Breathing – Exhalation Technique

you know your problem? you keep it all in!


Very few novice swimmers exhale properly into the water.

Nearly all intermediate swimmers think they are exhaling correctly – at least, that’s what they say when we ask them. Do they? Very few do.

Even amongst advanced swimmers, quite a few like to hold onto their breath under the water.

Why is this an important swimming technique? Getting your exhalation right will make freestyle feel much easier, get you balanced in the water and as a bonus, make you more relaxed whilst swimming. This will benefit any swimmer, from beginner to elite.

In this article we’re going to give you some very simple exercises to perform to improve your breathing technique and this will help you become a much better swimmer.

how you should breathe?

You need to know the secret of freestyle breathing. The secret is good exhalation.

Whenever your face is in the water, exhale constantly and smoothly.

When you are swimming you should always be exhaling except when you turn your head to inhale.

You can exhale through your mouth or through your nose or through both, it doesn’t matter. But when your face is in the water you should be exhaling all the time in one constant stream of bubbles.

Do you do this? You’re probably thinking ‘yes I do’. We ask hundreds of swimmers this question every year, nearly all of them answer ‘yes’ but when they jump in the pool and we their breathing technique, very few actually do!

how do most swimmers exhale?

After inhaling and returning their face to the water, most people hold that breath for at least one stroke, if not two. Shortly before their next inhalation they exhale very late into the water, often finishing that exhalation into the air when they’ve turned to breathe in.

They feel they are exhaling into the water because they do a little before inhalation, but that is too little too late.

Coaches: From the pool deck, watch for a little outward spray of water from the mouth area as the swimmer turns to take their breath – this is a classic sign of late exhalation. Such a swimmer will immediately feel more relaxed from an improved exhalation technique.

why is it important to exhale constantly?

1) The most important reason is that when you hold your breath you tense up. When you breathe out you release that tension. Imagine you’re having a stressful day and someone tells you to take a deep breath – it’s not when you take the breath in that you feel better, it’s when you let it go. Holding your breath tenses you up and that is bad for your swimming technique.

2) When you are holding your breath you can feel that you need to breathe. The sensation you are feeling is not the lack of oxygen, it’s the build up of CO2. By holding your breath you are keeping the CO2 in your blood stream and lungs – this makes you feel desperate for air.

Blow them bubbles, it’ll be the end of your troubles.

Breathing out constantly while you swim feels much nicer – you get rid of the CO2 and no longer feel so desperate for air.

3) Having lungs full of air is bad for your body position – your chest is too buoyant. Since your body acts like a see saw around your centre, this causes your legs to sink in the water, creating extra drag.

4) Most swimmers try to exhale just before they turn their head to breathe – or even worse, try and exhale and inhale in the short window when their mouth is above the waterline! This is a really hard thing to do, each breath feels snatched and panicky. If you breathe late like this, the tendency is to lift your head to breathe to give yourself a bit more time. Lifting your head is bad swimming technique, it causes your legs to sink – adding lots of drag.

Conclusion: exhaling constantly and continuously is a fundamental of a good freestyle stroke technique.

how will this make me swim faster?

Tension is bad for your swimming. We want to develop a smooth, relaxed, rhythmical stroke and tension stops us doing that. Tension makes us want to lift our head and that ruins our body position. Tension makes it hard to trust and feel the water. Perhaps worst of all, tension stops us enjoying our swimming.

Holding your breath keeps excess CO2 in your lungs and blood stream. This hurts you aerobically as CO2 builds up in your system (like a sprint activity). For the same swimming speed and effort, holding your breath will make things much harder. Next time you’re running or doing something aerobic in the gym try holding your breath for 3 seconds and then suddenly inhale and exhale before holding it again – how much harder does this make it? Much harder!

Without exhaling properly you’re going to find bilateral breathing (breathing to both sides) very hard. The build up of CO2 in your system from holding your breath makes the gap between 3 strokes feel very long. In this situation most swimmers revert to breathing to one side – their favoured side. As you can read here, the problem with single sided breathing is that your stroke tends to become lopsided and uneven. Your body roll tends to become poor on your non-breathing side and that leads to problems with the recovering arm swinging low over the water. Other problems with your technique start to appear such as scissor kicks and hands crossing the centre line. All of this because you’re not exhaling!

The key to a creating a balanced symmetrical swimming technique is breathing to both sides – and the key to that is constant exhalation whenever your face is in the water.

ok, so how do i make the change?

