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Why changing your breathing number might change your speed

why changing your breathing number might change your speed

How many front crawl arm strokes should you do between breaths?

When I trained for the British Stunt Register swim test, I had to meet a target time of 1 minute 30 seconds or less for 100m front crawl. Ultimately, it was the breathing pattern that made the difference…but it’s not right for everyone.

Fitness First

Not coming from a club swimming background, achieving the target times for the stunt register swim test was quite a challenge. I had to think like a club swimmer, so I took myself to the pool six days a week and swam for two hours at a time. Fortunately, I had a couple of friends who were also training for the test and we swam together as often as possible so that we could enjoy the training and share ideas. We knew how to push ourselves and most times we swam so hard that we were almost sick. There really wasn’t much more we could give. After around five months swimming this hard and this often, my fitness had reached its peak, but I had still not achieved the target time, so I had to start looking elsewhere to make gains on my speed.

Technique Tweaks

As a swim teacher, I know the textbook theory on how a stroke should be swum, but everyone is different so swim technique isn’t a cookie-cutter process. At a British Swimming conference one year, one of the Team GB coaches explained that even at elite level, much of the technique adjustment is trial and error. Sometimes, a coach will suggest a technique “improvement” that should work in theory, but actually ends up making the swimmer slower. It is down to the swimmer to experiment and get a feel for what is going on in the water. Longer-distance swims are a great opportunity to play around with a swim stroke. Try adjusting the angle or position of the hand, try pulling a bit longer or a bit shorter, deeper or slightly shallower and see what feels right for you. See if it makes a difference to your speed and your level of comfort.

Some of the adjustments I made to my arm and leg action, as well as my head position/posture helped me to save a couple of seconds here and there, but I still had not broken the target time. Finally, I looked at how often I breathe.

Breathing Patterns Explained

When we teach kids and beginner adults to swim, the most common way to teach front crawl breathing is to turn the head to the side and breathe in on every third arm stroke. Breathing every third arm pull means you turn your head to one side, and then on the next breath, you turn the other way (bilateral breathing). This helps to keep the stroke balanced. If you always breathe to the same side, you are likely to start pulling off-centre, which is less efficient and may slow you down. Bilateral breathing in theory is the most efficient way to swim and breathing every third stroke usually compares to the rate at which you breathe when exercising, so it should feel relatively comfortable. However, turning and taking a breath does create a tiny pause or interruption to the flow of a front crawl swim. We would actually be at our fastest if we didn’t need to turn and breathe at all (and in a short-distance race, if you can hang on for the distance without turning to breathe, then you’re going to have your best shot at winning), so I wondered, if I changed my breathing pattern to do 5 or more strokes per breath, would I save any time?


I tried it out at my next training session. 100m front crawl breathing every 5th stroke. Then I rested and tried again, 100m breathing every 7th stroke. Another rest, then breathing every 9th stroke. I went all the way up until I swam the whole length on one breath (I had to pause a moment at each end to take a couple of breaths) and then I came back down bit by bit until I did 100m breathing every 5th stroke. I timed every 100m and thought about how I felt. There was no point in saving a couple of seconds if it completely exhausted me because there were other challenges to do in the stunt test and I needed to conserve my energy to manage it all. Ultimately, the fastest of all my experiments was breathing every 5th stroke and it felt the most comfortable. I felt calmer with my head still for four strokes and it felt like my arm pulls were more powerful. It actually felt like I was swimming slower, but the clock proved I was swimming faster. After just a few more training sessions sticking to my 5 stroke breathing pattern, I had finally achieved the target time for 100m front crawl.

It’s always good to share ideas in swimming and as my new 5 stroke pattern suited me so well, I was keen to tell my training buddies about it. They tried it out for themselves but ultimately decided that it didn’t suit them. One friend preferred to stick to 3 strokes and another found that he achieved the target time best by breathing every 2 strokes. On the day, we all passed the same test, we just found our own way of doing it.


Photo by Todd Quackenbush on Unsplash

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