When swimmers can breathe as easily in the water as on land, they can cover long distances faster and with less effort. When the body is relaxed, the breathing rhythm can be controlled throughout the changing phases of the stroke, making it easier to swim at higher speeds and stay relaxed.
According to Jim Montgomery and Mo Chambers, authors of Mastering Swimming, a swimmer who learns to breathe naturally will achieve a longer, more relaxed stroke. In their book they offer tips on mastering the art of inhaling and exhaling comfortably while swimming.
- Relax. Relaxation of the muscles in the face, jaw, mouth, and neck is perhaps the most critical skill for proper breathing while swimming. Imagine how your facial muscles feel when you run or ride a bicycle. Your breathing should feel the same during swimming as during other aerobic activities. Swimmers who tense their faces in the water are most likely holding their breath underwater, which forces them to both exhale and inhale when they are above water. This inefficient air exchange creates anxiety and inevitably leads to exhaustion.
- Exhale. As your face enters the water, your mouth should be slightly open with a trickle of air going out between your lips. Some swimmers exhale through the mouth and nose, while others exhale gently through the mouth only. Many swimmers find a nose plug allows them to breathe more comfortably. Select the method that is most comfortable for you.
It is important to blow your air out slowly. Exhaling too quickly will cause you to gasp in your next inhalation, which may make you hyperventilate. By exhaling slowly, you can develop an awareness of any facial tension, especially around your mouth, lips, and teeth. As your face begins to leave the water, increase your rate of exhalation, and expel the remaining air with a forceful puff. Many swimmers use both the nose and mouth for this crescendo in exhalation as they turn their heads to breathe.
- Inhale. Inhaling is a natural reflex-it is quick but not forced. If you exhale adequately, air will flow in on its own. Again, most swimmers breathe in through their mouths.
- Make your exhalation long. Your exhalation should be twice as long as your inhalation. A longer exhalation leads to a more relaxed exchange of air.
- Don’t panic if you breathe in water. If you gulp in water, shape your tongue as if you’re pronouncing the letter K. This tongue position keeps the water from going down your throat. Even the greatest swimmers breathe in water from time to time.
When to breathe
During freestyle, breaststroke, and butterfly strokes, swimmers complete the exhalation at the end of the underwater pull phase, just before their faces leave the water. In the freestyle, increase the rate of exhalation toward the end of the underwater phase of the stroke as the body slides forward and rotates to the breathing side and the face leaves the water. In the breaststroke, complete the majority of exhalation as the arms sweep in, the hips snap forward, and the head and shoulders rise up out of the water. In the butterfly, expel your air as your body is passing over the arms, the chest is rising, and the face is clearing the water. Although breathing takes place out of the water in the backstroke, it is important to establish a smooth, rhythmic transition between inhalation and exhalation, similar to the other strokes. The key is finding a consistent place in each stroke cycle when the face clears the water and timing the exhalation to allow a good inhalation at this point.
This is adapted from Mastering Swimming.