Freestyle / Front Crawl Stroke: Breathing Technique and Tips

In the front crawl stroke, breathing is a technique by itself that can take some time to master. This is because the head is submerged for the most part of the stroke cycle, which can be stressful for beginners. Additionally, to breathe in you need to roll your body and coordinate the inhalation with the arm movements, which requires practice.

Front Crawl Breathing - Beginning of the Inhalation

The inhalation starts as soon as the mouth clears the water.
The head rests on the water surface.

How To Breathe in the Front Crawl Stroke

Let's now have an overview of the breathing technique used in the front crawl stroke:

  • During an arm recovery with breathing, you roll more on your side than during an arm recovery without breathing. This allows your face and mouth to clear the water and so you can inhale.
  • The inhalation starts at the end of the upsweep (i.e. while your hand moves from below the chest toward the hip during the propulsive phase of the arm stroke), as soon as your mouth clears the water, and continues for the first half of the arm recovery on the breathing side.
  • The second phase of the recovery lasts from the moment your recovering hand passes the head to the moment it is fully extended forward underwater. During this phase the shoulder and hence the body on the recovering side will roll downward while the other side will move upward. Your head will simply follow along and your face will turn downward.
  • As a consequence you should start to exhale as soon as the face turns downward again. This prevents water entering into your mouth and nose. You should then exhale slowly and continuously until the next arm recovery with breathing.
  • You should forcefully expel the remaining air from your lungs while rolling on your side to breathe so that you can inhale fresh air as soon as your mouth clears the water.
Front Crawl Breathing - Beginning of the Exhalation

The exhalation starts as soon as the head rolls back down and continues for the rest of the stroke cycle.

Unilateral and Bilateral Breathing

The most common breathing patterns in the freestyle stroke are unilateral breathing and bilateral breathing.

Unilateral breathing: In unilateral breathing you breathe in every other arm stroke. This means you always breathe in on the same side. This gives you plenty of oxygen and is especially useful in short distance races. Your swim stroke can become lopsided however if this is the only breathing pattern you use while training.

Bilateral breathing: In bilateral breathing you breathe in every third arm stroke. This means you alternate your breathing side. This pattern is more symmetrical and gives you better balance as it forces you to become used to breathe in on both sides. This pattern is commonly used by long distance and fitness swimmers.

Once you have mastered these two breathing patterns you will have no problem using other patterns as needed. For example you can breathe in every fourth or every fifth stroke. Or you can breathe in ten times on the left side, then ten times on the right side, and so on. Or you can change your breathing side with each pool length.

Breathing Tips

Here are some additional breathing tips for the front crawl stroke:

  • It is important to not hold your breath but to exhale continuously while your face is turned downward in the water. This allows you to be more relaxed.
  • Furthermore, there isn't enough time to both inhale and exhale while you are on your side and your mouth is clearing the water. As a consequence you must exhale all the air in the water before the mouth clears the water.
  • Another problem with holding your breath while swimming is that it increases the pressure in your lungs and in your cardiovascular system. It seems that this can be detrimental for your heart if done over the course of many years.
  • Personally I begin by exhaling through both the nose and the mouth. This allows me to expel any water that might have gotten in during the inhalation. Once I have expelled all the water from my mouth, I close it and exhale for the rest of the stroke cycle through the nose.
  • Beginners often lift their head first then roll on their side to breathe in. However this causes their hips and legs to drop and should be avoided. By contrast, if you observe experienced swimmers, you'll notice that when they breathe in it looks as if their head rests on the side on the water surface. They don't lift their head to breathe in.
  • Additionally, don't anticipate the rotation of your body with your head. Roll your body as a unit and let your head follow along. Just rotate your head a little bit further at the end of the roll so that your mouth can clear the water.
  • In my opinion it is important to be able to breathe on both sides, so that you can adapt to any situation you might encounter. For example, in a triathlon event you might be stuck with a competitor splashing water with his feet right into your face. If you can only breathe in on that side you have a problem.
  • As explained above, always inhaling on the same side can make your stroke asymmetrical. This in turn makes you less efficient and can also lead to swimming injuries, for example swimmer's shoulder. So it really is important to learn breathing on both sides.
  • Finally, you can experiment with a nose clip to keep water out of your nose. This way you only have to avoid getting water in your mouth. Once you have internalized the coordination between breathing, arm movements and body roll you will be able to progressively get rid of the nose clip.

Learning How to Breathe in the Front Crawl Stroke

We have some basic breathing and swimming drills to learn how breathe in the freestyle stroke. As an alternative you can also follow our sequence of swimming drills to learn how to swim freestyle. If you practice those in the suggested order you will integrate breathing into your stroke naturally.

Good luck!

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