Freestyle Swimming Technique: Breathlessness

Are you wanting to improve freestyle swimming technique? We spoke to Wendy Mader, MS, Ironman Certified Coach about breathlessness while swimming and what techniques you can implement in to your training.

In this article, Wendy discusses the following topics:

  1.  What Causes Breathlessness Whilst Swimming?
  2. Freestyle Swimming Technique & Overcoming Breathing Issues.
    1. Not Exhaling Fully Immediately Before You Inhale.
    2. Balance Issues.
    3. Excessive Kicking.
    4. Dropping Your Arm Too Soon When Rotating to Inhale.


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.

1. What Causes Breathlessness Whilst 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.

Freestyle Swimming Technique: Breathlessness | Linked Fitness CommunityIf 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

2. 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:
Freestyle Swimming Technique: Breathlessness | Linked Fitness CommunityStep 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.

RelatedSwimming Workouts for Beginners

2. Balance Issues 

If your inhaling and exhaling technique is 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. Excessive Kicking

Freestyle Swimming Technique: Breathlessness | Linked Fitness CommunityKicking too much can cause breathlessness. I am often asked by triathletes to work with them on their kick technique. What I observe is that they are kicking too much in attempt to propel themselves with their legs. They should be placing the focus on pulling themselves through the water with their arms.

When you kick too much, larger muscles use more oxygen which increases your heart and breathing rate.

You need to learn to pull yourself through the water, with every arm stroke extending past your hip. You only need to kick enough with your quads and hip flexors to keep your legs from sinking.

4. 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.

RelatedPractice Makes Perfect: Triathlon Transition Tips

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.

Related Video  – Freestyle Swimming Technique | Stroke

About the Author

Freestyle Swimming Technique: Breathlessness | Wendy Mader | Linked Fitness CommunityWendy Mader

MS, Ironman Certified Coach, TRX and ACE Certified Winner, 2008 Kona 1st Overall Amateur

Wendy is co-founder and owner of t2coaching and has made a lifelong commitment to fitness, sports, coaching, and triathlon.

From her youth as a competitive swimmer to her current career in the fitness industry, her dedication shines.

Wendy is a former collegiate swimmer and has 25 years experience in triathlon including 15 Ironmans.

She is the Head Coach of SASfit Team in Turkey and also Head Coach at Endurance House in Westminster Colorado.

To find out more about Wendy Mader, visit her coaching website

Recommend0 recommendationsPublished in Swimming, Training, Triathlon


  1. Pingback: Triathlon 101 - Beginners Guide | Wendy Mader | Linked Fitness Community

  2. Pingback: Swimming Workouts for Beginners and Top Tips for Getting Started

  3. Standa

    My experience is that if you want to swim well, you need to have healthy feet. So jogging combined with swimming is a great complement to two sports.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *