How to Improve Breathing in Swimming

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Controlled and efficient breathing is essential to swimming. Swimming forces the athlete to breathe in rhythmic cycles in coordination with body rotation and stroke pattern. When a swimmer struggles to breathe properly, he becomes exhausted more easily. Improving swimming skills necessitates frequent workouts, as no amount of cardiovascular training on dry land can substitute for time spent in the water.

Learning Better Technique

Swimming is a technique-intensive sport. Many books and magazines discuss the stroke mechanics and propulsive forces behind swimming. Reading helps, but the best way to learn good breathing and stroke skills is to join a swim team, or to take swim lessons. Often, learning in a group setting is more effective, as swimmers motivate one another during workouts. One important breathing skill that some never master is bilateral breathing. According to USA Swimming, the governing body for the sport of swimming in the United States, breathing on both sides in freestyle helps swimmers breathe better, swim faster and build strength evenly on both sides of the body.

Masters swimming programs accept adult swimmers 18 and over to join organized daily workouts, coached by a professional. Although many masters swimmers are former competitive college athletes, others joined the sport later in life. Coaches usually tailor workouts to swimmers of different abilities--and organize them in different lanes.

Maximizing Lung Capacity

Swimmers must determine whether they have difficulty breathing during swimming workouts due to underlying medical conditions. According to "Swimmer" magazine, the official publication of the U.S. Masters association, exercise-induced asthma occurs more often in swimmers who work out in indoor pools, possibly due to the accumulation of lung irritants such as chlorine. Exercise-induced asthma reduces lung capacity and causes shortness of breath during or after workouts. Wheezing and coughing are other common symptoms that swimmers with the condition experience. Luckily, exercise-induced asthma usually responds well to preventative treatment, according to the Mayo Clinic, so seeking a doctor's advice is a good idea.

Quitting smoking is an essential step for any swimmer. Breathing underwater involves forcefully exhaling, as well as inhaling, so strong breathing requires strong, healthy lungs. Sports physicians have equipment to test lung function and lung oxygen capacity, so any swimmer concerned about lung function should seek their input.

Practicing Breathing Drills

Once a swimmer learns proper technique, and solves any potential physical impediments to easy breathing, practicing is the next step to improving breathing. Aerobic capacity, or the ability of the body to absorb and efficiently use oxygen in the creation of energy, increases with long, slow-to-moderate-intensity workouts. Swimming with a floater or pull buoy placed between the swimmer's thighs allows him to swim longer without exhausting himself. The easy pace and help of the pull buoy allows the swimmer to focus on breathing technique and pacing.

Correctly timing breathing is particularly critical in freestyle. Breathing too late results in a high, inefficient head position and too much effort expended. According to former Olympic swimmer and author Jim Montgomery in "Mastering Swimming," one mistake swimmers make is not fully exhaling, or blowing all the air out from the lungs before taking a breath. Not fully exhaling results in less fresh air being subsequently inhaled, and the swimmer feeling out of breath. Apart from long pulling sets, swimming alternately breathing every three, and then every five strokes forces the swimmer to regulate breathing, and increases tolerance for reduced breath frequency.