To Breathe Or Not To Breathe … That Is The Question

In breaststroke or backstroke, breathing in swimming is not an issue. One will take a breath each stroke, because that is the fastest way to swim those strokes. (Yes, you old-timers who still swim breaststroke sprints with your head down, it IS faster to swim breaststroke by elevating your shoulders and getting your head streamlined under water). But what about butterfly and freestyle, when are we supposed to breathe then?

Breathing in butterfly or freestyle requires either lifting the head and/or shoulders or turning the head to the side, both of which cause us to slow our speed. The reasons may be different, however.

Lifting the head in fly in the front breath always results in some elevation of the shoulders, no matter how flat one tries to remain. The best butterflyers are very good at letting their necks do the lifting and keeping their shoulders flat on the water. Nonetheless, each front breath results in some elevation of the body angle and an increase in drag. As a result, most front-breathing flyers will choose not to breathe every stroke, opting to get a bit of surge in speed when they hold their breath. In the 100 meters, breathing cycles vary from every stroke to two up, one down, to every other to down two and up once. The breathing pattern will often change on the second 50 to include more breaths.

The cost for the additional speed resulting from breath holding occurs at the end of the race. Even the most aerobically fit athletes, who hold their breath very much at the beginning of a race, will suffer some effects of an accumulation of lactic acid at the end of the 100 meters. Can one train himself or herself into an aerobically fit enough condition to avoid dying at the end of the 100 meters? Perhaps, but again depends on the body’s rate of lactic acid production and its ability to buffer it. Taking a race out too fast, for example, will result in a much faster accumulation of lactate.

Side breathing in fly, when done properly, can reduce the increased body angle, yet still accounts for some increase in drag. For some who excel at side breathing, it may be a more beneficial way of getting oxygen without slowing down as much with each breath.

Since the 1984 Olympic Games, every gold medalist in the men’s 100 fly except one, breathed every stroke (although Denis Pankratov (the only side-breather) swam most of this race under water in 1996). Pablo Morales in 1992 breathed every other stroke.

Does this mean everyone should learn to breathe every stroke in anything over a 50 fly? Not necessarily. It is less common to find a woman flyer breathe every stroke. Each person has to find the best compromise between more breathing, which usually allows for a stronger finish, and more drag. The right combination will depend on the degree of aerobic fitness, the physiology and the ability to breath and keep the shoulders down, minimizing the increased drag. Sometimes the answer will only come with experience and experimenting.

Freestyle is a different story. The breath in freestyle likely reduces speed by slowing the stroke rate, although the effect on drag is uncertain. In fact, it is the breath that creates the noticeable difference in stroke rate from one arm to the other in swimmers like Phelps, Biederman, Lezak and others; creating a pause in the cycle from the breath. The majority of world-class swimmers in the 50 meter freestyle will breath only once or twice. There are some, such as Anthony Ervin, who took no breaths, and a few, like Dara Torres, that breathe every fourth stroke. In the hundred, nearly every world class freestyler will breath every cycle (every two strokes), except the first stroke off the start and turn is usually held.

Ironically, there are some 1500 swimmers who alternate breathe; that means they breathe every third stroke, rather than every cycle. This is intriguing to me because, depending on the stroke rate, breathing every cycle in freestyle provides around 30 to 33 breaths per minute. Alternate breathing would provide only about 23 to 25 breaths per minute. Yet a world class endurance runner or bicycler will breathe typically 50 to 60 times per minute. Can it be that this reduced respiratory rate is one of the reasons why we cannot sustain more speed in swimming longer races? Perhaps.

Lately, I have been experimenting with a 2:3 pattern of breathing in freestyle. This means that one breathes to alternate sides on successive strokes, then holds one stroke and repeats the pattern again, starting on the same side one completed the last breath. With this technique, one increases the respiratory rate to about 40 to 44 breaths per minute, not as much as a runner….but getting closer. I have only seen this type of breathing pattern used sparingly by world-class swimmers, such as Kieren Perkins….and usually only going into or out of turns. I have used it twice in competition; once in a relay swim around Key West, where I had to swim for 30 minutes straight and on an 800 free relay last summer at Master’s Nationals. My feeling is that these 58 year old lungs and body enjoyed the additional oxygen, slowed stroke rate or not, especially in Key West.

Bottom line, there is not one breathing pattern in free or fly that is right for everyone. Don’t be afraid to try different patterns, both in practice and competition. Sooner or later, you will figure out what works best for you.

