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Breathing properly is foundational to swimming freestyle. You need air to fuel your muscles, but poor breathing technique can ruin the rest of your stroke.
In this section of our freestyle guide, we break down how to breathe properly while swimming and provide some drills and sets that’ll help you to breathe easy.

This is the detailed page on freestyle breathing. You can find the other three parts of the stroke broken down in detail below.

If there’s one skill foundational to effective freestyle, it’s breathing. In this segment, I’ll discuss why it’s so important, the consequences of ineffective breathing, and the key breathing skills in freestyle.  

At a basic level, we breathe to live—no air, no life. Although this may seem obvious, it’s important to appreciate because all our swimming behaviors are governed by our need for air. We’ll do what we need to do to get air first, then worry about freestyle skills second. If you want to swim well, your breathing needs to be handled. 

Equally important is the role of air in creating buoyancy and body position in the water. The air in your lungs is what allows you to float on the surface. If your breathing is compromised, your body position will be as well.  

Improper breathing patterns in which you lift your head out of the water and to the side will also negatively affect your alignment in the water. For all these reasons, improper breathing keeps you from swimming freestyle well, which makes swimming freestyle a lot harder and a lot slower than it needs to be. 

What does good breathing look like? Good breathing is rhythmic, and your breath should be as small and as fast as possible. In other words, your stroke while breathing should look as similar as possible to your stroke when you’re not breathing.  

In terms of how often you should breathe and the breathing pattern you should select, your goal is to get enough air to fuel your efforts while establishing a great stroking rhythm. The specifics will depend on the person, as we’ll see in this section. 

The Fundamental Role of Air 

Effective breathing fulfills two key roles in swimming. Breathing exchanges oxygen and carbon dioxide to power your energy demands. Without this gas exchange, it’s impossible to fuel your swimming. If you’re struggling to get the oxygen you need, your technique will fall apart.  

Just as important, air in your lungs reduces the density of your body. This creates a buoyant force that holds your body up at the surface, preventing it from sinking.  
To understand the impact of air in your lungs, simply perform some of the exercises in this section with full lungs and empty lungs. The stronger the buoyant force, the less work that needs to be done to maintain a proper body position in the water. Without a strong awareness of this buoyant force, or without properly controlled air, it becomes much more difficult to manage your body position in the water. 

A compromised body position makes swimming more fatiguing, which increases the demand for air, which often leads to an impaired body position. This creates a vicious cycle that ultimately results in slow, fatiguing swimming. As such, it’s critical to breathe effectively so that you can maintain a good body position. Regardless of which skills you’re working on, it’s important to continue to work on your breathing because errors in breathing will make it very difficult to improve all other skills. 

Buoyancy and Body Position 

Breathing’s impact on buoyancy is critical for fast and effortless freestyle. It’s an impact that is rarely appreciated, however, and swimmers don’t work on this skill enough. To appreciate the impact of buoyancy on freestyle, imagine swimming with a weight belt around your waist. Properly managing your air will have the exact opposite effect. 

Although your goal isn’t necessarily to always swim with as much air as possible in your lungs, your breathing should occur in a rhythmic and regulated way so you can maintain a proper body position. Gasping for air, breathing without a plan, or only breathing when your need for air becomes extreme will all result in uncontrolled changes in your body position. Instead, your goal should be to patiently and strategically use a breathing rhythm to ensure that you maintain an adequate body position.  

Assuming your lungs contain adequate air, your task then becomes taking advantage of that buoyancy to establish and maintain an effective body position. This can be accomplished in two ways.  

The first strategy is to learn to press your head and chest into the water, thus lifting your hips and legs in the water. For many swimmers, this is enough to fix any body-position problems. 

Some swimmers, though, may also need to create tension in their lower back and hips to lift their legs in the water. Executing this skill can help you maintain a level position in the water. It’s only possible to do so if your lungs have air and there is a strong buoyant force, however. Both body position skills are predicated on maintaining effective breathing to create the necessary buoyancy to create a great body position in the water. It all starts with effective breathing. 

The Key Components of Good Breathing 

An effective breath is one that minimizes the disruption of your stroke while you breathe. Adding a breath in freestyle will always result in some change to your stroke. Your goal is to make that change as small as possible. Doing so will allow you to maintain an effective rhythm, minimize any increase in drag, and minimize any loss of propulsion. A low, straight, fast breath accomplishes this objective. 

