"Blow Out a Lungful"

Something that is so effortless as breathing on land becomes a struggle for young swimmers. They tend to inhale too much, exhale too little, breathe too late in their strokes, and for too long. Elite swimmers know several things a young swimmer is just learning. They know that the feeling of breathlessness you feel underwater comes from too much carbon dioxide from breath-holding, not too little oxygen. Try taking several deep breaths in a row without exhaling. That is what a young swimmer who is gulping air and not fully exhaling is doing in the water. Elite swimmers "breathe in a spoonful of air and blow out a lungful." They never ignore the urge to breathe. This urge is a vital response, and overriding it can be life-threatening. (see Shallow Water Blackout.) Instead, they exhale completely before taking each new breath. They know that training hard will improve their body's ability to use oxygen efficiently, so they will need to breathe less often than less fit swimmers. They also work hard to know when to take a breath in their stroke, and they minimize the time spent breathing by taking a small breath and quickly returning their heads to a neutral body position. This improves speed and reduces the risk of stroke flaws that may lead to injury.

Breathing Skills

RBF (Reduced Breathing Frequency) Training RBF sets (sets that restrict breathing off the wall or every 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th or 8th stroke) have been a coaching staple since the 1970s. Recent research supports experience that these sets help swimmers breathe less often in competition. This is beneficial because swimmers can maximize underwater phases (turns, gliding and underwater strokes)and take fewer stroke cycles with a breath, which are less efficient than non-breath stroke cycles. The exact mechanism for improvement is not known, but both the ability to tolerate higher carbon dioxide levels and the ability to control long, slow exhalation improve when these sets are incorporated regularly (ideally every practice in some form.)

Forbid Breath-holding Insist that swimmers exhale whenever their face is in the water. This will strengthen respiratory muscles and control carbon dioxide levels, reducing the urge to breathe too often. Good breath control does not come from breath holding. It comes from consistently expelling long, slow breaths underwater.

Forbid Hyperventilation Short, shallow breaths do not increase oxygen in the lungs. The percentage of oxygen in the air, and therefore the lungs, is constant and more than sufficient. Instead, it expels too much carbon dioxide, inhibiting the urge to breathe until the deep breath reflex suddenly causes the swimmer to inhale. This can lead to Shallow Water Blackout.

At the wall During practice, encourage swimmers to control their breathing as soon as possible during sub-maximal intensity rest intervals. Panting releases excess carbon dioxide. Swimmers who control their exhalation during practice maintain higher levels of carbon dioxide. Over time this will increase their comfort with the elevated levels. After maximal effort in practice or in meets swimmers should be allowed to breathe naturally.

Stroke Specific Resources


Good Free Breathing

  • The head turns independently of the body rotation
  • The head starts to turn to breathe before the opposite arm enters the water (not critical for slow tempo distance swimmers)
  • The head returns from the breath before the breathing arm passes in front of the face
  • Snap the head back in line from the breath. This is a conscious movement!
    A great cue is to try and look at the hand of the non-breathing arm during the catch, not after!


Because a swimmer can take a breath at any time during the surface phase of backstroke, swimmers may not realize there is a competitive advantage for developing a breathing pattern. Rhythmic breathing during backstroke helps establish a regular stroke cadence, improves timing and coordination, and prevents inadvertent breath-holding - particularly during maximal effort.

Look for tight facial muscles or pursed lips as a sign that your swimmer is holding their breath. Encourage swimmers to relax their face and neck and to time their breaths with their arm strokes. Breathing in on one arm stroke and out on the next is a good starting place for beginners. More advance swimmers can breath in on one arm pull and exhale for several arm pulls before taking another breath. Senior swimmers should experiment with the breathing pattern that works best for them.


Beginning swimmers love breaststroke because they can breathe every stroke cycle. Unfortunately, they often develop bad habits such as taking long breaths, breathing with the face up and forward, and dropping their hips or pausing their stroke to breathe. Eliminating the breath with a snorkel, as in with freestyle and butterfly, does not help because breaststroke shoulders must be allowed to rise. Evaluate swimmers as they experiment with the breath. It should be quick and they should be exhaling the entire time their face is in the water. They should have finished getting the breath and have their face down and ready to return to the water as the outsweep finishes and they prepare for an explosive recovery.

If they are having trouble with the breathing be sure they understand that breathlessness does not come from not having enough air. It comes from too much carbon dioxide ("used air" for younger swimmers.) Try this - have them take a big breath. Tell them not to let it out. Then have them try to put a second and then a third breath on top of the first without breathing out. Now the can exhale. They will tell you that is how they feel when they get tired when they are swimming. Have them try a length of breast or free, breathing in a "spoonful" of air and blowing out all their old air before they take another breath. They are usually surprised at how much easier that is. Encourage them to snatch a spoonful of air and then finish breathing it in and then blowing all the old air out while their face is in the water.


Want to get a hot debate going amongst elite swim coaches? Ask questions about butterfly breathing. During a recent coaching roundtable on the subject proponents of the chin-jut breathing, the face-down breath, side-breathing, every-stroke breathing, etc. hashed out everything. In the end, almost everybody agreed on only two tenets. The first, as expressed by Coach Eddie Reese, is that you should teach butterfly without breathing (use a snorkel or only a few full stroke cycles at a time.) Then put the breath where it is least disruptive for that swimmer at his or her current level of development.

Coach Frank Busch also got nearly uniform agreement that it is okay to breathe every time in butterfly if the swimmer can travel forward with high hips at all times. That takes a strong second kick and excellent body tone and balance to maintain.