Breathing in the swim: 600 breaths per mile?

Breathing is often the hardest part of swimming for triathletes. If you don’t have a swimming background it won’t come naturally to you. Rather like the fish out of water, the triathlete often ends up gulping for air while in the water. I find that working on my swimmers’ breathing technique leads to significant improvements in swim time, with the least effort. It allows them to breathe without straining themselves and without throwing off their rhythm. Breathing and turning the head is the most common cause of technique imperfections in my swimmers.

My coaching philosophy is to eke out the biggest gains as quickly and easily as possible, to take the path of least resistance. Slight improvements in a key skill will lead to exponential gains in speed & efficiency.

As a very rough estimate, say a swimmer swims twenty strokes per length and breathes every two strokes. That equates to 10 breaths per length, or 600 breaths over a 1500m swim. Imagine the energy savings if you can improve your breathing efficiency by only 10%.

That is why I start with breathing – it is such a major part of the stroke and easier to identify, define and explain than other stroke concepts.

Why work on your breathing?

  1. Efficiency – inhaling enough and blowing out sufficiently at a steady rate – will keep your muscles fuelled with oxygen and help you sustain your efforts. Get the most out of each breath and take it easy on those lungs!
  2. Smooth technique will ensure you can breathe with minimal effort, and avoid throwing off your stroke – no wriggling around, no sinking hips, no wasted effort lifting your head out of the water.
  3. Relaxed, easy swimming – Maintain your breathing to keep you relaxed. As soon as you hold your breath, your body’s natural response is to panic about when it’s next gasp of oxygen will be. Maintain your breathing rhythm & keep relaxed.

Breathing should fit in seamlessly with your stroke. Nothing should be thrown out of synch with a turn of the head to breathe. You should be able to breathe as often as you like without any struggle or effort to realign afterwards.

Wear fins to help maintain momentum while you focus on these drills. One less thing to worry about and once you master breathing, you will be surprised how quickly your  clicks!


  1. Sidekick A great drill to allow you focus solely (no pun intended!) on your breathing. Start on your left side, so you are lying on your hip with your belly button pointing to the wall. Your left arm should be extended forward, with your right hand behind and resting on top of your hip. Your head should be such that you are looking down the pool ahead of you and past your armpit. Start kicking and when you need a breath simply turn your head and look up to the ceiling, inhale then return your head. Maintain pressure on your leading arm and armpit to ensure your hips and legs don’t sag down. Do one length per side, then swap.
  2. Sidekick with rotation As above, but build in a 180 degree rotation every 12 kicks. This works your hip rotation and helps develop your bilateral breathing. Take one pull with your leading arm as you rotate, drive the hips and switch to the opposite side, turning your head to breathe as you do so.
  3. Kick with Kickboard Holding on to a kickboard allows you to focus on a single arm, and the act of breathing. Start with both hands on the kickboard, arms extended and kick down the pool. Keep hold of the board with your left hand, and pull with your right hand, breathing to your right. Finish the stroke and grab hold of the kickboard. Now do the opposite arm and breathe to your left side.Once comfortable, you can ditch the kickboard and practice swimming with bilateral breathing.

Once you have mastered the breathing techniques outlined above, work on breathing to both sides. Everyone has a dominant side and you can breathe to your strong side during intense sets. However, during drills, warm-ups and cooldowns, work on your bilateral breathing as it will help balance the strength of each side and prevent injuries. When it comes to race day, being able to breathe to both sides is a useful skill when it comes to the glare of the sun & particularly splashy swimmers.

Work on your breathing to become more efficient and keep your muscles fueled. More oxygen, more speed!

What drills do you like to do?

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s