The most important aspect of good breathing mechanics is that your head remains low while you’re taking a breath. Lifting your head is a common breathing error, one made by many swimmers. Lifting your head will cause your hips to drop and your arms to compensate, negatively affecting your pull. As much as possible, your goal should be to keep your head in the same position, lifting only as much as necessary to get a good breath. 

A second key aspect of effective breathing is rotating your head to breathe rather than pulling it to the side. Pulling your head to the side will cause alignment problems. Many swimmers will simultaneously lift their head up and to the side because of a lack of rotation. By rotating your head, your head will stay in line with your spine and your spine will continue to move straight through the water. 

Finally, your breath should be executed as quickly as possible while remaining within the rhythm of your stroke. Regardless of how effective your breath is, it will cause at least some disruption to your body position and alignment. As a result, it should be executed as quickly as possible. 

The Consequences of Improper Breathing 

The consequences of improper breathing are numerous and significant, and they all lead to one outcome: slower and more tiring swimming. You need to breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide to create the energy needed for life and for strenuous effort. If you’re not getting adequate air, you’ll get tired prematurely.  

And improper breathing causes many more problems. 

If your breath isn’t low and straight, it can significantly disrupt your body alignment. Lifting your head will cause your hips to sink and your body will then move through the water at an incline, which is much less efficient.  

Many swimmers also make the mistake of pulling their head to the side when breathing. This will almost always result in their shoulders and hips moving to the side as well. These extra motions will increase drag, which slows you down and forces you to increase the effort you expend to swim. 

A secondary consequence of losing alignment during your breath is that your arms naturally compensate. When your head goes up, your arm will naturally push down in an opposite motion. When your head goes to the side, your arm will either travel out of alignment with your head or move in the opposite direction to compensate.  

In all cases, your arm will instinctively move out of the position that’s appropriate for executing an effective pull. In almost all cases, these movements cannot be consciously overridden. 
With less air, more drag, and less propulsion, there is only one potential outcome associated with poor breathing: slow and strenuous swimming. You’ll be doing a lot more work for a much worse result. These outcomes are all a direct consequence of improper breathing, and any attempt to modify these errors without improving your breathing technique will fall short. 

Breathing Patterns 

If you watch different swimming races, you’ll see many breathing patterns. What works best depends on the swimmer and the event the swimmer is competing in.  

Because of differing ability levels and the time it takes to complete races, this guide contains breathing pattern recommendations based upon time rather than event distance. 

For race durations of approximately 30 seconds or less, you should breathe as little as possible. This will limit your breath’s disruption of your stroke while allowing for a higher stroke rate. How few breaths you take should be determined by your comfort level with holding your breath as well as your training experience. Holding your breath for longer than you’re used to will negatively affect your speed. 

When racing for more than 30 seconds but less than around 75 seconds, breathing every other, third, or fourth stroke will work. For this duration, you can get away with slightly less breathing and take advantage of the reduced number of breaths to create speed. It’s not necessary to do so, however; many swimmers race successfully over these durations breathing every other stroke.  

Once you’re swimming longer than 75 seconds, breathing every other or every third stroke will ensure that you get the air you need to race successfully and sustain a high energy output. 

Some swimmers prefer breathing only to one side, and others prefer breathing bilaterally (to both sides). Either can work depending on personal preference. In addition, bilateral breathing can be performed by breathing to alternate sides by length or using an odd breathing pattern (for example, breathing every third or fifth stroke). Even if you choose to only breathe to one side, there is still value in occasionally breathing to the opposite side during workouts to create symmetry in your stroke.

These recommendations can be modified slightly depending on certain characteristics. If you have a high stroke rate, you can probably take more strokes between breaths because less time elapses after each stroke. In contrast, if your stroke rate is on the slow side, you’ll want to breathe more frequently because there is a lot more time between breaths for a given number of strokes. 

Timing of Breath in Stroke Cycle: When to Inhale and Exhale 

It seems intuitive that you should breathe in and out when your mouth is out of the water, but this isn’t the best way. Many swimmers make the mistake of holding their breath while swimming. You should exhale while your mouth is underwater and inhale when it’s out of the water. 

After inhaling and returning your head to the water, patiently and slowly exhale. There is no urgency to this action, and it does not need to be forceful. Just prior to breathing in again, perform a final, forceful exhalation during which your lungs are cleared of air. Doing so creates a vacuum in your lungs, and when you turn your head to breathe and open your mouth, air will rush into that vacuum. This is beneficial because there is very little need to consciously inhale, as the vacuum in your lungs will take care of it for you. 

