How to Inhale and Exhale While Swimming Fast

The Art of Breathing Part II – How to Inhale & Exhale While Swimming Fast

First, I want to dispel one myth about breathing during intense exercise. In no sport does an athlete ever take a complete inhalation or expiration. The breaths during intense exercise are relatively quick and shallow, meaning that a little O2 comes in and a little CO2 goes out with each breath. It is an air exchange, not a deep breath.

The most detrimental part of breathing in swimming is likely not the associated increase in frontal drag, though that can be significant, depending on how the breath is taken, but rather the slowing of the stroke rate. Particularly in shorter races, a long, ‘star-gazing’ breath that slows the stroke rate can have disastrous consequences for both speed and inertia. To help with stroke rate and frontal drag, getting the breath quickly and with the least amount of change in body position is vital. In freestyle, that means turning the head minimally (keeping one goggle lens in the water during the breath), elevating the mouth to one side to meet the air, and rotating the head posteriorly (backward) rather than straight to the side or forward. In butterfly, it means extending the neck forward maximally for the breath, keeping the mouth close to the water, while maintaining the body in a more horizontal position. Or in cases where swimmers can’t seem to avoid lifting the shoulders too high for the front breath, breathing to the side in butterfly may be a better option.

While in land-based sports, the inhalations are immediately followed by expirations and vice versa, or, in other words, there is no ‘breath holding’, in swimming, there may be a theoretical advantage in doing so. On land, our weight does not change appreciably with each breath, but in the water it does. The weight of a swimmer ranges from zero with the lungs inflated to around 8 lbs (4kg) after a maximal expiration (there is always some residual volume of air in the lungs). The buoyancy of the human body also goes from neutral to negative after expiration. The question is, do we hold the air in our lungs for as long as possible after putting our face back in the water, then exhaling with a quick burst prior to capturing the next breath? Or, do we do as the Red Cross teachers told us to do as children, trickle the air out of our nose or mouth, prior to the next breath?

The changes in body weight and buoyancy can impact frontal drag of a swimmer, particularly while swimming on the surface. The higher the swimmer can be on the surface, the less frontal drag and the faster the swimmer can go. A swimmer is faster in salt water, where there is more buoyancy, than in fresh water. The density of water is so great that just a few millimeters of difference in body position on the surface can have a significant impact on a swimmer’s speed. So, it would seem logical that swimmers would want to keep the air in the lungs as long as possible, weigh less, be more buoyant and burst the air out of their lungs at the last moment, before turning the head for the breath.

But that is not what great swimmers do. Katie Ledecky, Sun Yang, Grant Hackett, Ian Thorpe, Michael Phelps and virtually all of the other great freestylers release some air through the nose immediately upon planting their faces back in the water after the breath. The great butterflyers of the world do the same. With the speed of their bodies moving forward, those air bubbles from the nose move underneath their bodies before finding their way to the surface. The rest of the exhalation comes just before and while the head is turning or elevating for the next breath. In that manner, the inhalation can begin immediately once the mouth reaches air, so the head can return promptly to the face down position without slowing the stroke rate.

I did not recognize the significance of those bubbles until one of my swimming colleagues at the pool in Islamorada, Florida brought the Emperor Penguins to my attention. The Emperor Penguins of the Antarctic Ocean have evolved to develop a unique way of swimming faster in order to escape the wrath of the hungry seals chasing them. Under the plumes of their feathers, they manage to trap air bubbles. When the seals are chasing the penguins for lunch, the penguins release the air from under the feathers and gain a significant amount of speed, presumably while kicking with the same amount of force with their webbed feet. By releasing the air bubbles, surrounding themselves with air instead of water, they effectively lower their frontal drag forces, which enables them to spurt forward out of harm’s way.

Could it be that the air bubbles under the swimmer’s body released after the breath do the same to a lesser degree? Perhaps. What I do know is that great swimmers usually do the right thing, whether they understand the reason for doing so or not. Releasing some air through the nose after the breath may just be another example of that. So that is what I do and recommend others do.

In the upcoming third and final article of this series, we will examine the most controversial breathing topic of all and that is how often to breathe.

Yours in swimming,

Gary Sr.

