The importance of freestyle breathing in triathlon

freestyle breathing

Swimming is aerobic as far as triathlon is concerned and the proper freestyle breathing technique is key to effective, efficient and panic free swimming.

In simple terms, breathing has two parts. It sucks air into the body where oxygen is extracted by the body where it helps to burn fuel and is converted into carbon dioxide in the process. After that the body expels the waste gas into the atmosphere, emptying the lungs ready for the next phase.

Aerobic performance is heavily affected by the efficiency and capacity that the body has to utilise this oxygen, and much of the training load will be focussed on increasing the body’s ability to increase how the body uses oxygen to convert fuel.

Unlike running and cycling, the act of being face down in the water adds a considerable and important complication to the act and timing of freestyle breathing, which means proper breathing technique is essential for proper performance.


We have all experienced the fear and discomfort that sets in when we can’t breath and being underwater is likely to exacerbate that feeling, especially when the body is screaming out for more oxygen to refuel tired muscles. As this feeling increases, there is a real chance of panic setting in and it is this sense of fear that either scares people off the swim or makes them give up halfway through as their body screams for more oxygen.

Being in open water, especially in a choppy sea with waves coming in from one side will add to this sense of fear and trepidation and there is a tendency to swim with your head out of the water, which will increase the drag on the body, increasing energy usage and slowing you down.


Even if you aren’t reaching panic stations, there is a tendency to allow your breathing to dictate your rhythm, such that one arm is used less efficiently than the other, reducing your power output and potentially risking serious overuse injury to your neck and shoulder.

How to avoid panicking in the water – Breathe out!

Knowledge is a powerful thing, and understanding what causes panic is key to reducing its effects and training more effective breathing techniques. Firstly, the panic feeling is caused by a feeling of pressure in your lungs which tells your body that you need to breathe, and the longer this goes on, the higher the intensity of the feeling.

However, this is really important. This is not your body telling you that you need more oxygen, it is your body telling you that it is full of carbon dioxide. It’s not your body saying breath IN, it’s your body telling you it needs to breathe OUT!

Why is this important? Simple, the key step is to realise that your body’s ability to take on oxygen is heavily affected by how empty your lungs are before you breathe in, and, as we tend to hold our breaths instinctively underwater, we are just making this more difficult for ourselves as we try and breath in and out in that fraction of a second that our mouths stick out of the water on each stroke.

By training yourself to breath out consistently when the head is underwater, we can overcome the panic caused by holding our breath and ensure that our lungs have the maximum capacity to suck in air.

In terms of timing, you will feel more comfortable that the in breath can be short and sharp, and therefore focus on the timing of your stroke dictating when you breathe, keeping your head underwater longer, and reducing the tendency for one arm to drop when taking a breath.

Bilateral freestyle breathing.

Most swimmers have a preference for breathing on one side and build a rhythm or one breath per stroke. In open water and endurance, this isn’t efficient. You spend more time with your head out of the water and run the risk of not being able to breathe comfortably if waves are coming in from your favoured side.

Triathletes tend to favour bilateral freestyle breathing which calls for alternate breathing ( left one the first stroke, right on the half stroke after), which alters your timing, but lets you spend more time underwater. In any event, you should spend some of your training breathing on the other side, as this will stop you putting too much work through one side, let you avoid injury and help you cope in rougher water.