Open Water Swimming Breathing Techniques

What sets apart a newbie and a seasoned triathlete is the focus on the little aspects. A completely natural and involuntary action like breathing, if not done correctly, can actually pose a serious challenge in the water.     

The technical aspect of breathing both during training and competition cannot be overlooked. Here’s what you need to know before you head out to train for open water swimming for your next triathlon:

  • Why is breath training in open water swimming important?
  • Basic breathe-in and breathe-out techniques for open water swimming
  • Different breathing patterns for open water swimming

Why Is Breath Training in Open Water Swimming Important?


Changes in the Breathing Pattern

Our breathing patterns change while we breathe in water as compared to that on the land:

  • In water, we breathe in through our mouth and breathe out from the nose, unlike the breathing pattern on land
  • Breathing out or exhalation lasts for up to two or three times longer  
  • The breathing pattern in water, if not synchronized with arm and leg movements can cause hindrance while performing butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, or front crawl.

Lack of Air


While swimming in the open water, your body constantly makes your muscles work harder with a limited amount of air available. To meet the requirements of your body, your heart and lungs work hard to supply extra air. However, when the requirement is not met, the body or the oxygen-deprived region of the body suffers from Hypoxia, which may lead to fatigue, nausea, numbness, breathlessness, slow heart rate, or hypertension and in some cases muscles inflammation and cramps.

Breathing in water is not a natural process for humans, we need to learn and adapt breathing techniques to synchronize our movements and breathing in water as wrong breathing techniques can impact:

  • balance, movement, and alignment of the body in the water
  • swimming efficiency
  • buoyancy
  • propulsion and muscular effort

Basic Breathing in & Breathing Out Techniques in Open Water Swimming


Before we begin with the pro-tips, let’s cover the basics. The two most important aspects of breathing in open water swimming are:

Keeping Your Face in the Water

If you swim with your head facing upwards in the water, your legs and hips will drop invariably, creating more drag. It leads to more resistance and increased heart rate, which means increased oxygen demand for the muscles. So, keeping your face in the water while swimming is essential to control the body movements and supply of oxygen.

Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Use comfortable goggles and a triathlon wetsuit for ease of movement and comfort
  • Focus at the bottom or stare at the black line in the center of the pool to manage your stance.
  • To manage anxiety due to submersion, take frequent rest breaks.

Synchronized Breathing

Learning how and when to breathe in sync with the movement is vital. It is imperative to begin exhaling through your nose as soon as you finish inhaling. You should do it while your face is submerged in water. The process must be rhythmic in motion without any pause. However, the frequency of your breathing depends upon your level of comfort and whether you’re racing or training, and at what intensities. Here are some quick breathing techniques:

  • Breathe with every stroke to maintain a healthy flow of oxygen while racing
  • During the training session, mix the pattern. Keep swapping sides every alternate length and breathe.
  • If you notice any difficulty in breathing at a particular side, focus on your technique to achieve balanced and symmetrical rotation.
  • Limit the movement of your head. Keep it small, fast and fluid when you turn to breathe.

Different Breathing Patterns for Open Water Swimming


Different types of swimming strokes require different breathing techniques in the open water swimming and it is important to train yourself to master these techniques for a comfortable and safe swim. Wearing a good triathlon wetsuit that aids in providing flexibility and buoyancy will also help with body position and technique.

Here are some quick suggestions:

Crawl Breathing

  • It requires the swimmer to rotate their heads to the sides while swimming, which can lead to the imbalance. They usually prefer to breathe in through the right or left side or by alternating the two.
  • To breathe, get your mouth to the surface and inhale, and exhale as soon as your head is back in the water.
  • You can choose to breathe in every stroke (unilateral) or every three strokes (bilateral) to manage fatigue and body alignment.


  • While you swim, the lower limbs remain more active and hence require more oxygen.
  • Oxygen is easy to access as your face is in the open air, so the aim here is to manage the respiratory rate.
  • Make sure you exhale and inhale completely to get more amount of oxygen in the system.
  • Inhale during the arm recovery phase and exhale at the end of the recovery phase of the other arm.

Breaststroke/Frog Stroke ‍

  • Breathe in with every movement, so the oxygen is well-supplied to all the body parts.
  • Inhale through the mouth in your in-sweep phase and exhale throughout the underwater phase.
  • Keep the inhalation brief and exhalation long and continuous. ‍

Butterfly Stroke

  • It is hard on the muscles. The aim is to sync the movement with breathing.
  • Inhale oxygen through your mouth at the end of the pull-push phase by lifting the head to see the surface of the water. Make the movement swift and return to the original position immediately.
  • Exhale when your head reaches back in the water and do it continuously via nose and mouth.

Mastering the breathing technique for triathlons is all about striking the right balance of movement and a rhythmic breathing pattern. Once you achieve this symmetry, breathing in open water swimming is a cakewalk. Just make sure you’ve got the right protective gear like goggles and a cap and the best
triathlon wetsuits
to make swimming across the waves a lot easier.

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