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Triathlon Swimming Technique: How to Breathe When Swimming

Taren Gesell

As part of your triathlon training plan, swimming will occupy an important portion of your training time. The swim part of race day feels daunting for many, but proper swim breathing techniques will make a huge difference. You'll feel an increased sense of control while moving faster and easier. Spending less energy during the swim will benefit your performance for the rest of the race.

Here's a complete guide to swimming breath training and technique, from the best tips on how to get it right, in general, and, in particular, for various swimming strokes. During your triathlon, rely on this guide to maintain a consistent breathing pattern, propelling you to the end of the swim more efficiently and quickly so you can enjoy the rest of your event. 

In this article, you’ll learn:

  • Why breathing while swimming is so tricky and how your swimming technique can suffer from breathlessness;
  • The top 5 mistakes you’re making if you’re breathless during your swims;
  • How to develop your swim breathing technique to swim like a dolphin;
  • The 6 easy drills you can start doing to improve your swimming breathing right away.

Triathlon Swimming Technique: Why Is It So Hard?

As you start triathlon training, swimming is one of the key challenges for most beginners. Despite your childhood swimming lessons or swimming for leisure, unless you're an accomplished swimmer, the swimming part of your race can be daunting for most of us.

Why is swimming for triathletes such a challenge? Firstly, because water is a foreign environment for athletes in general. You’re acclimated to running and biking outside in fresh air, without any restrictions to your breathing pattern. But, in the water, we’re all essentially newborns in Speedos.

Swimming requires you to use your whole body in a completely different way than you use it while running or biking:

Running and biking breathing:

  • Upright
  • 40-50 breaths per minute
  • Not pressure on your lungs

Swim breathing:

  • Horizontal
  • 20-40 breaths per minute
  • Pressure on your lungs from the hydrostatic force of the water

The force of breathing while swimming is completely unnatural to what we’ve evolved to do, and what you’ve been doing your entire life.That's why I think that swimming is one of the most unnatural movements humans could possibly do.

Fortunately, if you follow our guide here you’ll learn how to breathe as easily in the water as you do on land.  Almost twenty-thousand people have learned to do this with the help of our book Triathlon Swimming Foundations.

Does your swimming stroke make a difference for swim breathing?

Whether you’re swimming competitively or for fun, you’ll use several different strokes, including breaststroke and backstroke, where you can relax and mix up the movement of your body. Even though you can use any swim stroke you want in a race, for triathlon swimming I always recommend freestyle. This stroke allows you to move faster and be more hydrodynamic (yes, that’s a thing, just like being aerodynamic but in water!). It’s also much better for sighting in open water and keeping your line/direction.

When it comes to breathing, there’s obviously a big difference between strokes: you can breaststroke without ever getting your head in the water, and when swimming on your back, your head is always out of the water. But consider the speed and efficiency of your stroke, and you’ll quickly see that freestyle or front crawl is much better for competition. (Here are some numbers for top pro athletes' swim speeds - you can see that freestyle can be up to 20% faster than breaststroke swimming).

Finally, we’ll discuss your swimming technique in a moment and how you can actually swim faster by working less. Swimming freestyle, when done correctly, allows you to glide through the water faster and more efficiently than with any other stroke. And you conserve energy for the bike and run legs of your triathlon. 

So, all you need to do is dial in your freestyle swimming breathing technique, and you’ll ace your triathlon swim.

Top 3 Tips for Being the Best Swimmer You Can Be

How can you become the best swimmer you can be? There are three major ways to improve your swimming:

  • Breathe stress-free - I like to say “like a dolphin;"
  • Don’t let your legs sink - float across the surface of the water;
  • Race like an arrow - i.e., don’t let your legs swing side to side, keeping a straight direction and not swimming off course.

Here, we’ll focus on your breathing and how that can get you faster and less panicked in the water on race day.

Top 5 Mistakes Triathletes Make When Swimming

You can’t expect to develop great breathing techniques overnight. They take time and practice, but it’s so important to breathe correctly, as it allows for a few things on race day:

  • Breathing calmly means you’re not panicking in the water, leaving you out of breath and potentially hyperventilating in the pool, lake or ocean;
  • By moving more calmly, you’ll also avoid fatiguing yourself in the first minutes of your triathlon, conserving energy for the rest of the race;
  • You’ll avoid building up carbon dioxide in the body, which incites panic and feeling like you have to breathe, going back into the vicious cycle of hyperventilating.

For most of us, that first encounter with swim training - especially if you haven’t been swimming for a while and you’re just training for your first triathlon - creates a “perfect storm” of breathing problems.

