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.