Gary Sr.

Watch Related Video on Breathing Patterns

40 Responses to To Breathe Or Not To Breathe … That Is The Question

  1. Laurie Redilla

    I have 2 state swimmers and currently are USA and High School swimmers. They are rezoning my childrens school sysytem and they will now be attending a school with very few swimmers. Thee kids are under privilaged and some have never even been in a pool. The rezone is to bring more diversity to the school system.

    The school would like to have a swim team but does not have the funding or the means to do so. I have two swimmer clearly devestated they are going to this school. As am I. My thought were what resources are out there to teach these children to swim and get them ready for a “team” of there own. This school would remind me of the movie PRIDE. Can you please give me some feeback on how to start funding, grants, or donations to start a program.

    Thank you

    Laurie Redilla

    • Gary Sr

      Dear Laurie,

      There are three primary ingredients to building a successful swim team; pool time, coaching and swimmers with motivation and talent. Assuming the new school will have a pool or access to one, I also believe that the new school is likely full of talented athletes….so what is really missing is good coaching. If you can find a talented coach who shares in your dream of building a great team, not only will he or she help do that, but will also be the motivator to develop the talent there. Your two children can also help recruit and inspire other students to join the team. My son, Gary Hall, Jr, winner of 10 Olympic medals, began training seriously for swimming in the 9th grade. It is not too late to start.
      For this school, the coach may need to work several jobs in order to ‘fit’ into the budget. Perhaps study hall, PE, counseling, whatever. When there is a will, there is a way. Now go find that great coach!

      Gary Sr.

  2. Craig

    Dear Gary,

    I Have read the ‘To Breathe Or Not To Breathe’ article and my problem is that on almost every 50m i do (except for a serious meet once), i slow down and feel slightly weaker when i reach roughly 35m. I am in the lead most of the time until 35m.

    I have not been swimming long comared to other people on my team; just over a year now and lack experience. I have a good start, which puts me in a good position but when i reach just inbetween the flags and halfway on the way back i feel slightly weak although i breathe twice to try and get rid of this. it’s also like the other competitors have saved energy for the second length. If i could maintain my speed for the full 50m i think my time would drop a fair amount. Could breathing be my problem? I realised that i only breathe 3 times (once the way there, twice back, only when i need to) and am afraid that if i breathe too much it will slow me down. Or could it be just that i’ve been swimming for a shorter time than others so i have less stamina? I would really like to do well in this event because it is my favourite and have a 50m relay coming up so i wouldn’t like to disappoint my team. Any advice or feedback would be extremely useful from people who know what they’re talking about!

    thanks very much,


    • Gary Sr

      Dear Craig,

      First of all, in a 50 meter sprint, in my opinion, you should breathe no more than 3 times and preferably 2, 1 or zero. Swimming a fast 50 requires a very high stroke rate and taking a breath will definitely slow the rate and you down. Finishing a 50, just like any other event requires stamina and conditioning. You cannot rely on your natural speed to finish first, even in a 50. To get your second 25 faster, build a strong base, strengthen your legs and work a lot of anaerobic sprint training. Many 50’s are won on the second half, not the first.


      Gary Sr.

  3. James Stuart

    One thing is, you know Eamon Sullivan, well the way he swam on 100m free, he swam so fast even breath EVERY four strokes. Can you explain that?

    • Gary Sr

      Dear James,

      The 100 is a very different story than the 50. Most 100 freestylers (world class) will breathe every cycle (2 strokes). Lactate begins to accumulate at around 20 seconds of all out exertion, so in the 100 breathing is essential to minimize lactate. Well conditioned athletes, such as Eamon, prefer to breathe every 4th (also Dara Torres and many others) to reach this compromise between speed and lactate. The ability to do this depends on lots of training and anaerobic training.

      Gary Sr.

  4. Jeffrey Coakley

    My son is a dual citizen USA/PHI and is on the senior PHI national team. He is currently the record holder for the Southeast Asian Games 50m free 22.62 sec. on Dec.13, 2009 at Vientiane, Laos.

    Prior to 09 he set the recrod in 07 at 22.80 at the 24th SEAG at Korat, Thailand at age 17 without any weight training or long distance swimming. Just did a lot of surfing and spear fishing and training here at home, Hawaii. Since, 07 he moved up to Florida and has been doing a lot of weight training, swimming 2 a days, dry land, running etc. but not much drop in times for the past 2 years.