Firstly, beginner triathlete swimmers only take about a quarter to half as many breaths as they’re used to on land. Secondly, you're in a foreign environment, which activates your “fight or flight” system, leading to an elevated heart rate and a general feeling of alertness in the body. And thirdly, CO2 build-up in the body causes obsession over-breathing more than you normally would.

So, how can you avoid this triad of swimming breathing issues? You need to:

  • Keep CO2 from building up in your lungs and causing you to feel out of breath;
  • Develop a new breathing pattern that works for your swim;
  • Supply your muscles with enough oxygen to fuel your effort and keep you going throughout the full triathlon to come once you’re out of the water.

To achieve that, avoid these 5 mistakes in swim training:

  1. Holding your breath;
  2. Craning your neck and lifting up your head to breathe;
  3. Taking too-big of breaths;
  4. Not breathing out constantly while your face is in the water;
  5. Breathing less than once every two strokes.

How to Breathe Like a Dolphin: The Correct Swimming Breathing Technique

Developing the proper swim breathing technique for your triathlon helps to avoid the common swimming mistakes, giving you a more relaxed and comfortable experience in the water. When breathing correctly, the following should happen:

  • You exhale out strongly the entire time your face is in the water;
  • You turn your head just slightly to take in air;
  • Every time you breathe, you take in a small amount - a little sip - of air;
  • You breathe every two strokes to give yourself as much air as possible.

Doing all the above means you’ll breathe like a dolphin throughout your triathlons, finishing off your swim calmly and without feeling panicked, exhausted or out of breath. You’ll breeze through T1 and enjoy a full day of racing.

However, I appreciate it's easier said than done! Like we’ve seen above, swimming is unnatural, and being in the water isn’t conducive to keeping calm and remembering to relax and follow these tips. That's why we've developed breathing drills to help you make good breathing second nature. 

It’s important to note that these drills should be performed early on in your triathlon training and then consistently before your swimming sessions until you can swim 400 meters or yards continuously without feeling out of breath whatsoever. You’re rewiring your brain to stay calm in the water AND your body to perform a whole new breathing pattern, so expect it to take several weeks to a few months.

6 Breathing Drills to Improve Your Triathlon Swim Technique

Each of the following drills is a progression, so you can start with the first and finish with the sixth before your main swim session at the pool. They’re also focused on the three key tips shared earlier:

  • Breathe stress-free - by developing the ability to breathe out continually while your face is in the water;
  • Don’t let your legs sink and disobey gravity in the pool, which prevents panic breathing;
  • Race like an arrow - smooth and calm, using less oxygen and effort, avoiding tension, and moving quickly through the water.

Drills for stress-free breathing

Drill #1: Blowing bubbles

Yes, it really is as simple as that! Something kids do for fun can really help with your swimming breathing. By teaching your body to breathe out continually, you will start doing it automatically when your head is in the water, and that’s what you need for stress-free breathing during your swims.

Here’s how to do this drill:

  • Stand with your face to the wall at the shallow end of the pool;
  • Hold on to the wall with your hands;
  • Lower your face into the water and immediately start blowing bubbles through both your nose and mouth (it doesn’t matter which one);
  • Keep blowing out air without stopping until you have no more air to exhale;
  • Do this slowly, no rushing!

Perform this drill a few times in a row at the start of your swim training. 

Drill #2: Sink downs

After practicing your bubble blowing for a few minutes, it’s time to reinforce to your brain that when your face is in the water, you need to exhale. Transitioning to this next drill also helps you become more comfortable with being submerged underwater.

Perform it this way:

  • Position yourself at the deep end of the pool, where you can sink so your whole body is underwater;
  • Face the wall and hang onto the edge, then let go and immediately start to breathe out;
  • You should start sinking naturally - if you’re not, breathe out harder;
  • Let yourself sink and continue exhaling as your body lowers into the pool, emptying your lungs;
  • Try humming as you exhale to help you stay calm;
  • Only sink down to a point where you don’t develop panic;
  • Make sure to remain calm while gradually sinking lower and lower;
  • Come back when you feel your lungs are completely empty.

This might take a while to master if you’re prone to panic in the water, especially sinking lower into the pool. The whole point is to develop calmness when you’re underwater. So take your time to lower yourself gradually more and more. In time, being in at the deep end (literally) at the start of your triathlon will seem completely normal and not at all daunting, having experienced this sinking sensation over and over in training.

Through these two drills, you’re emptying your body of air, which lowers your chest when you swim and automatically lifts your legs. This, in turn, ensures you develop a nice, flat, smooth swimming position, helping you float effortlessly and ultimately go faster.