The trick is to get used to exhaling into the water and feel relaxed doing it. This sounds easy but you need to break the existing habit, which can take some persistence. We recommend the series of sinking exercises below to develop a new breathing technique and get you feeling more relaxed in the water.

A good catch phrase is ‘Learn To Sink Before You Learn to Swim’ comes from this sink-down technique.

learn to sink!

– At the deep end of the pool tread water. When you are ready take a breath in and let yourself sink. As soon as your head is in the water start exhaling strongly through either your nose or mouth, whichever you prefer. Make sure you are exhaling straight away. If you are not exhaling immediately, or you are not exhaling strongly enough, you won’t sink – or you will sink a bit but then surface again.

Fancy a challenge? Try lying on your back on the bottom of the pool and watch the bubbles moving up to the surface.

– Practise sinking like this many times through. Make sure you are exhaling smoothly and constantly. The idea is to be able to sink straight down to the bottom of the pool and stay there exhaling until you are ready to push off the bottom and come back up.

– If you sink at first but then surface again, stay there and keep exhaling until you sink. Find your ‘sinking threshold’ and keep practising exhaling strongly until you can get down easily and quickly.

– To help you to relax whilst sinking, imagine you are falling into bed or into a comfy chair at the end of a long hard day. Every muscle in your body relaxes and goes loose. You relax and sink.

– Are you surprised how strongly you have to exhale to sink? This shows you are not exhaling strongly enough in your normal stroke technique.

– Are you surprised how relaxed you become doing this? Perhaps you didn’t realise you were tense before? The sensation of sinking is something we naturally fear – it’s something that’s keeping you tense whilst you swim. Getting accustomed to the water and feeling happy sinking in this alien environment will help your swimming technique a great deal.

Remind yourself to exhale into the water by making it part of your push-off routine. Every time you push off from the wall in your torpedo position, exhale strongly. Then carry on doing it for the whole length.

– If you’re doing really well, try sitting on the bottom of the pool and watch your bubbles rising to the surface. Or even harder, lie on your back on the bottom and watch the bubbles.

Novice swimmers: The sink-down exercise is very important for you too. If you are a little nervous in the water, start in the shallow end and simply crouch to get your head under the water. Get used to this before you gradually get into deeper water.

Tip: blow bubbles

Practise your exhalation technique when standing in chest deep water.

Not many people know this, but the most important skill in freestyle is to be able to exhale freely into the water. Most people instinctively hold their breath when their face is in the water. This will make the stroke much tougher. When you are swimming freestyle all exhalation should be into the water, so when you turn your head to breathe you only need to inhale. This is the secret of breathing in freestyle.

Holding your breath adds to feelings of anxiety and makes you more stressed. Instead, develop a new habit of exhaling into the water – this will relax you, just like breathing techniques in yoga.

Let the water take your weight – if you sink that’s a good thing!

Start in the shallow end and practise putting your face in the water and simply hum through your mouth or nose to create a long steady stream of bubbles. Feel like you are sighing.

As you get used to this you can develop things by crouching or sitting down to sink lower into the water. A buddy can be useful here to give you some support.

If you become so relaxed that you start to feel yourself sinking this is great thing – it shows that you are building a good degree of confidence in the water.

Keep working on this skill – the habit and technique of exhaling into the water is very important.

introducing constant exhalation to your swim stroke

We recommend that you do a few of these ‘sink downs’ at the start of every swimming session to tune in to the watery environment and release any tension. It really is enjoyable and beneficial to any level of swimmer, even those macho males who might think it’s mumbo jumbo! Try it, we’re sure you’ll enjoy it.

Once you have performed your sink-downs, try some easy laps of swimming. Swim at a slow pace and imagine you have all day to get to the other end. Your sole focus should be to make sure you are exhaling strongly whenever your head is in the water.

If you don’t normally breathe bilaterally we recommend you make the switch straight away and try breathing every 3 strokes. How do you feel? Are you more relaxed and less tense than normal? Can you now manage bilateral breathing?

drills and exhalation technique

You guessed it, whenever you are doing drills you should be exhaling constantly into the water too! It’s good practise and helps you relax so you can perform the drill better.

Do you have a drill you struggle with? Exhaling strongly into the water might just be the key to cracking it!


Most swimmers realise that breathing technique is a fundamental of the freestyle stroke. But most think about their inhalation only and forget about their exhalation. Don’t make that mistake yourself! Practise your sink downs and get focused on your exhalation. You’ll enjoy your swimming more and your stroke will benefit greatly.