Breathing = it is our fuel supply, buoyancy, balance, sense of calm, control and focus.

If our breathing isn’t as it should be your fuel supply O2 quickly runs out, causing  unnecessary fatigue.  You also feel a loss of balance and buoyancy, feeling heavy (especially legs), the brain can switch into survival mode where we feel far from calm or in control and panic can set in.

Your breathing is controlled by your autonomic nervous system.  Yet, have you noticed that you hold your breath when you focus.  I heard the term Email Apnea recently and instantly recognised it in myself and others, where we hold the breath on the exhale to help us focus or concentrate.  It certainly happens when you focus on your stroke while you swim.

If we can subconsciously and temporarily stop ourselves from breathing on land, imagine the challenge while swimming where breathing becomes a conscious activity and skill, with several key focuses and challenges to overcome.

To be an effective and efficient swimmer, swimming technique isn’t our only improvement we need to work on our breathing both in and out of the water.

If we breathe more efficiently;

– we get better use of the oxygen we have and improve our fuel supply.

– we take a deeper more fulfilling breath improving our balance, buoyancy and sense of calm.

– we can breathe lighter, develop a lower sensitivity to CO2 build up, allowing the release of more oxygen which is beneficial for sports performance and overall  health.

These will transform your endurance and performance.


Improve your sensitivity to Carbon Dioxide and increase your tolerance to CO2 build up.

How long can you hold your breath until you feel the first trigger to breathe in?

This number helps to gauge your tolerance to the build-up of carbon dioxide in the body, notice the feelings/sensations/emotions that you feel as the CO2 starts to build up.  Do you feel similar sensations when you swim?  Our tolerance to CO2  can be improved with gentle breath holding exercises.  As a guide a comfortable 20/25 seconds would be a good tolerance level.

When you watch elite sprinters they may not take a breath IN, but they are not holding their breath the entire swim, they will be releasing CO2 build-up during the sprint, which is also generated through increased metabolic activity.  CO2 is the trigger to breathe in.

I recommend exercises with the


Take your Breathing Deeper

Lying horizontally we balance around our lungs, if the air is only going to your upper chest or you are exhaling too much your hips and legs ‘fall down’ as you have shifted your centre of mass forwards.

We are designed to breathe through our noses, a nasal breath connects with the diaphragm, the most efficient breathing muscle that allows the inhale to ‘happen’.

In swimming we have to breathe in through the mouth, mouth breathing encourages a shallower thoracic, upper chest breath.  This is very similar to a panic attack, upper chest, gasping through the mouth. Carbon Dioxide builds up more quickly with rapid shallow breathing.

It takes focus to tune into the deeper, more fuelling breath.


Try the ‘Clunk and Dunk’ Exercise…the results are very personal!

Take a full breath – Curl into a relaxed ball – exhale heavily

Notice two things

The Clunk – your hips drop and you lose balance

The Dunk – the rate at which you sink to the bottom

Our breathing needs to address this – at no point do you want to physically or emotionally feel like you are sinking AND swimming.

Repeat the exercise – now manage your buoyancy and balance with a gentle release of CO2, don’t think of it as an exhale put a gentle ‘pop-pop’ release of CO2 the exhale happens on the turn for the breathe.

Take a more Expansive Breath.

How much movement do you have in your diaphragm?  Is it rigid/inflexible?

I really like the count and exhale exercise, as you count out loud while you exhale the diaphragm relaxes and curves back up as your lungs release the air.  On the subsequent inhale the diaphragm contracts and flattens, moving down towards your abdomen, which creates a vacuum to pull in air.

Repeat the exercise – can you count a little further ‘squeeze the air out’ and increase the movement of the diaphragm (it will feel like an abdominal workout) does the next inhale feel more expansive?

Rest, Relax and Repeat the exercise several times and you will feel the deeper core/breathing muscles.

Do you feel any of this movement and muscles when you swim?

Take a lighter breath

To stay balanced, buoyant and well fuelled we need  to breathe more lightly, it is important to remember the big heavy breaths will have an impact on your buoyancy and release too much CO2, leaving you quite literally gassed out!

When we breathe lighter we get better use of the oxygen available  in the body.  Acknowledge the first inhale before you start a swim, ensure a relaxed diaphragmatic breath. Start as you mean to continue.

Give your exhale a scale of 0-5.

0 is holding your breath and 5 is expelling ALL the air.  You can also measure this by noise 5 is loud and 0 is silent.

Do both to get the feeling of each end of the scale.  Feel the buoyancy of a held breath, but acknowledge the feelings the CO2 build  up causes you.  Notice how level 5 – expelling all the air impacts  your buoyancy and balance with the feeling of being gassed out and quite literally running out of air, no longer feel calm.

Control the exhale to a scale of 2-3 as you regulate the release of Co2, notice can you feel the belly drawing slightly in on the exhale – this is the diaphragm starting to move ready to help ‘draw in’ the next  inhale.

Look after the exhale and let the inhale happen.

As we swim we release a little of the CO2 build-up and exhale as we turn for the breathe.


Eliminating unnecessary head movements:  our natural instinct around the breath is to lift the head and pull on the arm.  This is evident even in the world’s best swimmers where they will momentarily lose alignment during a breath.

A lift of the head and loss of your lead arm will take you off balance and stall your stroke, a lift of the head can also pulls on the throat which can make breathing feel more restricted.

Head position is important, don’t push your head down, it will make it harder to find the air, if you have a slightly head forward posture due to time spent at a desk / computer you may need to address this.

The optimum head position is neutral, a head and spine that are aligned.

Informative, if not maybe a little disturbing 😂


Timing of the Breath
– Turn your head at the Start of Rotation & Extension

Important to navigate the challenge and approach breathing as a skill to be practiced.  The goal is for breathing to feel seamless in your stroke and not cause a loss of balance or deceleration.

The timing of the head turn at the start of rotation is important so you don’t over rotate on the breath.

Trust in your bow wave – A bow wave forms as the swimmer moves through the water.  The trough of this wave is near the mouth and gives you the space to inhale, just by turning your head at the start of rotation, to find a balanced and stable breath. This allows you to look sideways to breathe in and keep your body aligned.  If you look behind you or ‘up to the sky’ to breath in it will affect your body position and stability.

Lips relaxed and separated – this allows for a relaxed face and neck, water will not gush into your mouth.  If your lips are tightly sealed before the inhale you run the risk of ‘smacking’ your lips open which will encourage a shallow upper chest gasp and a delay in the inhale, if the lips are already relaxed and separated the diaphragm and breathing muscles can take the air in for you as soon as your mouth clears the water.

Cues for the other strokes:


Breaststroke – look slightly down on the breath to avoid straining the neck and causing the hips to sink further.  Breathe above the water and look below.

Cold water Breaststroke – if you have a quiet swim with no chatting try nasal breathing with heads up breaststroke, the nose will performs its function and warm the air for you before it reaches your lungs.

Backstroke – like front crawl there is a breathing rhythm, when swum well a small wavelet / thin film of water will wash over the face in a rhythm.

Butterfly –  as with breaststroke, minimal lift of head , chin forwards on water to keep shoulders low to avoid increased drag.

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