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by Kris Goodrich

April 4, 2023

Use these tips to get more air and less water when you breathe

If you’ve ever swum in a pool with a lot of swimmers doing a butterfly workout, you know very well what it’s like to get a mouth full of water. Same if you’ve been in an open water swim when a random wave decides to come your way at the exact second you take a breath. Beginner swimmers know the challenges of learning how to get air instead of water when they breathe during freestyle. No one wants to be that swimmer hanging on the lane line coughing up a lung, looking like someone the lifeguard needs to rescue. Here are some techniques you can use to get air instead of water. 


Sip don’t gulp. Don’t try to take a big breath of air, or gulp, when you’re breathing. Not only does that take too long, but that gulp is more likely to bring water in with the air. Breathing in small sips or bites of air keeps your stroke timing correct. It also has a lot less suction, so that wave is less likely to get sucked all the way to your windpipe. Many experienced swimmers can breathe around a wave that’s entered their mouth because they’re sipping the small amount of air they managed to take in during that cycle.


When your face is in the water, exhale. To keep a steady, constant exhale going, some swimmers hum when their face is under. A slow, controlled exhale will prevent you from blowing out explosively or so much that you have no bubbles left to blow, which can cause you to gulp instead of sip during the next breath. If you have something in reserve, you can keep your stroke timing and catch up at the next breath. When you breathe, use a little final exhale to clear the water that’s cascading over your face before you inhale—to clear it for your sip of air.

Correct Technique

Correct technique, including the timing of the breath, will help you keep your mouth farther from the water. During freestyle, rotating rather than lifting the head, and getting into the sweet spot toward your armpit puts your mouth farther away from the water. In backstroke, with water splashing your face all the time, breathing is much easier after the recovering shoulder has passed your mouth. If you breathe at the beginning of the backstroke arm recovery, the water is going toward your mouth. For breaststroke and butterfly, use the final exhale to clear the water cascading down your face as your head comes up. Correct timing and head position puts your mouth in a better position to get air rather than water. If you’re having trouble with drinking too much water in a certain stroke, work with a coach to assess your technique.

Bilateral Breathing

Your coach tells you to do it, you know you should do it, but you only breathe to your favorite side. When turbulence is a problem either in the pool or open water, this may become a problem. Open water swims often have currents or waves coming from one direction. If it’s on your regular breathing side and your technique isn’t good enough to switch to the other, that’s a lot of water in your face. In a pool, lane lines do a good job of keeping many waves out of your face, but sometimes the 6-foot, 200-lb swimmer in the next lane swimming butterfly can create waves the size of Mount Everest. Being able to alternate your breathing so that your breath is away from, rather than toward oncoming water means a lot less water in your face and more air in your lungs. 

Practice, Practice, Practice

Good breathing techniques can help to prevent emergency situations. Next time you swim, pay attention to your breathing. Are you sipping or gulping on the inhale? Are you an explosive bubble blower during the exhale or do you control your exhale to save some bubbles each stroke cycle? Have you had a coach assess your technique to look for areas of improvement? Choking in the middle of an open water swim or gasping for air in the pool isn’t fun. Correct technique and regular practice will increase both your comfort and your ability to handle turbulence, so that you get air instead of water.

Want to learn more about improving your freestyle? Check out our Freestyle guide featuring tips, drills, sets, dryland exercises, and videos. 


  • Technique and Training


  • Breathing
  • Open Water
  • Stroke Technique
  • Tips