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Is your breathing for front crawl holding back your triathlon swimming and race ambitions?

Do you find you don't get enough air in and/or out when swimming front crawl?

Managing and controlling your breathing, at all levels of ability, can really make the difference between achieving your potential and not...

If you're struggling to increase your swim distance or master your breathing technique, then you could well be holding your breath, breathing too late, or not breathing out enough underwater. This results in a build up of carbon dioxide, which means lactic acid building up, and hence your pace slows until the point where you have to stop. For beginners, this might be limiting you to 25 metres or less, or for more experienced swimmers it may be kicking in after 100 - 400 metres.

We would anticipate that this affects your body position. Your legs and hips may be too low, and you may over rotate, first your head, then shoulders and finally your hips. This all affects your balance in the water, which isn't good.

See in the video below how the swimmers lead arm drops as soon as it enters the water, he's over rotating to about 80 degrees to breathe, and therefore his body sinks down on each stroke, making the next breathe harder to get.

Swimmers with poor breathing more often than not turn their head further around to try and gasp some air! Sometimes they will still be breathing out when their mouth exits the water as they've been breathing out too late, i.e. a split second before.

Are you breathing from your chest or your diaphragm?

One useful exercise we get our swim clients to think about and practice (in and out of the water) is how they are breathing, and whether they are shallow breathing from their chest or deep breathing from their diaphragm. How do you test for this? Lie on the floor with your knees bent, place one hand on your chest and one hand on your stomach. Observe where you are breathing by being aware if you chest or stomach rises up and down.

Breathing from your chest doesn't fully exhale your lungs when breathing out underwater and generally makes you feel tired and lethargic. It also over uses the "secondary respiratory muscles" of the neck and shoulders causing tension. Turning your head and shoulders to breathe for front crawl will also do this instead of rotating on a long axis from your head to your feel, driven by your trunk (core) and hip (glutes) muscles.

What do we mean by long axis rotation?

It's keeping your head still, breathing in the bow wave of your head passing through the water, and rotating evenly with balance to 45 degrees each side, with your body rolling on an axis from your head to your feet. Think more lower body rotation than upper shoulder rolling. Observe the following video of Haydn Woolley for an excellent demonstration:

So how do we correct and improve your breathing technique?

Learning to relax in the water is key, and not panic when breathing, which I know can seem hard and counter intuitive when you're running out of air. Try just swimming in the shallow end where you can put your feet down, and practice putting your head in the water and breathing out fully, and we mean almost all of the air out of your lungs on each breath.

By doing this you'll create a vacuum in your lung, which means the air when you go to inhale rushes back in much easier. Then try and do this swimming front crawl. As soon as your face enters back into the water, as soon as you can, start breathing out using your diaphragm. If you're still struggling to exhale fully and get all the air out, then we recommend to our clients that they shout their name underwater!

(No one can hear you! ;))

The following technique of Haydn aims to help teach you breath control:

Ups and downs breathing drill

  • Complete exhalation of the air in your lungs allows you to drop quickly, then stay on the bottom without sculling

  • Sitting on bottom for 2-3 seconds shows control of the urge to breathe in

  • Come up gradually, not rushed. Gently pushing your feet off the bottom of the pool.

  • Breathe in ONCE completely above water, then immediately drop & blow out back to the bottom

Breathing drills

Below are some examples of swim drills we use to help clients overcome and improve their breathing faults. It can be something quite subtle and tricky to see how a swimmer is breathing, hence why we see most beginners in the endless pool with 3 video cameras for full above and below water analysis. Using slow motion helps break it down and visually explains what we're saying and explaining.

Try these drills and let us know how you get on:

  1. Swim on shoulder - lead arm for balance

  2. 1 goggle eye breathing - corrects over rotation

  3. Press t - body position and streamlining - pressing your sternum into the water

  4. Long axis rotation - glide and rotate driven from your hips and core

  5. 3/4 catch up - helps with improving rhythm and timing of arms

  6. Sink downs - relaxing breathing and breath control

  7. Exhaling fully - breathe out through your mouth and nose

  8. Catch up with board - teaches the glide underwater with better hand entry

  9. Single arm passive arm in front - helps with trunk and core rotation

  10. Vertical kicking with rotations - long axis rotation and straight leg kick. You can see this technique in the following video. Note how still the head stays.

In the next breathing blog we'll go into detail on the above technique drills to correct this, or view our Pool based lessons and Endless Pool lessons pages for more info.

Breathing issues for front crawl

The following can also be causing or a result of not breathing correctly

  • Low body position

  • Late breathing

  • Legs kicking too much and bending from the knees

  • Short stroke at entry and prior to exit of the water

  • Over rotation to one side

  • Scissor kicking - legs going apart laterally to counter body movement

  • Head too low / high / underwater - ideally eyebrows on the water line

  • Stroke count too low i.e. below 60 per minute

  • Body snaking / dipping

  • Not exhaling enough underwater

  • Upper body too buoyant

If you're struggling to increase your swim distance, and to master the breathing technique, and feel like you need some help, then call the Speedy Swimming on 07958 635142.

We teach front crawl technique lessons in and around the Guildford area all year round, at Guildford Lido in the summer from May to September, and at the Endless pool in Chertsey, Surrey at the Tribal Gym.

Any questions or to book your lessons email:

Nick de Meyer

Level 3 British Triathlon Coach

Level 1 Training Peaks Coach

Training Bible master endurance coach

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