How To Breathe Easier When Swimming

How To Breathe Easier When Swimming

Beginner Triathlon Swimming Tips

How to breathe easier when swimming |

Aside from wondering how to get rid of those ugly goggle marks that never seem to go away, one of the most common things that beginner triathletes are concerned about when swimming is how to breathe. And naturally, this should be a concern because unless you’re a mermaid (or merman), you probably can’t breathe under water.

Maybe you feel out of breath after just one lap in the pool. Maybe you get lightheaded or feel nauseated while swimming. Or maybe you get a big gulp of pool water instead of air whenever you turn your head for a breath. Whatever your breathing challenge may be, here are a few tricks and tips to help you breath better and easier easier during your swim.


1. Don’t Hold Your Breath

Let’s do a little experiment. Even though I just told you not to, I want you to take a minute and try holding your breath. After a few seconds, you may notice that your heart starts to beat faster, your face turns red and you feel lightheaded and anxious. Even though you are on dry land with plenty of oxygen, when you hold your breath, your body automatically goes into panic mode. Now add water to the equation and you’ve got yourself a full blown panic attack.

Many beginner triathletes hold their breath when their face is under water and then try to exhale and inhale at the same time when they turn their head out of the water. There is simply not enough time to exhale AND inhale during that split second you turn your head to breathe. Also, holding your breath under water causes more carbon dioxide to build up in your body which makes you to feel like you can’t catch your breath and that usually sends most swimmers into a panic.

The first step in establishing a breathing pattern that works for you is to exhale through your nose when your head is under water and then inhale when you turn your head out of the water. 


*Trainer Tip – Davey finds it helpful to complete his exhale as he’s turning his head out of the water. Then, he waits until his head is far enough away from the water to take in a gulp of air. This helps prevent getting a mouth full of water. 

2. Hum

When I was training for my first triathlon, I would hum when I exhaled under the water. I’ve done it ever since and I’ve found that it makes a huge difference. This simple little trick helps you control your breathing because it encourages you to exhale slowly and continuously.

How to breathe easier when swimming |

Not only will you be able to create a more steady and rhythmic breathing pattern, but for some reason, humming also has a calming effect.

Have you ever taken a yoga class where the instructor had your continuously hum the word “Om”? Well, it’s the same idea. For me, humming when I exhale helps take my mind off of how anxious or panicked I feel and it helps me concentrate on swimming strong and on maintaining a steady breathing pattern.

3. Relax & Look Back

During your open water swim, it’s inevitable that you will get water in your mouth. If this happens, DON’T PANIC! The best thing you can do is to relax. If you get water in your mouth, just spit it out and keep on swimming. One tip here is to not open your mouth so wide when breathing. You really don’t get a better breath by opening your mouth wider, so if you open it just enough to get in a good gulp of air, chances are, you probably won’t be getting as many gulps of water.

How to breathe easier when swimming |

Another tip is to look back. Instead of simply turning your head to the side when you come up for a breath, try turning your head at an angle. When I do this, I try to look over my shoulder and then my head naturally comes up for a breath at an angle. By turning your head this way, you decrease your chances of getting water in your mouth because your head comes up in the wake of your swim stroke and the water is usually less choppy there.

4. Pick A Pattern

Whether you prefer bilateral breathing (take a breath on the right, swim 3 strokes, take a breath on the left, and repeat) or your have to breathe every stroke like I do, find a breathing pattern that works for YOU. Don’t worry about what the experts recommend or what other swimmers do. Find YOUR pattern and then get in the groove and practice it!

 How to breathe easier when swimming |

Be aware that you may need to breathe more often on race day because the adrenaline rush of the swim start will probably speed up your breathing. The best thing you can do is to be flexible and just go with the flow and do whatever you need to do to breathe easy on race day. Practice different patterns and if you breathe every stroke, make sure you practice breathing on BOTH sides.

When I was training for my first triathlon, I found that  breathing every stroke worked best for me. So when I swam laps, I took a breath on the right side every time. Well, on the day of my triathlon, I realized that buoys would be on my left and I wouldn’t be able to see them if I swam how I practiced. I started the swim by breathing on my right, just like I had practiced, but about half way through, I looked up and saw that I had veered off course because I couldn’t see the buoys. So right in the middle of my swim, I had to “learn” to breath on the left. My advice to you: PRACTICE breathing on both sides!

How to breathe easier when swimming |


Breathing is something that we all have to do. It’s pretty easy to breathe when you bike and run, but it can be a bit more challenging when you swim. By using these tips, practicing your swimming a few times a week and doing a few open water swims before your triathlon, you’ll be more confident and relaxed on race day. Breathe easy and rest assured that you have trained well and you’re ready to have an AWESOME swim! So take a deep breath and dive in!

Leave a comment and tell us some of your favorite triathlon swimming tips!

