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by Matt Donovan

October 24, 2019

Three breathing drills and techniques for keeping your head, spine, and core in line

The head, spine, and core are directly connected with everything you do in swimming; when one is out of alignment, so are the other two. Correct breathing technique is vital to maintaining this alignment. If you pick your head and look forward to breathe, or rotate too much (aka sky breathing), your head is no longer aligned with your spine and core, which affects the entire stroke, including your kick.

Rotation in swimming always starts from the core. Many swimmers who don’t breathe effectively are thinking they’re rotating their shoulders, when in reality they’re rotating their neck. This is inefficient from a stroke and speed perspective but more importantly, it can lead to injury. A great number of overuse injuries in the shoulder, neck, and back are caused by improper technique. In addition, if you’re returning from an injury layoff, proper technique—starting with head position—is the best place to begin your reentry to the pool.

Swimmers often ask, “How far should I rotate when I breathe?” I say keep it simple—look at the lane line, which is at the perfect height. If you can see the pool deck wall, that’s probably too much rotation. If you can see the ceiling or the sky when you breathe, you’re swimming inefficiently and setting yourself up for injury.

Here are some breathing drills and techniques to help you work on your alignment.

3-10-3 Drill

This is exactly what is says: take three strokes, breathe, then take 10 kicks on your side, with your face down in the water in a proper freestyle position with the lead hand at the entry point and your trailing hand on your thigh. Both hands can do a light scull for balance. If you’re a beginner or not the best kicker, you can reduce the kick number to four, six, or eight. If you’re really struggling with this drill, it’s OK to add fins or even a snorkel at first. But the sooner you can do this drill on your own, the better. Also, if you find this drill too taxing (especially if you’re in a 50-meter pool), fully rotate to your back for a few repetitions. Many of the same elements are still in play and it gives you a chance to get some easier air and reset yourself.

Buoy or Ankle Strap

Swimming with a pull buoy will allow you to feel how you’re initially engaging the start of the breathing process. By isolating your legs and not kicking, you’ll feel the resistance of your hips against the buoy. Begin swimming with the buoy at a very slow speed. Be sure that as you rotate, your initial movement is to engage your core and rotate at your hips. Last to rotate would be your shoulders. If you’re rotating properly from the core, your head really never moves. If you’re big on stroke count, keep track of your numbers per length while swimming with the buoy. Ideally you want to be within two to four strokes of your regular swim a length.

If you’re feeling confident with the buoy and want to try something more advanced, remove the buoy and add an ankle strap. Be certain that your coach or the lifeguard knows that this is a new drill for you. The strap binds your ankles and eliminates your kick. Some swimmers will sink to the bottom almost immediately. For safety, try swimming with the strap in the shallow end only. The strap is an excellent way to teach your body the importance of your core. Once you get good at it, add swimming with an ankle strap into your regular training routine and get ready for those six-pack abs to appear out of nowhere.

Bilateral Breathing

Depending on your age, at the first swim practice you ever attended, your coach might have told you to breathe to both sides and that might have seemed like torture. But as a swimmer who has breathed to one side for almost 30 years, I can tell you firsthand: Listen to your coaches on this one. If you’ve been breathing to one side for many years, it will take a lot of practice to learn to breathe on both sides—start slow and don’t force it. Make a commitment to practicing it every day in warm-up. Use a pull buoy at first and breathe every third stroke. Eventually, you’ll get as comfortable on your weak side as on your strong one.


  • Technique and Training


  • Breathing