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by Scott Bay

May 16, 2022

When and how often depends on the race and your needs

For many years, coaches have talked about limiting breathing in freestyle and butterfly sprints. But is it a good practice for Masters swimmers to follow? Although it would be nice to have a one-size-fits-all answer, the reality is that it’s different for everyone.

There are three energy systems that your body uses while swimming. Aerobic, which uses oxygen as a primary fuel source; anaerobic glycolytic, which uses glycogen as a primary fuel source; and anaerobic alactic, which uses adenosine triphosphate as a primary fuel source. Every race uses all three fuel sources in different proportions.

All swimmers have a unique set of needs for how much they need to breathe. Below is a progression to help you figure out when and where to breathe and what’s best for you in short races. Swim 100s of freestyle or butterfly, with lots of rest between repeats or on separate days, keeping track of your times.

  • Step 1: Go with what you know. Start with whatever you were taught. Anyone remember being told you only need three or four breaths for a 100? This is no longer true for most Masters swimmers.
  • Step 2: Save it up. Limiting the number of breaths in the first 50 and then increasing for the second works for some swimmers. To find if it’s for you, try two breaths on the first 25, three breaths on the second, and then four on the last two 25s. Check your times. Better or worse?
  • Step 3: Front load. This time, do the opposite of Step 2: Set up a breathing pattern early and limit the last half of the race. Was the time better, worse, or about the same as Steps 1 and 2?
  • Step 4: Even breathing. Next, pick a breathing pattern and stick with it the entire 100. Could be every 4 or 3 or 2 or whatever.Repeat several times with different patterns. Better or worse?
  • Step 5: What you started with. Swim another time trial based on what you always did. Is it different? Is it the same? Is it better?

This progression will show you what your body needs to be able to swim your fastest. Your body’s needs will change over time, depending on fitness level, stress outside of the pool, and age. Repeat as necessary to make sure you’re racing at your highest level.

If you’re doing this in one workout, take maximum rest between efforts to make sure you’re getting feedback on your breathing and not fading on the repeats.

Never hold your breath trying to achieve an arbitrary number—this exercise is designed to help you control your breathing pattern and think about when, where, and how much you breathe. Everyone is different. Do not assume you can perform a 100 with the same number of breaths as the swimmer in the next lane.


  • Technique and Training


  • Butterfly
  • Freestyle