Oxygen! How Often Should I Breathe in Swimming?

The Art of Breathing in Swimming Part III

In part II of this series, we discussed where and how to breathe in freestyle and butterfly, but the question that remains is ‘how often should we breathe in swimming’? In the first article we established that, for the most part, swimmers train hypoxically. In other words, they don’t breathe quite as often as they would if they could breathe at will. Further, we know that depriving swimmers of oxygen by training at altitude significantly improves all of the aerobic systems involved in the production of ATP. While training hypoxically may make sense for most swimmers, racing hypoxically in any event other than a 50-meter sprint does not. After about 20 seconds of near maximal exertion, we must rely on both aerobic and anaerobic systems of energy production to keep going. Bring on the oxygen!

Since the respiratory rate that seems to work most efficiently on land during maximal exercise is 50-60 breaths per minute, we must assume that the ideal respiratory rate for a swimmer racing should be similar. In freestyle, if we consider that breathing every cycle (every other stroke) is the most often we can breathe, then a stroke rate of at least 100 is needed to achieve that respiratory rate. In shoulder-driven freestyle, that is often the stroke rate we see among elite swimmers in the 100 freestyle. The hybrid freestylers, such as Phelps, Lochte or Lezak, may drop down to the mid 80’s, leading to a respiratory rate lower than the ideal.

In the 1500 meter freestyle, particularly on the men’s side, we find an interesting variety of freestyle techniques with substantially different stroke and respiratory rates. World record holder Sun Yang uses a hip-driven technique with a stroke rate of 60 for most of the race. If he used a conventional one-breath per cycle breathing pattern and without considering the turns, that would mean a very low respiratory rate of 30 per minute, but he doesn’t. In the middle of most laps and going into and out of each turn, Sun Yang takes a breath to each side in succession, breathing three or even four strokes in a row. Those extra three or four breaths per length likely have a huge impact on his ability to sustain his speed and finish faster than any other swimmer in the race.

Comparing Sun Yang’s breaths in the 1500 to Ryan Cochrane from Canada, who uses a shoulder driven freestyle technique with a stroke rate of 86, here is what we find. Ryan breathes every third stroke for the first 800 meters or so, then switches to every cycle for the final 700 meters. So for approximately half of the race, Ryan’s respiratory rate is around 28 and for the other half it is 43. If we consider the race to be 15 minutes of duration, that means that Ryan would be getting around 532 breaths. With four extra breaths per length, Sun Yang would be getting around 570 breaths, even with a stroke rate of 60 compared to Ryan’s 86.

Connor Jaeger and Katie Ledecky both swim the 1500 with a hybrid technique and a similar stroke rate of around 86, breathing every cycle. Over 15 minutes of sustained swimming at this rate, they each would have around 645 breaths, more than Sun Yang or Ryan Cochrane.

I am not sure what conclusion we can draw from this, except that both Sun Yang and Ryan Cochrane modify their traditional breathing patterns in order to get more oxygen delivery. Perhaps in the future, we will see more swimmers modify their breathing patterns to get more oxygen delivery by breathing to both sides or abandoning the 1:3 pattern of breathing like Ryan begins the race with.

In the butterfly, there is a growing trend, particularly on the men’s side, toward breathing every stroke for both the 100 and 200 meter events. In the 100 meters, with stroke rates typically in the mid 50’s, that would be very close to the ideal respiratory rate. In the 200, with stroke rates usually in the mid to high 40’s, the respiratory rate breathing every stroke is less than ideal, but not far from it. However, if one breathes every other stroke in fly, in either event, the respiratory rate drops down into the 20’s, which is far from ideal.

It is no wonder that the fastest finishers in the fly are typically the swimmers breathing every stroke. The key points to breathing more are to practice the breathing pattern to be used in races often, develop the ability to get the breath quickly and with the least amount of disruption to the stroke cycle or increase in frontal drag, and to use the kinetic energy of the head drop or head turn as a coupling motion to augment the propulsive forces of the hands and feet. The last point is really what I call ‘using your head’.

Remember, oxygen is the most important nutrient we have, so I say, ‘Let’s get more of it, not less’. Besides that, it is lot more fun to pass people at the end of a race, rather than being the one who is passed.

Yours in swimming,

Gary Sr.

Read How Oxygen Affects Our Bodies in a Swim Race: The Art of Breathing in Swimming Part I 

Read How to Inhale and Exhale While Swimming Fast: The Art of Breathing in Swimming Part II

27 Responses to Oxygen! How Often Should I Breathe in Swimming?

  1. Pingback: How Oxygen Affects Our Bodies in a Swim Race - The Race Club | The Race Club

  2. Marcia Hill

    Thanks Gary for these very helpful articles on breathing which I have never developed a good pattern for. Sometimes I try this, sometimes that. For this nationals I’m going to go for more oxygen!

  3. Mark Pender

    Hi Gary. I have borderline blood pressures issues and, having read somewhere that lack of oxygen (specifically at high altitudes in the case study I read) makes for thicker blood and with it higher blood pressure for some, I’m wondering if the backstroke is really the stroke I should be concentrating on. I also have a related question on the freestyle. After reading your recent comments on oxygen issues I’ve been concentrating on, not slowing the stroke for breath, but in taking in greater volumes of air with each breath (which makes for big inhalation sounds and is no doubt annoying for the poor lifeguards).

