Andrew Potter and Tim George explain why exhalation is the secret to a successful and speedy swim, whether in training or on race day.

swim pool

Breathing is the biggest challenge for triathletes and newer swimmers, because it can severely affect your balance in the water and cause you to develop stroke mechanic issues. We look at how to improve your breathing, focusing specifically on the exhalation element.

Swimmers are often obsessed by the need to breathe in when in fact the focus should be on breathing out. Improving your exhale efficiency will improve relaxation and balance by eliminating the need to spend precious air-time finishing the exhale therefore over-extending the time the head is above water.

Follow our guide below to improve your breathing technique.

1 Engage your diaphragm

The exhale is best controlled from the diaphragm as the rate can be controlled, just as you might when you’re out of the water and relaxed.

It should not feel like you are blowing out a candle or blowing your nose!

2 Use your nose

It’s up to you whether you exhale through your nose, mouth or both, but you will see most strong swimmers predominately using their nose.

As soon as your face returns to the water after breathing in, your exhale should start and continue to the point where the head turns again for air. This is known as trickle breathing.

3 Don’t hold your breath

The rate of your exhale can be steady or increasing, but at no point should there be a pause or your breath held. Any holding of your breath can severely impact on technique as it causes a build-up of carbon dioxide and therefore lactic acid in the muscles. This will ultimately force you to stop to recover.

4 Avoid explosive exhalation

Another problem with holding your breath is that your exhalation will be more explosive. This is fine for a sprint of 100m, but is no use for triathlon. Over any usual triathlon distance, this will result in you wanting more airtime, resulting in you lifting your head to breathe (at Clapham Chasers, we call this “checking the weather”). This leads to your hips sinking or your arm stroke becoming a grab, which is neither efficient, nor fast. Try humming as you exhale to keep your breathing steady.

5 Top up technique

When you breathe out, it can be a good idea to leave some air in your lungs, avoiding breathing out fully. This sounds counter-intuitive, when in fact the air left behind will support your upper body.

Plus it will give you the flexibility to deal with a poor inhalation, by enabling you to go through another two strokes before breathing in again if you have to.

How can I practise?

We incorporate breathing pattern variations within our swim sets, which trains strong, steady exhalation. This has the additional benefit of helping your body deal with lactic acid build-up.

Try these breathing pattern variations:

8x 25m steady pace breathing every 3, 5, 7, and 9 strokes. Repeat twice As you become more advanced, you should be able to easily exhale steadily for 25m without taking a breath.