Anti-gravity drills

Drill #3: Face-down bubbles

This is a progression from your first drill, blowing bubbles. It helps you kick your feet up and avoid sinking legs, all while developing that all-important instinct of constantly breathing out. Here’s how to do it:

  • Stand at the shallow end of the pool, facing the wall, and place your hands on the wall;
  • Stick your face in the water and start blowing bubbles, as before;
  • Kick your feet off the bottom of the pool and let them float up until they’re right behind you; 
  • Keep blowing air out continuously while doing this, and repeat kicking your legs up, until you run out of air;
  • Focus on pushing your chest down as you exhale, which helps raise those feet to the surface of the water. 

To stop, stand up and reset yourself until you feel totally calm, then start again. Do this drill several times as well, and you’ll notice how you naturally kick your feet up and keep them higher in the water, preventing them from sinking and causing you to kick harder. This wastes energy and depletes oxygen faster, leading you to feel breathless.

Drill #4: Superman across the pool

Another great way to develop a smooth, light swimming position where your feet stay high, and you’re breathing in the most relaxed manner is to do this Superman drill across the pool:

  • Stand with your back to the wall at the shallow end of the pool, then kick your feet up against the wall and push off, stretching out like a pencil as you move forward into the water;
  • Let yourself slide across the pool, keeping nice and calm;
  • Kick your feet very lightly as you slide, all the while keeping your arms stretched straight in front of you and breathing out continuously, as we learned in the previous drills. 

This teaches you to ignore the reflex to flap around and lose energy and oxygen in the water. Once you start tensing up, you’ll hyperventilate and start sinking, making you inefficient, panicked and breathless.

Slowing down in the water

You might not have considered that slowing down during your triathlon swim training can make you a more efficient swimmer. Again, it’s all about creating a smooth, relaxed glide across the water, without excess movement and energy waste, which can cause discomfort and feeling breathless.

These two drills are designed to help you create that smoothness.

Drill #5: Slowing down your kick

Legs are the biggest muscle in your body, consuming a lot of energy when you kick. Moreover, most beginner swimmers will push hard with lots of kicking to keep them from sinking in the water. In reality, this expends energy and oxygen, leaving you breathless and exhausted.

That's why you want to slow your kick way down to a very relaxed fluttering, just enough to contribute your balance in the water and nothing else. Here’s how:

  • Go back to the edge of the pool, holding onto the wall;
  • Kick your feet up, but instead of just focusing on keeping them at the surface of the water, now start kicking very lightly, like a flutter;
  • Keep this flutter as light as you possibly can, just enough to keep your feet at the surface of the water.

The key is to get you swimming more like those effortless-looking professional swimmers who don’t seem to be working so very hard to glide across the pool. Instead of kicking furiously to desperately get yourself across the pool, you want to build a smooth, relaxed set of movements, and this drill will help you with that.

Drill #6: Gliding with fins on one side

Finally, incorporate all of the elements of the previous drills:

  • Put on some fins and get yourself in position at the end of a swim lane;
  • Push off and straighten your body, keeping your head in neutral position, facing down in the water, with one arm in front in the Superman position;
  • Blow bubbles continuously, and slowly tilt your head to breathe in as you need to;
  • Kick lightly with your fins, focusing on maintaining that smooth, relaxed forward motion, staying on top of the water, and not wasting any energy or oxygen.

Do this for each side several times and, if you’ve followed all the advice above, you’ll be gliding across the pool calmly and efficiently, staying in control and breathing easily.

To see each drill performed and with extra tips, check out this video

Make Breathing a Seamless Part of Your Swim Training

Breathing during swimming is a challenge for seasoned athletes and beginners alike. This is because it’s not a natural action that your body learns to do from day one of our lives, and it’s therefore causing us to react in “fight or flight” mode. As a result, we panic, flap around, waste energy and oxygen, and have carbon dioxide building up in our lungs, making us obsessed with breathing and feeling like we’re out of air.

To avoid all these common errors and develop a smooth, calm swimming technique, practice the top 6 drills, which I’ve detailed further in videos here, here and here

Incorporate swimming into your triathlon training plan twice a week, with drills before your main session, and you’ll soon see the benefits in your triathlon performance. Having a smooth and efficient swim technique will make you less exhausted and ready for the bike leg, contributing to a successful day out that you can also enjoy. 

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Taren Gesell
Taren Gesell

"Triathlon Taren" Gesell is founder of MOTTIV and one of the world's top experts on helping adults become endurance athletes later in life. Best known for his YouTube channel and podcast, Taren is the author of the Triathlon Foundations series of books and has been published featured in endurance publications around the world.

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