Swimmers that are training to improve their freestyle swimming technique often make the mistake of focusing their efforts on perfecting the 3 phases of the freestyle stroke – recovery, hand entry, and pull. This can be a very frustrating approach if you are working hard on the mechanics of the stroke, but are being held back by breathlessness.
The first step to perfecting your freestyle swimming technique is efficient breathing. A swimmer must be comfortable breathing before they can focus on body balance, and rotation, which is needed before they learn swim mechanics, the 3 main phases of the stroke (recovery, hand entry, pull).
There are 5 issues that can cause breathlessness
- Not exhaling immediately before you inhale.
- Dragging lower body (a balance issue)
- Kicking too much
- Dropping your arm too soon while you rotate to breath
If someone is having breathing issues they typically cannot swim more than 1-1.5 lengths before they are breathless. If this does not describe you, your inhale and exhale may be good mechanically and the other issues mentioned above might be the reason you are having breathing issues.
Step 1: When someone is having breathing issues the first step I evaluate is how they inhale and exhale. Typically they are continuously exhaling underwater immediately after they inhale, or they exhale, pause, then rotate to inhale. In both causes they are not forcefully exhaling immediately before they inhale. After you inhale, you rotate your face back in the water and blow out a little from month and nose. As you are stroking, trickle out a little water from both month and nose then take a forceful exhale out your mouth as you rotate to take your next inhale. The key to breathing is a quick forceful exhale as you rotate, then immediately take a quick deep inhale. As you rotate your face back into the water you will take a short exhale and continue to trickle out air until you are ready for your next breath, then repeat, forceful exhale as your rotate to inhale. To practice, hold your breath to feel what it is like to forcefully exhale before you inhale, as a drill, to learn efficiently how to inhale and exhale.
Step 2: If mechanically your inhale and exhale in step 1 is ok, and you can swim more than 2 lengths before you start to get breathless, it could be a balance issue such as dragging your lower body When you’re pulling more of your body weight, your heart and breathing rate will increase. Strategies I use to combat this issue is to press your weight on your sternum and tuck your chin. I also focus on your hand entry; entering deeper and using your hip rotation to help extend your arm, will help put your weight over your sternum and bring your legs to the surface Also, kicking just enough from your hip flexor and quad so your legs don’t sink.
Step 3: I often am asked by triathletes to help them work on their kick and what I see is that they are kicking too much to propel themselves, vs. pulling themselves through the water. When you kick too much, larger muscles use more oxygen which increases your heart and breathing rate and can cause breathlessness. Learn to pull the greatest amount of water with every arm stroke, extending past your hip and kick enough with your quad and hip flexor to keep your legs from sinking not to propel yourself.
Step 4: Often a beginner swimmer does not have the sense to know what they are doing with their arms and during rotation to one side, they drop their other arm too early. When this happens it is like they are pulling themselves under the water before they catch a breath. Focused timing of their inhale and exhale (step 1) and awareness of leaving their arm extended when they catch a breath will help with this body balance issue.
Step 5: Once your mastered steps 1-4, putting in the yardage (meters) and building up technique, endurance and strength conditioning will build fitness and less breathlessness.
I hope you found this helpful. You’re are more than welcome to email firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions, comments or concerns – Coach Wendy
Author: Wendy Mader is the co-founder and owner of T2Coaching and has made a lifelong commitment to fitness, sports, coaching, and triathlon. From her youth as a competitive swimmer to her current career in the fitness industry, her dedication shines. Wendy is a former collegiate swimmer and has 25 years experience in triathlon including 15 Ironman’s. Wendy is also an Ironman University Certified Coach, an 8x Kona finisher and author of “How To Swim Faster in 30 Days“. Wendy recently moved to Georgia with her husband and dogs after nearly two decades living in Colorado.