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by Scott Bay

October 27, 2016

Conventional & unconventional ideas about how often to breathe in sprint freestyle

As terrestrially based creatures, we need to breathe. In most sports, breathing happens naturally, without any real thought required by the athlete as to when or how much to breathe. But swimming is different, and sprint freestyle is even more so.

There are several different schools of thought for when and how much to breathe in a 50-meter sprint freestyle race. Some say you should breathe no more than twice, some say once, and still others say not at all. So who’s right, if any of them are?

The answer is, “it depends.” Swimming in general and Masters in particular has such a diverse population and everyone comes to the table with a different set of genetic traits and talents. Among these is the ability to use oxygen as a fuel at all levels of effort. Without getting too far into the science of energy systems, it’s easy to say that your body will tell you how much oxygen it needs for what you are asking it to do. In any event, the amount of oxygen you need is unique to you.

Breathing FAQs

What’s so bad about breathing during a sprint?

Nothing in particular UNLESS it throws off your bodyline or balance in the water. So what does that mean? The simple answer is that when many of us put in maximum effort we tend to go a little overboard with all of our movements. That means when you go to breathe, you head and neck come out of the axis down the long part of your body and your hips do the same. This increases drag exponentially, not just a little, and it slows you down considerably. As a result, many swimmers seek to limit the number of times that they breathe during a sprint race to keep from slowing down.

But I really like to breathe. Is there hope for my sprinting?

Of course! Sprinting and breathing are not mutually exclusive actions. You just have to make sure that when you do breathe, you’re doing everything you can to make sure you’re doing it well and not compromising your bodyline. If you look closely at the women’s 50 free in the Olympics you can see more than one of the top sprinters in the world sneak a breath or two and one of them even more! You might be wondering how it’s possible. You just have to make sure you’re doing it right.

Sprint Freestyle Breathing Tips

Here are some simple tips for keeping your bodyline when you breathe while sprinting:

  • Regardless of the style of freestyle you swim, you must make sure that your shoulder leads your head out of the water.
  • Turn your head just enough to catch some air in the bow wake generated by your head.
  • Get a quick breath without gulping at the air and get your face back in the water before your shoulder.
  • Timing is key! Find your rhythm slow at first and then ramp it up to race pace.

Seeing is Believe  

As you practice improving the speed of your breaths and learn to maintain your bodyline, ask someone to video you so you can see your progress. Look for a few things:

  • Did you grab “quick air”?
  • Did you maintain stable hips?
  • Did you keep every movement as close to that centerline as possible?
  • Were all your movements fast but controlled?

If the answer to any of these questions was “no,” make adjustments and keep trying.


  • Top Hat Drill: I learned this drill from 2013 Coach of the Year Stu Kahn. Take a paddle with no straps and place it on top of your head and start swimming freestyle. The force of the water will keep it there if you’re in alignment even when you turn your head to breathe. This takes a few tries!
  • Countdown Drill: Swim 25s at maybe 90 percent of race pace. Start with breathing four times per 25 and reduce by one breath during each subsequent 25. The key is to not hold your breath but learn how to relax those parts of your body that are not helping you swim faster. This is breath control NOT breath holding. Repeat this several times with however much rest you want until you find the oxygen your body needs to perform at a high level.
  • Starts from the Block: OK, this really isn’t a drill, but many times I’ve seen and even heard swimmers exhale as they explode off the blocks. If this describes you, that means your body is looking for air right away. Even the most talented swimmer will slow down a little if he’s grabbing air immediately off the start.

Spot Check

How do you know if you are doing it right? The clock doesn’t lie. You have to experiment with the different skills and number of breaths to figure out what produces the best time. The best time to work on this is not at practice, but after a good warm-up when you don’t have the pressure of the workout looming. That’s when you’ll be fresh and ready to put in some high-quality work. Pay attention to the clock and how you feel, and after a while you’ll develop your own best way of sprinting! 


  • Technique and Training


  • Freestyle
  • Breathing
  • Stroke Technique