There are two goals with this inhalation and exhalation strategy. The first is to ensure that your breath can happen as quickly as possible. If your exhalation and inhalation both need to happen while your head is out of the water, it’ll prolong your breath. The duration of your breath is further reduced by the forceful final exhalation, which creates the vacuum into which air flows. Remember: Faster breathing is better breathing. 

Just as important, this breathing strategy reinforces patience and control. Many swimmers lose control of their breathing, and the need for air becomes stronger and stronger. This air hunger becomes an overwhelming priority, and when you’re focused on breathing, your stroke mechanics tend to degrade. When that happens, it becomes more difficult to manage your breathing, starting a downward spiral. 

- All of the articles were written by Andrew Sheaff

Breathing Drills



The purpose of bobs is to teach you rhythmic breathing, which means exhaling when your mouth is underwater and inhaling when your mouth isn’t. You should forcefully exhale just before breaking the surface of the water and then quickly take a breath when your mouth is out of the water.  

It’s much easier to learn these skills while not swimming freestyle. There are bobbing exercises that use different ranges of motion and levels of support, all providing a slightly different challenge. 

To perform this drill, go to the bottom of the pool, then push off with enough effort so that your head just breaks the surface of the water. Immediately grab a breath, then descend back down to the bottom of the pool and repeat.  

Bobs can be performed in any depth of water. Just push hard enough so that your head barely breaks the surface. Focus on establishing a breathing rhythm. 

Blowout Bobs 

Blowout bobs are the same as regular bobs except you forcefully expel all your air as soon as your head goes underwater. It’s more challenging because you’ll have less air available, which you might perceive as troubling. Learning to execute an effective breathing rhythm under threat is a key skill.  

Blowing out your air early in the repetition also reinforces a strong final exhalation. 

To perform this drill, go to the bottom of the pool, then push off with enough effort so that your head just breaks the surface of the water. Immediately grab a breath, then descend to the bottom of the pool and repeat. As you descend, forcefully blow out all your air. As you do, you should feel yourself accelerate down.  

Blowout bobs can be performed in any depth of water. Just push hard enough so that your head barely breaks the surface. 

Stroke and Roll 

The purpose of stroke and roll is to help you feel how to rotate to breathe rather than lifting your head and pulling it to the side. Your goal is to rotate on a straight line without moving your head or spine.  

This is a particularly effective drill if you struggle to breathe to both sides because it forces you to rotate completely to both sides of your body. The purpose is to learn how to time your breath with your rotation because both should occur in conjunction. 

To perform this drill, swim normal freestyle. Every time you take a breath, roll completely onto your back, take two or three patient breaths, roll back onto your stomach, perform a set number of strokes, take a breath, and roll onto your back again. The goal is to roll as smoothly and as straight as possible. Any breathing pattern can be used. 

Paddle Cap Freestyle 

Paddle cap freestyle is an excellent drill for providing clear feedback about breathing technique. If your breath is too long, too high, or off to the side, a paddle placed on your head is going to come off. Until you can keep the paddle on your head, there is most certainly an opportunity for better breathing.  

As a bonus, paddle cap freestyle can help you learn how to keep your head still, regardless of whether you’re breathing or not. 

To perform this drill, push off the wall holding a paddle flat on the crown of your head. Begin to swim forward with the intent of keeping the paddle on your head. Keep your breath as small as possible while getting air to provide the best chance for the paddle to stay on your head.  

This can be difficult to do and requires patience. If you’re struggling, work on keeping your paddle on your head without breathing and then add the breathing afterward. 

Snorkel Swimming 

Although many swimmers use a snorkel to avoid improving their breathing, when used properly, it’s an effective tool for improving your breathing. The value of a snorkel is that it allows you to feel what it’s like to move through the water without having any disruption to the stroke from your breath. It provides a sensory goal you can strive to match when you start breathing to the side without the snorkel. Alternating between swimming with a snorkel and without a snorkel increases how much you learn. 

To perform this drill, swim with a snorkel, aiming to keep your head as still as possible. 

Cheat Breathing 

Cheat breathing is swimming without breathing while taking a “half” breath that doesn’t allow for any air. The goal is to perform a very small breathing action and get used to moving your head in a subtle manner without disrupting your bodyline.  