    He was speaking to Mohammed Sabir at one of the grand prix meets this past year and Sabir mentioned he had trained with you guys and that he should check you guys out. He has the Asian Games coming up in November 2010 which is an important meet for him and I am seeking ways of helping him to get faster. I am a USA age group and have coached high school for the past 10 years so I don’t want to come off as some over bearing parent. Just concerned in helping him to go faster. Thanks for your relply.

    • Gary Sr

      Dear Jeffrey,

      It sounds like your son loves to sprint….and that he went from a little training to a fairly intense program….likely an aerobic based program. It is not surprising that he has not swum much faster in the 50 m free, if that is the case. If he just wants to swim 50 and 100, he would probably benefit more from being in a sprint type program, using frequent lactate sets and more racing.
      If you don’t mind a suggestion, send him down for a technique camp (long weekend, perhaps) and then send him to our training camp at the Univ of Miami in June and/or July. He can train with us for one, two or three weeks…The Race Club way (as Sabir trains) and we shall see if we can get him faster.
      At 19, 22.6 is still very fast. But if his goal is to final in London, he will need to get much faster.

      Gary Sr.

      • Jeffrey Coakley

        Yup, loves the excitement of sprinting. 50’s for sure; fly, breast etc. not so sure about the 100 but working on it. Sounds good, I will have to work out a budget of costs for training, trans, housing, food, etc. etc. and would need your help as it has to be approved and financed by PASA the NSA of Philippine Swimming. When I mentioned Race Club training they seemed up to it and interested.

        Okay where do we go from here?

        mahalo, Jeff

        • Nico Messer

          Dear Jeffrey,

          You’ll find all the pricing on the website but you can also contact Bebe Hall, Camp Director, by mail at

          Also I just wanted to let you know that periods where you have slower progressions are totally normal. Especially in the sprint events where it gets harder to improve the faster you go. But I’m positive that a camp with the Race Club would certainly help your son to get new fresh ideas and maybe the little extra for the next step.


          • Gary Sr


            It would be our pleasure to work with your son. My son, Richard, was just in the Philippines coaching a family of swimmers for 3 weeks. They responded well to our Race Club training. Please let us know if you need an official letter of invitation. Bebe or I can handle that.


            Gary Sr.

            • Mario

              So you organise swim camps outside the US? That would be nice. To send our kid to the US for a camp would cost us an arm and a leg but if we get to get you in Europe, and share the cost between say 10 swimmers how much would that cost for a 3 day camp?

              • Nico Messer

                Mario, here’s the link with the information you need. Please feel free to get in touch with us!

                • Gary Sr


                  Let us know where you are located in Europe and we can put a cost estimate together for a 3 or 4 day Race Club camp with a minimum of 10 swimmers.

                  Gary Sr.

                  • Mario

                    Thanks Gary and thanks nicholas. I will send an e-mail as indicated by nicolas’s link.

  5. Mario

    ….I wrote the e-mail.

  6. Mario

    thanks for the answer..

  7. Wil

    How does the 2:3 pattern get you more air than the every cycle pattern in a 100 free. It seems like the every cycle would be breathing more often.

  8. Gary Hall Sr.

    Dear Wil,

    I would never recommend the 2:3 pattern on a 100 free as the act of breathing slows one down, by slowing the stroke rate and likely increasing drag. However, on events longer than 200 meters, the additional oxygen one gets from that pattern of breathing may offset the negatives. Breathing every cycle is a 1:2 pattern, or one breath for every two arm strokes. The 2:3 pattern gives one 16.6% more oxygen, assuming the stroke rate remains the same. Hope this helps.


    Gary Sr.

  9. Austin

    Dear Gary,
    Does breathing every stroke of fly slow you down, or does it make you more tired? Because I see Michael Phelps and Caelab Dressel breathing every stroke on the 100 fly. I keep my neck low and my chin just on top of the water. Will it slow me down if I breathe every stroke?


    • Gary Sr.

      Hi Austin,

      The trend has been toward breathing every stroke, thanks to MP and many others…particularly on men’s side. I am a big fan, except for first stroke off the start and turn on the 100 fly. But very important to keep shoulders down, lift with the neck and use the legs throughout. Most races are won (or lost) in the last 10 meters, so oxygen helps most swimmers finish stronger.

