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Swim Training: Breathing for Beginners

By Marty Gaal
With a swim workout from Barb Lindquist

Breathing — it comes completely naturally to all of us. It is an activity that will function without interruption or conscious thought under the control of the autonomic nervous system. When necessary, we can assume conscious control in order to increase oxygen supply while under stress or in a fight/flight state of mind. In our world, triathlon equals a fight/flight state.

breathe betterBreathing is easy on the bike and run. While there are a few tricks to rhythmic breathing in both of these legs, you don’t have to move around and ask your surroundings permission in order to get a breath. In swimming, you do.

From a beginner standpoint, the two most important aspects of breathing in swimming are becoming comfortable with:

1) your face in the water while swimming
2) a rhythm to your breathing

Face in the water
Keeping your face in the water is step one, because if you swim with your head up or your face out of the water, your legs and hips will invariably drop. A high-head/low-hip position requires you to push more surface area through the water, creating more drag. This makes it harder to swim because there is more resistance. Imagine cycling with a parachute attached to your back. This will force you to take additional rest breaks in training or on race day as your heart rate increases and you cannot keep up with the oxygen demands of your muscles.

There are different tricks to keeping your face in the water. Be sure to have comfortable goggles. Focus on looking at the bottom or staring at the black line down the center of the lane in the pool. If you experience anxiety related to submersion, take a lot of rest breaks and remember that as far as pool training goes, you are never very far from the wall and an exit. Private swim lessons and a lot of practice will help.

Rhythmic breathing
Once you are comfortable keeping your face/head in the water while swimming, you need to figure out how and when to breath. The critical action here is to begin exhaling through your nose/mouth as soon as you finish breathing in.

The major problem I see with beginner swimmers related to breathing is that they hold their breath while their face is in the water, then tries to exhale and inhale very quickly when turning to breathe. This results in a poor, shallow breath and a quick buildup of carbon dioxide in the lungs. Swimmers will have to stop and take a break in training or roll over on their backs to catch a few deep breaths in racing.

You must exhale while your face is in the water. So when you turn to breathe, your lungs are mostly empty and ready to accept a fresh breath of air. You do need to force the rhythm a bit. You should forcefully exhale through your nose/mouth as soon as you complete the breath. There’s no pausing. It is a constant rhythm.

Two- or three-stroke breathing
The good thing about three-stroke or bilateral breathing? It will help you create and maintain an even stroke and improve mechanics on both sides of your body. The bad thing? It increases the time between breaths by 50 percent over a two-stroke or one-sided breathing pattern. That is a huge decrease in total oxygen flow while swimming.

My advice is to include bilateral breathing in your workouts during warm-up, drills, easy aerobic sets and short sprints like 25s and 50s. Switch to one-sided breathing for moderate/hard-distance and mid-distance sets. If you want to continue working on stroke balance, breathe to the left going down the pool and to the right coming back.

The main problem with breathing to one side all the time is that it usually creates a hitch or imbalance in one side. Typically one side becomes a bit stronger and you will veer off course in open water. The main benefit, however, is more air, which is nice when you are trying to swim fast.

Once you have perfecting your breathing and become a stronger swimmer, try this intermediate-to-advanced workout from Olympian Barb Lindquist:

Warm-up: 100free/50kick/100drill/50kick (three times). Total warm-up: 900 yards.
Main set:
Move from one set to the next without rest unless otherwise stated.
8x50 — No. 1: 8 strokes fast off each wall. No. 2: middle 25 fast, so pick up speed in middle of pool through turn and back to middle. No. 3: all fast but controlled. No. 4: all easy. Pick interval that gives 9-15”rest and stick with it for the whole workout.

6x100 — Aerobic pulling, slight descend to strong, 1-3, 4-6. Interval with 9-15”rest. Extra 30" rest before next set.

8x50 — Same as above.

2x300 — Aerobic as 50polo drill/50 fast breast pull with fast flutter kick/50back x2. 15” rest between and 30” before next set.

8x50 — Same as above.

6x100 I.M. — (fly, back, breast, free) aerobic but free always faster. Can substitute polo drill for fly. Extra 30” rest before next set.

8x50 — Same as above.

Cool-down: 100 yards
4,400 yards 

The purpose of the set is to work pure (short) speed (50s set) in preparation for longer speed efforts in a few months. Sets between the 50s (600 total aerobic) are strength sets (pulling, polo, IM), taxing the muscles but not the heart. These should fatigue your arms as you go through the set so that in the last sets of 50s you really have to focus on holding your stroke technique together while swimming fast. To increase workout volume, you can increase the aerobic sets to 900 total, increase the 50s to 12 in each set, or do more rounds. For less volume, shorten the warm-up to 600, decrease the aerobic sets to 300 total, or just cut out the last round of IMs and 50s.

Marty Gaal, CSCS, is a USA Triathlon-certified coach. He and his wife Brianne coach triathletes through their company, One Step Beyond. Marty has been swimming in ocean competitions since 1986 and racing triathlon since 1989. Read more about the Powerstroke®: Speed through force and form freestyle technique DVD and coaching services at and

Barb Lindquist is a 2004 Olympian, USA Triathlon Hall of Fame inductee and Collegiate Recruitment Program coordinator for USAT.