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by Emmett Hines

May 8, 2012

Goal is a zero head lift when breathing

Instinct rarely serves you well in swimming. The human survival impulse in water screams, “Get head above water! Get vertical! Get out!” For the majority of swimmers, despite having quelled most of these primal urges, the “need” to lift the head, if only a wee bit in order to breathe, still remains.

Problem: Lifting your head at all to breathe causes the hips and legs to sink—maybe a little, maybe a lot. In fact, a 2-inch lift of the head can drop your hips 4 to 6 inches and your feet 8 to 12 inches. And when you lift your head, instinct causes you to forcefully push your leading arm toward the bottom—causing even more hip/leg drop. All of this can more than double total form drag, wasting lots of energy. Another instinctive response is to add extra kicking in an attempt to keep the hips and legs from sinking. But this wastes lots of energy too.

Worse: Once you have your air and you turn your face back toward the bottom, it takes another couple strokes for your back end to return to the surface. By then you are taking another breath – which means that every single stroke you take is heavily influenced by how you get air!

The following focus points can help you get zero-head-lift breaths while drilling or swimming…

Risky breathing

You likely lift your head enough to be absolutely sure you’ll get nothing but air – no risk of water being part of the mix. Instead, you must get “risky” about how deep you keep your head when going for air – risky enough for there to be a possibility of taking on some water (hint: if you never take on water then you are not being risky enough). I like to call it “treading the thin line of death.” You must consciously and consistently seek deeper head positions for grabbing air.

Risky breathing doesn’t mean, “Turn your head as little as possible.” The deeper your head is, the more toward a nose-straight-up position you’ll need to go in order to get air. Most people, swimming at moderate paces, need to rotate far enough to have the nose pointed at least 45 degrees up (at least half way between straight at the side wall and straight up) in order to get a zero-head-lift breath.

Head and body rotate as one

Rather than turning your head separately, let it rotate with your body in order to bring your face to the air. If you tend to swim with limited core body rotation you’ll find that rolling more with each stroke will allow you to bring your head to where your blowhole is in the air while your head is still risky-deep.

Big red dot

Imagine a two-inch red dot in the center of the top of your head that you keep underwater at all times. An underwater observer watching you approach should not be able to see that red dot move up or down or side to side as you swim. He should simply see it rotate as you turn your body and head to breathe.

Put it in your lane

Whether you use these focus points separately or in concert, your goal is zero head-lift and zero extra energy consumption. You’ll swim faster, spend fewer heartbeats and look more like a real swimmer. •

Emmett Hines, Director and Head Coach of H2Ouston Swims, has been coaching competitive adult swimming in Houston since 1981 and does private instruction and video analysis with many clients at the Tri On The Run Fitness Center, the West U Rec Center and other facilities. You can read more of his articles and order the second edition of his popular book “Fitness Swimming” at Reach Coach Hines for questions or comments at 713-748-SWIM or


  • Technique and Training


  • Freestyle
  • Breathing
  • Stroke Technique