Many swimmers move their head far too much. This drill works at the other extreme, practicing a breath that is too small. Many swimmers will be surprised at how small they can make their breath while still getting air. 

To perform this drill, swim freestyle normally without breathing. Practice a small breathing action by slightly turning your head to the side to “breathe,” but not enough to actually get a breath. Imagine that breathing is against the rules, and you’re trying to cheat by breathing. The goal is to get used to what it might feel like with an extremely small breath. 

Bilateral Breathing 

Many swimmers struggle to breathe to both sides, or what’s called bilateral breathing. Learning to breathe to both sides can promote symmetry in your stroke and improve the quality of your breath on your preferred side because you’ll be approaching and feeling your breath from a novel perspective.  

To perform this drill, breathe to both sides of your body while doing freestyle. Bilateral breathing can take the form of odd breathing patterns (breathing every third stroke, fifth stroke, etc.) or it can be performed breathing to alternate sides by length or repetition within a set.  

Restricted Breathing 

Restricted breathing is when you go longer than normal between strokes before breathing. It can have physical benefits and can improve your skill. When you go longer periods without air, you’re more desperate for air and more likely to make a technical mistake. By using restricted breathing, you can learn to execute great breathing while under pressure, making your breathing skills more resilient. 

To perform this drill, take a predetermined number of strokes before breathing. Use a breathing frequency that is less than normal for you, which could be breathing every third stroke or every sixth. You can use whatever frequency provides an adequate challenge. 

Blowout Freestyle 

Blowout freestyle functions similarly to restricted breathing in that it increases the desire to breathe, providing an opportunity to execute great skills under pressure. The difference is that you’ll do this drill while trying to swim fast.  

To perform this drill, blow out all your air while at the wall, then push off and swim until you need to breathe. Your first few breaths will be difficult to execute because of your lack of air. The more you can learn to breathe effectively regardless, the more resilient your breathing skills will be in competition. When you do breathe, execute small, fast breaths on your normal breathing pattern. 

Quick-Breath Freestyle 

Quick-breath freestyle is an advanced drill for swimmers looking to take their breathing to the next level, particularly in sprints. Many swimmers wait too long to return their head to the water after breathing, pairing their breath with their arm recovery.  

This drill helps to dissociate those two movements. It teaches you to return your head to the water separate from your recovering arm. Initially, it’s helpful to completely separate these movements, eventually bringing them closer together. 

To perform this drill, with your right arm extended in front of you, stroke with your left arm. When your left hand enters the water, pull with your right hand, keeping your left hand in front of you. When your right hand reaches your hip, take a quick breath.  

After you complete your breath, pull with your left hand and recover your right hand. Continue to swim until you want to take your next breath. At that point, pause one arm in front and one in back, take a breath, and then begin swimming again. As you become more comfortable with the drill, reduce the length of your pause.  

- All of the drills were written by Andrew Sheaff

Breathing Sets


Set 1 

(6 times through) 

Take 10 seconds rest between repetitions 

Odd rounds: stroke and roll, even rounds freestyle 

Perform 10 bobs before each round. Rounds 3 and 6 perform 10 blow-out bobs  

  • 25 swim, breathe every fifth stroke 
  • 25 swim, breathe to the right 
  • 25 swim, breathe every third stroke 
  • 25 swim, breathe to the left 
Purpose and Focus Points 

This set teaches you to establish an effective breathing rhythm and how to rotate to your breath as easily as possible. The bobs will reinforce a patient breathing rhythm.  

During the third and sixth rounds, focus on blowing out all your air immediately during the bobs. This encourages a full and forceful exhalation while also helping you learn to relax when you lack air.  

Stroke and roll drill makes the breathing as smooth as possible rather than a forceful or rigid motion.  
Swimming freestyle throughout encourages practicing these skills when it matters most. 

Set 2 

(3 times through) 

Take 15–20 seconds rest between repetitions 

  • 2 x 25s stroke and roll, breathe every third stroke 
  • 2 x 25s snorkel swimming 
  • 2 x 25 paddle cap freestyle, breathe every third stroke 
  • 100 freestyle, breathe every third stroke 
  • 50 stroke and roll, choice breathing 
  • 50 snorkel swimming 
  • 50 paddle cap freestyle, choice breathing 
  • 100 freestyle, choice breathing 
Purpose and Focus Points 

This set builds upon the skills you learned during the previous set and extends them.  

