds. To do this, really exhale as much air as you can before you truly need to.

We have heard in the past that other swimming providers recommend that you hold some air back in your lungs – for us we see this as making no sense at all! Once we have breathed in and oxygen has passed through the alveoli into the blood stream, we then need to exhale the returning waste gases from the blood stream. If we don’t exhale the waste gases we are going to have an overload of carbon dioxide and there isn’t enough space left in our lungs for the fresh air to be taken in, causing an oxygen deficit.

3) Thirdly we have the aerobic system that uses oxygen and fuel sources for a sustained energy system. Once you have mastered breathing then you have enough oxygen and fuel to keep going length after length, mile after mile, swimming up and down the pool or in open water until your heart is content!

How should we breathe when swimming?

Tip 3: At Turner Swim, we recommend that when swimming on your front that your face is in the water, exhaling in the water between each movement up to breathe in.

Tip 4: We recommend that you both inhale and exhale through your mouth (though not at the same time!).  If we were to inhale through our nose near water then we can end up sniffing in droplets of water that irritate the nasal passage and back of the throat. If we try and exhale through our nose only then we are unlikely to be able to get all our exhaling completed in a timely manner before we need to inhale again. Having said that the top athletes exhale through both their mouth and nose, but let’s keep things simple for now!

Tip 5: Exhale as much air as you can in a relaxed manner, and then push the last part out using your diaphragm in a quick pushing action. Then close your mouth, come up to the surface and then open your mouth to inhale again. If you have exhaled well, your body will automatically breathe in for you.

Tip 6: Use a round shaped mouth to exhale and inhale, so that you have the best possible volume to surface area ratio, thus reducing the risk of water seeping in the side of your mouth while breathing.

How can you improve your breathing while swimming?

Tip 7: True aquatic breathing is a rhythm, and musicians have an advantage here. You might be trying to breathe in every two arms because you feel out of breath, but it’s more likely that by breathing in every two arms there simply isn’t enough time to exhale all your air before coming back up again. Try breathing in every 4 arms instead, giving yourself more time to exhale whilst doing 3 arm pulls before breathing in again.

Tip 8: Come to one of our one-hour London adult swimming lessons! The above is hopefully some useful theory but to really conquer breathing you’ll need someone to let you gently and kindly know which part of the aquatic breathing cycle you can do better. Professional athletes have coaches to help them improve and as an amateur you can have a professional swimming coach too!


Turner Swim provides adult swimming lessons in London. Join one of our experienced swimming coaches for one-to-one tuition in a five star hotel. Click here to book an adult swimming lesson.

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