    • garyhallsr

      Don’t try to take too deep of inhalation with each breath. It is better just to take more breaths, but make them quick air exchanges, not full breaths.

  4. Morten

    Thanks for the insights and interesting analysis.
    Do you have an opinion on hypoxic training like breathing after every 3, 5, 7 and 9 stroke – should it be a part of the daily rutine?

    • garyhallsr

      Hypoxic training such as altitude training has been shown to benefit the development of aerobic energy systems. However, breath holding sets, such as those you mentioned, have not yet demonstrated the same benefits (that I am aware of). Not sure why that is, as it would seem to do the same. Nonetheless, these sets are done commonly in practices (I believe). I do believe that high speed sprint sets should be practiced hypoxically….as that is the way we race them.

  5. Betsy Lane, USMS Coach

    Thanks for all of your posts, Gary,but especially for this one, which answers so many common questions asked by adult swimmers! :-)

  6. James Thrasher

    Gary I am a endocrinologist who is a competitive Master swimmer. I would first like to let you know that the best thing you could have done for your son was to get him to and peters. I know her very well and absurd on many boards with her. She is an excellent endocrinologist and diabetologist and she led him in the right direction to allow him to accomplish his dream. As for me I have been diagnosed with exercised induced asthma. I found it difficult training and could not catch my breath between sets. My asthma medicines did not help. I was referred to the male clinic and was diagnosed with paradoxical vocal cord dysfunction. Basically my vocal chords open wide when I breathe out and when I breathe in they close. The flow through my windipe is reduced by the power of 4 inversely to the radius of the opening between my vocal chords. I have struggled with this for over a year until I was properly diagnosed. Now I am starting speech pathology sessions. Trying to learn to read with the relaxed lyrics and more from my diaphragm. This is something totally new. Do you know of anyone that has paradoxical vocal cord dysfunction or are you aware of any other things I could do that would get me back up to the level of competitiveness prior to this disorder worsening? I am trying to build up my endurance but I am not sure that my breathing pattern is still not making the problem worse. Thank you very much. James

    • James Thrasher

      Sorry about the spelling. I have served on many board with Anne Peters. And also it should have said that I
      trying to breathe with a relaxed larynx and from my diaphragm. Any suggestions or any other swimmers with paradoxical vocal cord dysfunction?

      • garyhallsr


        You may want to consult with our strength training specialist, Brian McKenzie, who uses a training mask to help develop core and breathing ability. Though your dysfunction is doing what the training mask does (restricting inflow and outflow), it may be that this device can help prepare you better for these paroxysmal attacks. Let us know and we can set it up for you.

        • garyhallsr

          Sorry, it sounds like only the inflow of air is being restricted and that it occurs with each breath. Not sure if the mask will help, but may be worth a try.

  7. Ryan Crouch

    Hi Gary,

    Great post as I find hypoxia training very beneficial for sprint freestyle!

    Slightly off topic … I am a disability swimming with Cerebral Palsy & suffer with a fatigued leg kick slightly, towards the end of my 50 Freestyle.

    This morning I swam my best ever dive 25 meter split in a longcourse pool at Para Swimming Trials.
    The time was 11.72 seconds, & I wondered what you consider that split would give an able bodied swimmer for a 50 Freestyle time?

    Kind Regards,
    Ryan Crouch

    • Gary Hall Sr.

      At the elite level, you add about 1.5 seconds for the second 25 meters, since you are going from foot touch to hand touch without a dive. However, most swimmers would slow more, such as 2 seconds. If you could touch at 12 seconds to your feet with a good flip turn, you would expect to do around 26 seconds. Hope this helps.

  8. Frank Jacobs

    If breathing every two strokes is optimal for freestyle races 100 or longer, is that the breathing pattern that we should use in practice?

    A lot of us have been taught to breathe every three strokes in practice to avoid getting asymmetrical aspects of our stroke. Would you agree? Or, would you instead tell us to breathe every two in practice, but make sure we practice (and do drills) to ensure correct breathing to help avoid becoming assymetrical?

    • Gary Hall Sr.

      There are many coaches that advocate breathing to both sides, either for balance or to avoid shoulder injury to one side. If the biomechanics of the pull are good, then one should not be concerned with injuring the shoulder by breathing to one side only. Speaking purely from a physiological standpoint, I don’t like the 1:3 pattern of breathing (every three strokes), so if you (or your coach) insist on breathing to both sides, then breath 2 or 3 times to one side, then switch to 2 or 3 times to the other. In that way you will get more oxygen.

  9. Frank Jacobs

    Great, thank you. And thanks for this great article series on breathing. I have always wondered why the elites breathe differently than I was taught. It makes sense now!

  10. Darren Hungness

    Gary, I read with great interest this series on breathing-then I read the comments and see that James has the same affliction that I was going to ask you about. My daughter has been diagnosed with vocal cord dysfunction as well. She’s an age grouper and this has really knocked her back. We are seeing a speech pathologist and sport psychologist to help figure it out. I was wondering if you have had experience with VCD? Thanks!

