Freestyle Swimming Technique: What Causes Breathlessness While Swimming?

Freestyle Swimming Technique: Breathlessness

Swimmers that are training to improve their freestyle swimming technique often make the mistake of focusing their efforts on perfecting the 3 phases of the freestyle stroke – recovery, hand entry, and pull.

This can be a very frustrating approach if you are working hard on the mechanics of the stroke, but are being held back by breathlessness.

The first step to perfecting your freestyle swimming technique is efficient breathing.

What Causes Breathlessness While Swimming? 

Breathlessness may initially be caused by poor conditioning. If this is the case, you should work on building your general physical fitness to see if this improves the problem.

If you are already fairly fit but still have problems with breathlessness, it is time to explore your freestyle swimming technique and consider whether this is the cause.

There are 4 key issues that can cause breathlessness:

1. Not exhaling fully immediately before you inhale
2. Balance issues e.g. lower body dragging
3. Excessive kicking
4. Dropping your arm too soon when rotating to inhale

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Freestyle Swimming Technique & Overcoming Breathing Issues

1) Not Exhaling Fully Immediately Before You Inhale

When someone is having issues with breathlessness whilst swimming, the first step I evaluate is how they inhale and exhale. Generally, the lack of breath means they are either:

  • Continuously exhaling underwater immediately after they have inhaled, and then rotating to inhale again, or
  • Forcefully exhaling fully, holding their breath, and then rotating to inhale.

In both cases, they are not FORCEFULLY exhaling IMMEDIATELY before they inhale.

The key to breathing is a fast forceful exhale as you rotate, then immediately taking a quick deep inhale. This technique involves 4 steps:

Step 1

After inhaling, rotate your face back into the water and begin to trickle out air from your mouth and nose.

Step 2

As you take your strokes, (2,3,4,5,6 or however many strokes you need to before your next rotation to breath), continue the trickle of air from your nose and mouth to keep the water out.

Step 3

This is the most important step. When you are ready to take your next breath, you must take a forceful exhale out of your mouth as you rotate to take your next inhale. This will allow you to fill your lungs with fresh air as soon as your mouth clears the water.

Step 4

As you rotate your face back into the water, you will again begin your exhale and repeat the cycle.

To practice, you can hold your breath and then forcefully exhale before your inhale. Practicing in this way allows you to learn the technique and become more efficient at breathing before you have even entered the water.

2. Balance Issues 

If your inhaling and exhaling technique are good, and you only start to get breathless after 2 lengths, it could be a balance issue.

The most common balance issue involves the dropping and dragging of your lower body. When you are pulling more of your body weight, the extra exertion will increase your heart and breathing rate.

Strategies you can use to combat this problem are:

  • Press your weight on your sternum and tuck your chin under.
  • Focus on high elbow recovery (elbow remains above the shoulder and wrist during the above-water section of the stroke) and deep hand entry, to help put the weight of your body on your front end.
  • Avoid kicking from the knee and focus on keeping your legs relatively straight. Make sure you keep your toes pointed and kick from your hip flexors and quads. This will help lift your legs up and give you a good body position.

3. Dropping Your Arm Too Soon When Rotating to Inhale

Often a beginner swimmer is not fully aware of what they are doing with their arms. A common mistake I see is dropping the arm too early while rotating to breath.

When this happens you are pulling yourself under water before you catch a breath. Dropping your arm while inhaling causes you to miss out on an arm propulsion and then lack strength in the arm that dropped. Focusing on the timing of your breathing, and an awareness of leaving your arm extended when you catch a breath will help with this body balance issue.

Once you have mastered all of the above, you need to put time and effort into practicing in the pool. Getting stronger with your freestyle swimming technique, building up endurance, and strength conditioning will build fitness which will all contribute to less breathlessness.

this article originally published at

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About the author

Sanuj Srivastava

Hello everyone ! myself Sanuj Srivastava, I'm a National swimmer and Computer Olympiad winner. I'm working on writing articles for competitive swimming. If you have some problem in swimming that needs some creative injection then that’s where I come in!
My aim is to bring across your message and identity in the most creative way.


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