Each segment starts off with stroke and roll to encourage rotating for your breath. It’s followed up by snorkel swimming during which you can feel your stroke without the presence of your breath. The next goal is to swim as if the snorkel was still on, keeping your breath as small and as tight as possible. Placing the paddle on your head provides clear feedback as to whether you’re doing this successfully.  

Performing the same exercises for 50s rather than 25s challenges your ability to maintain these skills, and multiple breathing patterns help you create a broader skillset.  

Be sure to practice all these skills while swimming freestyle in this set. 

Set 3 

Take 10–15 seconds rest between repetitions 

Perform five bobs between each repetition 

  • 4 x 50s breathe every fifth stroke (odds paddle cap freestyle, evens stroke and roll) 
  • 3 x 200s freestyle, 50 breathe every third stroke/50 breathe every other stroke 
  • 4 x 50s breathe every third stroke (odds paddle cap freestyle, evens stroke and roll) 
  • 3 x 150s freestyle, 25 breathe every third stroke/25 breathe every other stroke 
  • 4 x 50s breathe every third stroke (odds paddle cap freestyle, evens stroke and roll) 
  • 3 x 100s freestyle, 25 breathe every third stroke/25 breathe every other stroke 
Purpose and Focus Points 

This set places more focus on endurance to extend how long you must perform these skills. The drills prior to each freestyle segment reinforce important freestyle skills.  

Your goal is to keep your breath straight and low, rotating to air. The bobs encourage rhythmic breathing, and the multiple breathing patterns further challenge these skills.  

There is no focus on speed during this set, so you can execute great breathing.

Set 4 

(3 times through) 

Take 45 seconds rest between repetitions 

  • 2 x 25s stroke and roll 
  • 2 x 25s snorkel swimming, fast 
  • 2 x 25s stroke and roll 
  • 2 x 25s cheat breathing, fast 
  • 2 x 25s stroke and roll 
  • 2 x 25s freestyle, fast 
Purpose and Focus Points 

Your goal with this set is to practice swimming fast while executing great breathing mechanics. In between each segment of fast swimming, you do stroke and roll drill to reinforce great rotational breathing technique.  

During the fast swimming, there’s a progressive introduction of breathing. There’s no turning your head to breathe during snorkel swimming, there’s a “fake” breath during the cheat breathing, and there’s normal breathing during the final two repetitions.  

The goal is to keep your breath low, fast, and tight. It becomes more difficult to execute these skills at high speed and practicing them in a structured way makes success more likely. 

Set 5 

Take 30 seconds rest between repetitions 

  • 4 x 25s paddle cap freestyle (odds breathe every third stroke, evens choice breathing) 
  • 4 x 50s race effort (odds snorkel swimming, evens choice breathing) 
  • 4 x 25s blow-out freestyle, fast 
  • 100 recovery with snorkel 

Take 40 seconds rest between repetitions 

  • 4 x 25s paddle cap freestyle (odds breathe every third stroke, evens choice breathing) 
  • 4 x 50s race effort (odds snorkel swimming, evens choice breathing) 
  • 4 x 25s blow-out freestyle, fast 
  • 100 recovery with snorkel 

Take 50 seconds rest between repetitions 

  • 4 x 25s paddle cap freestyle (odds breathe every third stroke, evens choice breathing) 
  • 4 x 50s race effort (odds snorkel swimming, evens choice breathing) 
  • 4 x 25s blow-out freestyle, fast 
  • 100 recovery with snorkel 
Purpose and Focus Points 

This set challenges you to execute excellent breathing while facing the stress of racing situations. Each round includes drills at the start, so you can practice the necessary skills before going fast. You’ll also practice racing with and without a snorkel.  

Because you’re not moving your head to breathe when you’re wearing a snorkel, you’ll feel what it’s like to swim through the water without your breath disrupting your body position or your rhythm in any way. When swimming without your snorkel, your goal is to try to replicate that same sense of perfect alignment and rhythm even though you’re now breathing normally. To do so, you’ll have to focus on keeping your breath small and fast. 

During the 25s, your challenge is to execute great breathing mechanics when you finally breathe. Because you’ll be very out of breath, it’s difficult to breathe effectively.  
Practicing in difficult situations creates the opportunity to learn to breathe well in difficult situations. As you get more rest with each round, your goal is to go faster on the 50s and swim farther without breathing during the 25s. 

- All of the sets were written by Andrew Sheaff

This is the detailed page on freestyle breathing. You can find the other three parts of the stroke broken down in detail below.