    • Gary Hall Sr.

      Hi Darren. I have no experience with VCD at all and wish I could offer another suggestion in addition to the one above. It will certainly affect (adversely) your daughter’s ability to compete in any event over 50 yards or meters….and even that one when she is young.

    • Joni Fleming

      Hi Darren,
      I just happened to come across your comment about VCD. I was never an elite swimmer or anything like that, but I did swim from age 4 through college and have coached at various levels. I struggled with VCD throughout my high school career but was able to overcome it with speech therapy. You are definitely doing the right things by getting her in to see the speech pathologist and the sports psychologist. I can’t emphasize enough how important the mental aspect of VCD is (at least in my experience) to be able to work through it. In my personal experience. It was helpful to breathe every three strokes, and as Gary said, I was limited to the 50 and the 100 for awhile while I tried to get things under control. I heavily suggest that your daughter try her best to find a breathing pattern that works for her and stick to it in both practice and races and know and trust that the breathing pattern will allow her to get the oxygen she needs, allowing her to keep calm. Please let me know if I can help in any way. I know this post is older, but if you’re still struggling please let me know.

  11. George Wendt

    Gary–I have learned that I can swim faster, especially in distance and middle-distance races, by breathing every stroke in freestyle. I don’t know of any other swimmer who does this continuously. Even though I’ve broken world masters records in my 60s with this breathing pattern, I don’t recommend it for others because it may not work for them. Needless to say, breathing every stroke affects how long a swimmer has to inhale and exhale. For me, this approach makes me less winded. Others tell me it just makes them dizzy. I also wonder whether this approach affects the amount of oxygen in the lungs and whether that in turn affects buoyancy. I would appreciate your thoughts on these topics.


    George Wendt

    • Gary Hall Sr.

      George, I am a big fan of oxygen. Our aerobic system is not nearly as strong as a younger, well trained swimmer. So we must feed it as much oxygen as possible to avoid building up too much lactate (anaerobic system). A runner or cycler at max effort is breathing between 50-60 times per minute..so the closer we can get to that..the better. Most masters swimmers use a stroke rate of around 60 for distance races, so if you are breathing every stroke, you are right on target. I personally use a 3/4 pattern…3 breaths in a row and hold one. I don’t find I get dizzy at all doing that.

  12. George Wendt

    Thanks, Gary.

    Any thought on whether this approach affects the amount of oxygen in the lungs and whether that in turn affects buoyancy?

    • garyhallsr

      Releasing air from the lungs, no matter how quickly the breath is taken, will always affect (reduce) buoyancy. However, the advantages of keeping the aerobic system going and the bubbles released from the nose that go under the body may offset the loss of buoyancy in every event but the 50. The more breaths taken (up to the limit) will simply help the aerobic system supply more of the energy needs (ATP).

  13. Pete Colella

    Gary, this is very insightful and is going to change some of my fundamental beliefs about breathing. One thing I would like to get your opinion on would be breathing in and out of turns. It seems based on this that breathing the first stoke off of a turn might not be as bad as we generally believe especially the longer that a swimmer travels away from the wall. My opinion, especially with younger swimmers is that breath on the first stroke doesn’t allow the body to completely level off and steals inertia. Any feedback from you on this subject would be appreciated.

    • garyhallsr

      Taking a breath on the first stroke out of the breakout will always result in some additional slowing due to the increase of frontal drag from lifting the head. However, beyond a 100 meters, virtually every elite swimmer breathes on the first stroke…and particularly so on the longer underwater breakouts. The intake of oxygen and release of carbon dioxide on the longer events takes precedence over the drag reduction. On the sprint or 100, it does not.

  14. Casey

    Hi Mr. Hall, I’m a 7th grade swimmer & really like watching your Race Club Swimisodes and I was wondering if you could help me with a science fair project I’m working on involving swimming and breathing.My hypothesis is “For long distance events, if breathing rate is increased, then the swimmer will swim faster”.
    I came up with this idea while watching Katie Ledecky swim her 800 and she was breathing every stroke. I was taught to breathe every 3rd stroke. So I started thinking maybe breathing every stroke helps swimmers swim faster in long distance events. Maybe if you breath every stroke you get more oxygen to your muscles and you can swim harder for longer. But I also know taking a breath takes more time than taking a stroke with no breath. It can also mess up your form. So I’m trying to figure out which is faster for my experiment(and for my swim time too!).
    I was wondering if you have any more information about this subject. Do you know of any data that I can reference or other resources I could read on this subject? Thank you for any help or information you may have!

    • Gary Hall Sr.

      Hi Casey! According to Dr. David Costill, world renowned exercise physiologist from Ball State University, an athlete on land will breath 40 to 50 times per minute with maximal exercise.
      Katie Ledecky’s stroke rate was near 90 strokes per minute, which means she was getting 45 breaths per minute, breathing every cycle. If she were breathing every 3rd stroke, she would be getting only 30 breaths per minute…not nearly enough for max effort!


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