      • Austin L

        Hi, I have one more question,
        When did Gary Hall Jr start competitivley start swimming?Was he one of those 10 year old phenomenons, or…

        If you can remember, what was his 50 meter free time when he was 14?

  10. Austin Lee

    Hi, I have one more question.

    When did Gary Hall Jr. really start competitive swimming?
    Was he one of those 10 year old phenomenons, or was he bad at first?

    • Bebe Hall

      Gary Jr. started swimming year round when he was about 14. He had a lot of talent, but knew his body well and paid attention to what it needed to train and race.

  11. Adrian

    Hi Gary,

    Do you mind sharing how does a sprint program with lactate sets look like? Is it high intensity but lots of rest (thinking 1:4 work:rest time ratio)?

    Because I find that I can do very well in 25m to 35m without breathing but beyond that, the lack of breathing (or rather build up of lactate) cripples me to too slow a stroke rate. Really want to improve my lactate threshold for that.

  12. Gary Sr.

    Hi Adrian,

    The question of taking a breath or not in the 50 depends on the swimmer. Many of the fastest swimmers in the world take no breath, while others take one breath. It depends on the physiology of the swimmer. Gary Jr always took one breath and did better at the end. Cielo, Ervin, Manadou…all take none.
    Lactate sets are all out race paced swimming at race distances with long rest (4-5 mins or less). USRP sprint sets are shorter, raced pace sets with much less rest. Hope this helps.

    • Adrian

      Hi Gary, thank you very much for your advice.
      Is it correct to say that kick is very important for 50m sprints? What kind of workout do you recommend in the pool and also strength training to improve the kicks?

  13. Austin

    Hi Gary, is USRPT better than lactate sets?

    • Gary Hall Sr.

      I believe they both are needed to coach sprinters effectively. USRP training is not new, but has just recently received a lot of attention. During the second seasonal cycle, we will train our sprinters with USRP practices, but with one or two lactate sets per week, plus one leg workout.

      Gary Sr.

  14. Austin

    Hi Gary,
    I have one more question.
    Do drag suits during practice help? or should i wear just a suit? Because when you look at videos of olmypians training, i see none wearing drag suits.

    • Gary Hall Sr.

      Most elite swimmers wear some sort of slow training suit for practice. A true drag suit with pockets to add more frontal drag are not generally used for normal repeats, as they add to much resistance.

  15. Austin Lee

    HI Gary, is it ok to breathe off the breakout in butterfly?
    If so, what is the difference?

    • Gary Hall Sr.

      In the 200 fly yes, but not in the 100 fly, as it is better to hold the breath on the first stroke.

  16. Maria

    Dear Gary I have a big meet Saturday and I’m doing a 200 but I’ve never done it before do you have any tips ?

    • Gary Hall Sr.

      I believe the approach to the 200 should be like your swimming 4 short rest 50’s. Of course, one needs to train that way for it. Psychologically, it is a much better way to approach this race.

  17. Dominic

    Hello Gary, Im a 16 years old and Ive been focusing on my 50s lately. The idea of doing a whole 50 free without breathing fascinates me and I wonder how many seconds I could shave off my 50 free since I usually breathe every 5 strokes. Plus, my time is only 28, do you think that could bring it down to 27? And Ive done it once in practice without timing myself, is it the same thing at a meet? Will it be easier or harder with the adrenaline? Thanks -Dominic

  18. Gary Hall Sr.

    Not breathing in a 50 freestyle is more mind over body. If you believe you can do it, you will. No one has passed away from holding their breath for 27 seconds…even under maximum exertion. You need to practice anaeroboic training before doing this in the meet..but it is certainly doable at the age of 16.

  19. Luca


    If I were to hold my breath during a 50 free, should I take a deep breath before the dive and try holding it? Or should I just dive without taking a deep breath before entering the water and rely on my lungs entirely?

    Also do you think holding your breath would make a swimmer swim faster, not just due to the stroke rate, but due to buoyancy? Holding your breath would allow you to float more, reducing water resistance?

    I’d like to know your thoughts.


    • Gary Hall Sr.

      Luca, please read my response on your question on our site.

  20. Gary Hall Sr.

    The last breath is actually taken on the dive while in the air before entering the water. As such, it is not a completely deep breath but gets enough air in the lungs to enable you to go 20 seconds or so without breathing. The elite athletes actually trickle air from the nose during the 50 to reduce friction on their bodies from the water. The air should be released slowly and the head should be down so the air goes under the chest.


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