Triathlon swim technique - breathing

Triathlon swim technique - breathing

Swim Smooth coach Martin Hill explains how to develop a correct breathing technique, which will make a fundamental difference to your swimming.

In my previous article introducing the swimming element of triathlon, and the key areas for development; the top priority for many new triathlete swimmers is to learn how to breathe while swimming.

This very natural process of breathing that most of us never think about seems to be a strange place to start when developing swim technique.

As land-based mammals, humans are not designed to exist – breathe – in water and we all know that any attempt to do so is at best uncomfortable. This knowledge often then results in an unconscious holding of breath which is not conducive to swimming, and especially swimming fast.

Our ability to hold our breath (or control our breathing) often over-rides the natural, unconscious mechanism whereby the brain automatically regulates the rate and depth of breathing depending on the body’s needs. From any point of view, holding our breath is not sustainable – under normal circumstances, and especially when exercising, we never hold our breath. While this is obvious, many people either hold their breath or severely limit their breathing when swimming, especially during the early days of swim development.

However, with practice, it soon becomes apparent that correct breathing contributes significantly to being comfortable in the water. The key to this is the exhalation – inhaling is easy when exhalation is as it should be.

Breathing mechanism

Developing a good swim stroke requires a lot of mental focus (with little physical effort), and this is much easier to apply when relaxed and comfortable; if breathing is not relaxed then swimming becomes difficult.

The first step in learning how to be relaxed and how to breathe properly is to understand how to exhale while swimming – and even this can be very challenging in the early days. So before trying this, become comfortable while exhaling into the water but without swimming – sounds simple but again can be tricky for many.

The aim is to imagine that your lungs are a tank of air that needs to be filled, emptied and filled in a regular and relaxed way, but the emphasis being on full-empty.

NOTE that full doesn’t mean as much possible and empty is not complete emptying, but more a comfortable full-empty.

The first steps should be to stand in the pool and relax by breathing calmly before taking a full breath and then starting to exhale quite quickly and continuously to empty your tank of air. While doing this, try not to 'fight' the water and simply let your body relax and whether you float or sink, stay relaxed.

Relaxed exhalationWhen performing this correctly, many people (men especially) will begin to sink and to sit on the bottom of the pool when really relaxed – the aim is not to sink, but to feel your natural buoyancy and to be comfortable while exhaling into the water. Initially, the point at which you start to sink can be a little disconcerting and cause a 'panic' to return to the surface and a feeling of desperation for breath – this is natural but not right! You will still have plenty of air to exhale so keep practising until you feel comfortable.

Once comfortable with this, progress by swimming and breathing – exhaling in the same way; i.e., relaxed, continuously and fully. For now, break your habit of breathing every two, three or four strokes and breathe out with your head in the water, not moving, until you feel empty and ready to inhale, and then turn to inhale. I'm not suggesting that this is how you need to breathe as this should be a very relaxed effort, focusing only on breathing, and NOT sustainable for harder efforts. However, it is a very effective way to start to feel comfortable breathing while swimming and can then be used as the basis for developing breathing patterns in relation to effort.

Breathing pattern

Many coaches advocate bilateral breathing (breathing to both sides on alternate strokes) over unilateral breathing (breathing to one side only). I think all swimmers should be able to breathe bilaterally so that if conditions dictate then breathing to left or right will be comfortable.

The frequency of breathing should be dictated by the effort – just the same as in any other exercise. Warm-ups (often completed too fast / hard) should be more relaxed and so bilateral breathing can be adopted. During hard race-pace efforts in training and races themselves, the effort will be high and so necessitate a unilateral breathing pattern.

Once good breathing practice is established, a very effective way to breathe that develops a good rhythm as well as allowing a high pace to be sustained, is to breathe every stroke. This is often the default for many triathletes when racing and so should be adopted in training and is very comfortable to do – basically a good breathe in and a full exhalation out on every stroke. Change sides regularly to balance out rotation and ease pressure on your neck, and again this is good practice for racing to be able to sight, watch other swimmers, etc.

The timing of the breath in relation to the arm strokes is fairly straightforward – and the single sided, every stroke, breathing pattern above, lends itself to getting the timing right.

ExhalingNote that when exhaling into the water, the head stays still and completely aligned with the body and only rotates when inhalation is required. The initiation of the inhalation occurs when the body begins to rotate (around a longitudinal axis) and, assuming the inhalation is from the right, the rotation begins as the right hand starts to pull through the water.

Imagine that as the pull and push through of the right hand progresses, you have to move your right hip away to give your right hand space and clearance to push back as far as it will go. As part of this rotation, when breathing, your head starts to rotate at the same time as your body rotates.

Split level breathingThe rotation should take your head to no more than horizontal (NOT LIFTED) so that your sight is directed towards the side, or even very slightly to the front/side and the inhalation occurs. As your right hand leaves the water at the end of its stroke (push), your head starts to return to the water and back to a neutral position.

As above, the single sided, every stroke breathing pattern allows this rhythm to be easily established.


Learning how to breathe in water can support a much faster, and more comfortable, development and makes it much easier to think about and incorporate other specific techniques.

The breathing cycle should be completed continuously while swimming, the same as when performing any other form of exercise.
  • Never hold your breath
  • 'Fully' (comfortably) exhale and inhale
  • Learn how to breathe bilaterally
  • Train to breathe as required – dictated by the effort
  • Swimming hard requires unilateral breathing – train this way for racing
  • Breathe unilaterally (but change sides often) in a race

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