How to Breathe while Swimming Freestyle

How to Breathe while Swimming Freestyle

One of my favorite swimming mottos says "Oxygen is overrated." Swimmers are among the greatest athletes and most fit sports competitors because they are among the few athletes who don't breathe through the entirety of their sport. Swimmers voluntarily deprive themselves of oxygen by only allowing themselves limited opportunities to take a breath. I'd like to see basketball players holding their breath while shooting free throws. Let football players try holding their breath while doing their sprints. They wouldn't last. Only the best athletes can sprint and maintain all-out race paces while depriving their bodies of oxygen. Those athletes are swimmers.

Because swimmers can only take limited breaths, proper technique for breathing becomes all the more important: you've got to do it right. Let's talk about how.

The following are some tips and tricks to practice and refine breathing during swimming freestyle or front crawl, comprised of “windmill” arms and flutter kicks. When breathing in freestyle, it’s called “side breathing.”

Freestyle Swimming Breathing Technique - Side Breathing

Side breathing consists of turning your head to the side of the arm that is currently pulling through the water, taking a breath, and reorienting your face back into the water before your arm finishes the stroke. For example, if your right arm is pulling or taking a stroke when it’s time to breathe, your head should be turning to the right. Sounds pretty simple, but a few tips will help you get your head position and timing just right.

freestyle swimmer

Exhale First!

Before you can inhale or take a breath, you need to breath out. You’d be surprised how many people forget to do this before rotating their head for a breath. Since you’ve only got a quick moment to take a breath (slightly less than the amount of time it takes for your arm to complete a full stroke), you’ve got to be efficient! If you have to exhale and inhale in that time, your breath will not be as efficient. Accordingly, before rotating your face out of the water for a breath, make sure to exhale while your face is still in the water. That way, once you rotate your head, all you need to do is inhale. A more efficient breath.

Body Positioning

A lot of swimmers learning how to side breathe tend to make a common positioning mistake: they first lift their head straight up from the water and then turn their face to side and then repeat the process in reverse to get their face back in the water. Before breathing, you should be looking straight down at the black line at the bottom of the pool floor. If you find that you lift your head straight up (like your nodding “yes”) before taking a breath, you’re doing it wrong.

The easiest way to think about this is practice rotating your head at the top of the neck to swing your chin towards the shoulder of the side you’re about to breathe on. Your head should rotate, rather than lift. If you’re breathing to the right, think about rotating your head to lay your left ear flat in the water while you breathe. Follow that same motion in reverse to rotate your head back into the proper position looking straight down. And don’t forget to breathe while your face is out of the water! That should go without saying, but I’ve had more than a few beginner swimmers focus so hard on the position and rotation that they forgot to actually take the breath! Of course, it didn’t take them long to figure out what they were doing wrong.

freestyle swimming

Breathing Pattern - Timing!

The last major component of side breathing is the timing: When should you rotate your face towards open air in relation to the arm pull or stroke on the side towards which you’re about to breathe? One way to visualize it is to imagine you have a rubber band connecting your elbow to your chin. Let’s say you’re about to breathe to the right. As your arm stroke begins, your right arm is extended out in front of you. As you begin to pull your hand and arm through the water, your elbow bends and begins to move behind your head to pull your hand through the water.

As the elbow moves past your head, think about following it with your chin, like your elbow is also pulling your chin towards it. Once your elbow has stopped moving back, it begins to lift so that your arm can perform a “recovery” as it moves over the water and extends back out in front of you. When the elbow starts to lift, you should already have inhaled (remember, you exhaled before your face came out of the water) and as your right arm moves over the water, your face should be rotating back to its swimming position. Your face should enter the water before your hand does. By the time your hand enters the water and extends out in front of you, you should already be looking at the bottom of the pool again.


With proper practice and coaching, anyone can learn to side breathe while swimming freestyle or front crawl. But here’s my proposal; whether you want to side breathe to drop race times or simply have a more efficient workout, the best way to learn will be with a private instructor who can help you reach your swimming goals.

Private swim lessons are the ideal way to learn new swimming skills and gain the foundation you can then spend the rest of your swimming career building on. So if you’ve got a swim skill you want to improve, find a Sunsational swim instructor near you!

Briant Jacobs’ bio:

Swim Instructor in Tucson, AZ

Hi there, I'm Briant and I've taught/coached swimmers of all levels from ages 2 - 65 for over 12 years. I've been a lifeguard, water safety instructor, swim instructor, and competitive swim coach. I swam competitively for 14 years and played water polo for 4. I love teaching all levels, from fearful beginners to advanced competitors. I graduated from Georgetown where I studied law. I'm also fluent in Spanish, love Ben and Jerry's, and have yet to meet a swimmer who couldn't reach their goals.

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