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About Author

Trainer DaveyTrainer Davey is an Orange County personal trainer at heart, but has since moved to Nashville and taken on the new challenge of triathlon training. Of course, he misses his home of Surf City...but Music City ain't so bad either!View all posts by Trainer Davey →

  1. Laura @sweatingforit
    Laura @sweatingforit05-14-2013

    Really enjoying all the posts! I swam only breathing on the right side for about a year and then I started noticing more fatigue in that shoulder and switched to bilateral breathing. Took awhile to get the hang of it, but I am about to start open water swimming and I figured it would be good for that too!

    • Jess

      Thanks for the comment Laura! And awesome job taking the plunge into bilateral breathing! And you’re right, it’s good for open water swims… especially race day! And props to you for using clipless pedals on your bike! I think you’re so brave for getting back on your bike after you fell! (I’m working on overcoming my clipless pedal fear 🙂

  2. Axel

    I’m big time into humming. I hate to think of what it’s like to share a pool with me… people probably think there’s a growling bear or a motorboat in the water.

    Bi-lateral breathing is important not only to be able to avoid getting waves in the face, but to keep from getting overuse injuries in your shoulders and neck. Everyone’s got a favourite side, but if your breathing is skewed to one side too much, your muscles will develop unevenly.

    • Jess

      Hahaha! I think the same thing when I hum! 🙂 And you’re right… avoiding uneven muscles growth is a great benefit of bilateral breathing… maybe that’s why my back is crooked 🙂

  3. Liana@RunToMunch

    Great tips! I need to practice some of these next time I hit the pool!

    • Jess

      Thanks Liana!

  4. Abby @ BackAtSquareZero
    Abby @ BackAtSquareZero05-15-2013

    I have only done my first 3 swims. However, I hold my breath and only breathe on my left. So stealing your tips and practicing in my next swim workout.

    • Jess

      You go girl! Looking forward to reading how it goes!

  5. llh

    So…how does one make the switch to breathing on the other side? I feel like I’m drowning every time I try it. With a pull buoy it works okay – but as soon as it’s just me and breathing on the other side, my form falls apart, my legs drop down, I swallow mouthfuls of water and I forget to breathe….I can’t imagine trying it in open water with this much fun in the pool!

    • Jess

      You’re not alone! Breathing on my right side is so much easier than my left… and to be honest, I get out of breath way too fast when I bilateral breathe. I took a breath every stroke during my last 2 triathlons and I was just fine. Bilateral breathing is the recommendation and while it is helpful and has a bunch of benefits, I don’t think it’s worth sacrificing your form and getting out of breath for. Davey just made the plunge to bilateral breathing so stay tuned for his tips in an upcoming post…

  6. meilahnie

    Thank you for these tips. I just learned how to swim 5 days ago and I did not realize I didn’t know how to breathe. I made my chest congested and was gasping for air. As a result I was exhausted. Im not giving up and I want ti do this as I am diabetic and recently broke a bone in my left foot. I want and must exercise to get this weight off abd swimming was the least impact on my jounts but most effective. I am proud of my accomplishments to learn and do. Now I must continue to practice and get better. Your breathing tips heled me figure it out and what I’ve veen doing wrong. Thank you soooo much.

    • Jess Anderson
      Jess Anderson07-26-2014

      This is so awesome! I’m so glad our tips helped you! Getting out there and learning to swim isn’t easy and we’re so impressed and inspired by your perseverance despite having recently broken your foot! We’re proud of your accomplishment to learn and do as well and we think you’re pretty dang awesome. Way to go!

  7. Rylan

    As a competitive swimmer I find it easier to breathe every 3 strokes. You aren’t holding your breath to long and you learn to breathe on both sides. This is the way 3 different coaches have taught me and I find it works best.

  8. Janine

    Hi love reading your tips doing my first sprint triathlon in weeks time so bit nerves to compete as it’s first swim between a lot of people but I will do it with the idea of doing it for fun on the first one. Swimming I struggle with bilateral when I started so I’m forcing my self every 3rd stroke to breath left then 3 right and do Hipoxies during laps in pool to train to do both sides and to hold my breath bit longer but think I’m going to try the humming next pool swim and se if it helps when I breath out especially for the nerves during openwater swim. Thanks for the great posts and tips. Have a good one

    • Jess Anderson
      Jess Anderson03-16-2015

      Thanks for your comment Janine! I hope that humming helps you! Sounds like you’re training well for your race… you’re gonna do amazing! We’re cheering you on!

    • Trainer Davey
      Trainer Davey03-16-2015

      Hi Janine, thanks so much for your compliments!

      When I first tried bilateral breathing, it felt terribly unnatural. So I forced myself to only breathe on my left side or “bad” side or a while. Of course, the Y had to refill the pool because I drank most of the water, but soon enough it came up to speed and breathing on both sides became easy.

      I just know you’ll do great, so keep up the good work!

  9. Adriana

    The tips were great I’m going to try them now that I started swimming again.(its been a couple years since i have done it) I Used to only breath from the right side and my shoulders would hurt after i was done. I’m happy to be swimming again, and this will help improve my breathing to get me back in the pool, and not feel like I’m drowning.