Late Breathing in Freestyle

Late Breathing in Freestyle

We frequently see in freestyle during the breathing phase swimmers breathing late in relation to the arm cycle. Whilst this isn’t a cataclysmic issue it can create complications for the swimmer particularly under race conditions and during demanding training sets.

The two main areas where this habit can adversely affect performance are:

1. The late movement or rotation of the head results in a disconnect with the timing of the arms and the rotation of the shoulders and hips, which disturbs the rhythm of the stroke and some loss of efficiency.

2. There is a reduction in the length of time that the mouth can be open for inhalation, resulting in a lower volume of airflow and as a consequence the gas exchange in the lungs is compromised.

The ideal timing of the rotation of the head for breathing is; the head rotates as the propelling arm commences the push phase of the arm pull, which is in synchronization with the upward rotation of the shoulder on the breathing side. Inhalation begins just prior to the completion of the push phase and the during the commencement of the recovery of the arm. Inhalation continues through the first half of the recovery and as the hand or arm passes the shoulder the head commences its counter rotation and finishing in the neutral position with the eyes looking after which the exhalation begins.

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Rotating the head to breathe with this timing will provide an optimal period to complete the inhalation. If this period length is shortened by turning the head late, then the opportunity to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide becomes limited, which is highly likely to adversely affect performance.

A drill which can help create to correct breathing timing is “single arm opposite side breathing drill” is the “Opposite Side Breathing Drill”. This drill has the swimmer for instance stroking with their left arm but breathing to their right, with the rotation of the head coordinated with the entry and extension of the left arm (stroke with the left and breathe to the right). The right arm is held stationary by the right hip. If you have someone afflicted with late breathing try this drill and see if it helps.


Freestyle Breathing Swimming Tips

Freestyle Breathing Swimming Tips

Freestyle is the first stroke that most children learn and is the fastest of the four competitive strokes.  Listed below are a number of tips on how to improve your breathing in freestyle. If you are after more comprehensive information on freestyle and breathing check out the Freestyle Stroke Model by 2004 & 2012 Head Olympic Coach, Leigh Nugent.

What is the correct head position when swimming freestyle?

The head should be in a neutral position with the neck relaxed and eyes looking straight down. When breathing the head rotates through the long axis of the spine, to the side, maintaining a low position, with one eye in the water and one eye out of the water.

Should I breathe on the first stroke?

After streamlining off the wall on a start or turn, begin your first freestyle stroke just before your head and body breaks the surface.  Swimmers who breathe on this first stroke will often slow themselves down at a time where they do not really need a breathe.  Take your first breathe on your second or third stroke rather than your first stroke.

When do I breathe? 

There are many different ways of explaining to someone when to breathe in freestyle.  Turn your head to breathe on your right hand side as the finger tips of your left hand enters the water following the recovery.  This provides an excellent reference point for for freestyle breathing for swimmers of all ages.  Your head should continue to turn to breathe as the front or opposite hand is extending forward.

How often should I breathe? 

Swimmers breathe every 2, 3 or 4 strokes in general.  Most coaches will teach young swimmers to breath every 4 strokes on their left side and every 4 strokes on their right side, so that they develop both sides of the body.  Work with your coach to develop the best breathing pattern for you.

Should I breathe in the last 5 metres? 

The answer is no, in both training and competition.  Whatever you do in training will happen in a race, so if you want to hold your breathe for the last 5 metres, particularly in a close race then practice it every time you finish a lap in training.

I am having trouble breathing after only a short distance of swimming.  What am I doing wrong? 

Many adult swimmers and young children have this problem.  It is primarily caused by not exhaling before you began to inhale, resulting in limited lung space for the new breath and then a shortness of breath.  Try exhaling all your air out underwater before turning to breathe.  Take one large breath and then exhale all your air out underwater before breathing again.  With young children practice yo-yo’s where a child hangs onto the edge and ducks underwater to exhale totally then comes up for one breathe and straight back under water.  Do this for a minute or two to get really good at it. 

Breathing correctly is very important in freestyle and we hope these tips help you to improve your breathing.

How to Correct a Short Stroke in Freestyle

How to Correct a Short Stroke in Freestyle


Hi, in freestyle my child has a short stroke both at entry and at the end of the pull. How can this be corrected? Are there drills they can work on?

Thank you Jenny


Hi Jenny,

For swimmers who short stroke at the beginning and end of their stroke I would recommend taking a video of them swimming and letting them view what they look like and see what they are doing wrong. This will assist them to correct it.

The swimmer can watch themselves and then compare themselves with a video of a swimmer doing correct freestyle technique. You can now access an excellent video of the Freestyle Stroke Model with a voice over from former Australian Team Head Coach, Leigh Nugent.

With the hand entry, encourage the swimmer to enter the water at least two thirds of the way forward and extend their hand forward until there is a slight bend remaining and the elbow is in a high position. From this position, they can press with their hand, downwards and slightly outwards at the beginning of the arm pull.

With the back part of their stroke, ask them to brush the outside of their thumb past their thigh on every stroke. By doing this, you are providing them with a reference point that their hands must push back further and their thumb must touch their thigh. They will find this difficult and after a lap or two will need to be reminded to brush their thumb past their thigh.

The swimmer will often complain that it feels like they are going slower because their hand is pushing through further however explain to them that they will actually be moving forward through the water more and once they get good at it, will actually be swimming faster.


In regards to drills, one is to do single arm freestyle with the second arm holding the board at the end and enter the other arm just in front of the board and extend it forward under the board. They can do 25s or 50s with one arm and then swap to the other. This is a teaching drill and provides them with time to practice the correct stroke technique.

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