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

Read Oxygen! How Often Should I Breathe in Swimming?: The Art of Breathing Part III


20 Responses to How to Inhale and Exhale While Swimming Fast

  1. D. Nawrocki

    Is there data on surface current being a factor? How quickly or depth do surface waves play a factor in frontal drag related to head and body position during breathing. So by breathing lower and exhaling the air does this allow the current to pass over the swimmer bodyrather than hitting the swimmer right on.

    • Gary Hall Sr.

      Yes there are good studies on surface drag, but done passively ( ie a swimmer being towed through the water at the surface). The data shows that Pressure drag (form drag) plays the largest role in slowing the swimmer at a given speed. However, both surface (or wave) drag and friction played significant roles in slowing the swimmer, also. The surface drag is enough that it makes a difference when a swimmer is under water, rather than on the surface. Just think of a submarine…and we behave similarly. The greater the area of the object at the interface of the surface moving forward, the greater the surface drag. In other words, the more head sticking out above the surface, the more the surface drag.

  2. Danielle

    Dear Gary Sr.: yet another fantastic post – your explanations and questions are so clear that it seems we are learning everything together.

    Thank you from Santiago Chile.


  3. Chip Bradley

    Very helpful Gary, thanks !

  4. Dominic

    If you held air in the lungs, your frontal portion will be more buoyant but the other side of the center of floatation, in this case, the legs will be lower, creating drag. So exhale lots and maintaining a lower lung volume can be a good idea. I like the last piece but exhaling CO2 which is consistent with exhaling as much as you can when swimming.

  5. John C

    Again, so fascinating. Breathing is also coupled with cardiac output by swings in intra thoracic pressure. Negative chest pressure during inhalation increases venous return and optimizes cardiac output. If you hold your breath or delay exhalation is it possible that you might reduce cardiac output and diminish your capacity?

    Thanks again Gary

    • Gary Hall Sr.

      Interesting point. It would be interesting to know how much the cardiac output varies with different breathing patterns in events longer than a 50 m sprint.
      Another consideration is that in all sports involving high forces, such as golf or baseball, the athlete is holding the breath during the most intense coupling motions up to the point of impact, when the ball hits the club or bat. Same when a pitcher or quarterback releases the ball. The closest thing swimmers have to impact is the coupling of body rotation at the time of the underwater pull. The angular velocity of the body rotation can be improved with the holding of the breath, bearing down, rather than while breathing. Sprinters holding their breath have a definite advantage in maximizing the kinetic energy of the body rotation.

  6. Chris

    Really interesting. Not that I’m a top tier level swimmer, but I was doing my breathing this way until I was told not to. To exhale the whole time my face was in the water, and I never got used to it. I always felt like I was then ‘out of air’ before my breath came around again. Will go back to this w/o any guilt, now :)

  7. 50 Breaststroke

    Cruise ships have increased fuel efficiency (by reducing drag) by doing the same thing; releasing air bubbles along the hull. Could definitely be something to this for swimmers.

  8. LBL

    thank you so much for this advise. it helps me a lot. now i know how to do it…. thank you gary….

  9. Dan L

    Breathing out lightly to introduce bubbles may be similar to the steps used in fast V-bottom boats. In a stepped hull, there are ‘steps’ that run from left to right (port to starboard). The steps introduce air underneath the boat to reduce friction. On race boats, there may be a series of steps. The steps can also make the boat unstable at high speeds, but a swimmer isn’t going that fast.

    • Gary Hall Sr.

      I have one of those boats in my backward with a stepped hull (Fountain 38LX). It enables the boat to come up on plane much sooner. I think the result is more lift from Bernoulli effect…not friction.

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  12. Gilln Melto

    Makes a lot of sense. Very nice article. Thanks Gary

  13. Rick Madge

    Love your posts!

    Releasing air bubbles is an interesting concept. I wonder if we can release enough bubbles to have a whole body effect. More importantly it may be that the air bubbles will linger at shallow places on our body that aren’t as linear as other parts (hips, crease at the thighs, etc). The bubbles could effectively smooth out those shallows, which smooths the laminar flow that is essential for minimal drag.

    I address the role of laminar and turbulent flow in this blog post here.

  14. Maroo


  15. nicomontinola

    I read the fastest “swimmer” was an experimental Russian rocket-propelled torpedo. They release a “shield” of bubbles that cuts down drag allowing them to go hundreds of knots.


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