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Breathing is problematic in swimming freestyle. The primary issue is that breathing is dependent on your stroke rate and the type of breathing pattern you adopt. The most streamlined position has your head in alignment with the rest of your spine, the water line hitting the top of your head with it mostly submerged, and your gaze aimed straight down or just slightly forward. The problem is that you can’t breathe in this position unless you are swimming with a snorkel. Unlike running or biking, breathing while swimming needs to be timed with your strokes.
There are only a few options for breathing. One option is to inhale once every two strokes so that you are breathing on the same side every time (one breath per stroke cycle). Another option is to inhale once every three strokes so that you are bilateral breathing or alternating your inhale from one side to the other. Other options have you breathing even less frequently, such as a 2-4-2 breathing pattern, or breathing every 3,4,5 or more strokes. When we watch the great Olympians swim short distances, we often see them breathing very little in an attempt to minimize drag and swim as fast as possible with the tradeoff being hypoxia and extreme oxygen debt. They train to swim this way but cannot sustain it for long distances at intense paces. When you watch distance swimmers during the middle portions of their races (not usually seen because that’s when NBC goes to a commercial break) you see much more frequent breathing patterns.
A case for breathing every two strokes
Although it is not well documented, your breathing rate varies with your relative intensity of steady state exercise. Seasoned runners know this and may be able to tell you that at low intensities they tend to breathe in for about 2-3 steps and out for about 2-3 steps. At an endurance pace they may switch to 2-2 pattern, and around threshold it will be 2-1 or even 1-1. This happens pretty naturally and they don’t need to think about it. At an easy endurance pace, most athletes will breathe 20-30 times per minute. Near threshold intensity it is common to be 35-45 breaths per minute. Untrained people will peak out at about 45 breaths per minute, but elite athletes can hit around 60 breaths per minute for a maximal effort.
Breathing rate during a relatively easy endurance run, averaging 26 breaths per minute (movescount.com)
Breathing rate during threshold efforts, holding closer to 40 breaths per minute (movescount.com)
With some simple math, we can easily figure out breaths per minute swimming if we know your stroke rate and breathing pattern. Most triathlon swimmers are comfortable somewhere around 50-60 strokes per minute. At race intensities, this might only increase to around 65-70 strokes per minute. If you look at lead pack swimmers, you will commonly see stroke rates around 80 strokes per minute and some elite ITU swimmers could be around 80-90 strokes per minute.
Case study 1 is an adult-onset swimmer with a stroke rate in open water of 60 strokes per minute. If this athlete sticks to bilateral breathing, then he/she will be limited to 20 breaths per minute. With that breathing pattern and stroke rate, this swimmer will be relegated to an easy intensity for the entire triathlon swim. By breathing once every two strokes, then he/she will be able to breathe 30 times per minute, which could allow the swimmer to sustain a tempo-threshold intensity for the duration of the swim.
To truly race a 1500-meter swim at a threshold intensity at 30-40 breaths per minute you either need to have an incredibly high yet efficient stroke rate while bilateral breathing, OR you need to breathe every 2 strokes (breathing on the same side every time). The three exceptions are the swimmers with the super high stroke rates, the incredibly smooth swimmers that don’t need to swim hard and can swim at an endurance intensity and still hang in the front group, or the triathlete not planning to race the swim portion of a triathlon. Another option for those few exceptions is a 2-4 breathing pattern.
Bilateral breathing still has its place in training. It can help balance out your stroke by promoting symmetry. It can also be used for breath control and to ensure you are swimming at easy-moderate intensities when designated. I like to bilateral breaths during easy swimming such as warm ups, during short sets where it is ok to go into oxygen debt, or during long pulls where you don’t have the high oxygen demand. Noteworthy, breathing every 2 strokes does not mean that you have to breathe to just one side 100% of the time. Ideally you are breathing to one side for a period of time and then switching to the other side. It is still a good idea to have the ability to breathe to both sides especially for open water swimming.
You may find that your form suffers when you breathe more frequently, so you many need to consider ways to improve your breathing technique. Part 2 will focus on tips to improve your breathing in order to minimize drag forces, keep body alignment, and maintain stroke rate.
Josiah Middaugh is the reigning XTERRA Pan America Champion and the 2015 XTERRA World Champion. He has a master’s degree in kinesiology and has been a certified personal trainer for 15 years (NSCA-CSCS). His brother Yaro also has a master’s degree and has been an active USAT certified coach for more than a decade. Read past training articles at http://www.xterraplanet.com/training/middaugh-coaching-corner and learn more about their coaching programs at http://middaughcoaching.com.
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