3 Breathing Exercises for Competitive Swimmers

Tired of being out of breath while swimming? Here are some breathing exercises for swimmers that will help you manage your breathing and swim faster.

Swimmers pay a lot of attention to conditioning and technique while going up and around the black line.

There’s a lot to focus on while trying to improve in the water, from proper hand placement, hip rotation, mobility, to trying your best to push through those hard sets and swim practices.

On top of all that, swimmers face a unique problem in the water: we have to time our breaths to work within our breathing patterns, our underwater dolphin kicks, off the start, and so on.

We’ve all experienced the harried sensation of being low on breath during a hard set or during the end of our race. We resort to breathing in and out of the walls, we start breathing every stroke, and instead of focusing on our race strategy and using breathing as a weapon, we scramble for that precious oxygen.

Fortunately, there are some things you can do in training to help improve your breath control. Here are my three favorite exercises for better breathing and swimming:

1. Use breathing patterns throughout your workout.

I won’t lie, I’ve always loathed doing hypoxic sets in the water. Whenever coach wrote up a set that included breathing patterns I always resisted.

The struggle of feeling low on oxygen is simply uncomfortable.

But there’s no doubt that being more disciplined with your breathing patterns helps you realize that you can focus more on when and how much you breathe.

  • Start simple and progress slowly. If breathing every five strokes is out of the question, work on breathing every four. If that’s too challenging, start by breathing every three strokes. There’s an endless number of ways you can institute breathing patterns into your swimming.
  • Use breathing patterns on pull sets. Our legs burn up a ton of oxygen when we are swimming. This is one of the reasons that breathing patterns are easier to hold when we throw a pull buoy between our legs. Not breathing for 5 or 7 strokes at a time is easier when doing pull, so don’t shy away from them. It serves as a springboard for holding those same breathing patterns while swimming.
  • Do them in your warm-up to get your lungs warmed-up. When it comes to being prepared for the main set we are typically focused on technique, feel for the water, and having our legs and shoulders warm. But priming your lungs is another way to make sure your lungs are primed for the big efforts later in the workout. Institute some breathing pattern work during your warm-up and pre-set.

2. Extend your underwaters.

Over the last couple decades the underwater dolphin kick has become the unofficial fifth stroke of swimming.

In the short course pool there’s an opportunity to swim up to 60% of your races completely underwater, and athletes like Caeleb Dressel, Misty Hyman, Michael Phelps and Tom Shields have shown how effective those underwaters can be at the highest levels.

Being a great underwater dolphin kicker requires that you not only have mastered the technique and conditioning required to do it efficiently, but you also need to be able to hold your breath while doing it. (This creates another problem—juggling distance off the walls with accumulated oxygen debt and declining performance.)

Another simple way to improve your ability to breathe while swimming is to do one extra dolphin kick off each of your walls. Seems like a tiny thing, but as with the breathing patterns, extended underwaters will teach you to manage your breathing and of course, you will also improve your dolphin kick along the way.

3. Use a respiratory training device.

This is my favorite exercise for better breathing for swimmers because it’s something you can easily measure, it doesn’t require a pool to perform, and you will see the improvement from it almost immediately.

It’s using a respiratory training device.

The premise of these devices is hilariously simple: it’s weight training for your breathing muscles. They are made of a plastic tube, a mouth-piece to inhale and exhale, and dials to crank up the resistance and your ability to take in and expel air increase.

One study with swimmers found that six weeks of training with a respiratory training device was enough to improve 100m sprint times by 1.7%. That’s a staggering improvement when you consider the minimal amount of time involved. (The swimmers did 3×30 repetitions on the device daily to achieve these results.)

My PowerLung, chilling on my desk.

Having used one of these devices myself (you can read a full breakdown of my experience with a PowerLung device here) I can attest to the improvements in ability to suck down oxygen and overall lung capacity (I can hold my breath more comfortably for longer). Just a few minutes a day inhaling and exhaling into the device made a significant difference on my ability to breathe in the water.

While expensive (mine was well over $100 with shipping and taxes from Amazon) they are effective. The best part is that there’s no breath-holding required, you don’t need to be in the water to use it, and it’s super portable and can be used on off-days or when you’re sitting at the computer writing a blog article.

Breathing Exercise Swimmers

The Takeaway

We all know the joys of progression in the water. It’s no different when it comes to improving your ability to breathe while swimming–those moments where a breathing pattern becomes easier, or your breakouts grow a little longer, or you realize that you aren’t sucking wind as hard as usual after an all-out rep are fun to experience.

Give these exercises to improve your breathing and start using air as a weapon for faster swimming in the pool.

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Olivier Poirier-Leroy Olivier Poirier-Leroy is the founder of YourSwimLog.com. He is an author, former national level swimmer, two-time Olympic Trials qualifier, and swim coach.

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