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Swimming Butterfly – How to Breathe

Breathing In

While swimming butterfly, breathing is initiated by kicking a little bit harder during the second dolphin kick of the stroke cycle.

This makes your upper body rise a little bit higher above the water surface during the body undulation.

Inhaling occurs as soon as the mouth clears the water and the arms start their recovery forward.

Front view of a butterfly swimmer breathing during the arm recovery.
Look downward and slightly forward while breathing in.

To avoid straining the neck and to keep a steady rhythm, it is best to keep a neutral head position while breathing in.

Try to look downward and only a little bit forward rather than toward the wall.

Breathing Out

The exhalation starts as soon as the head moves back into the water and continues until the head and shoulders rise again above the water surface during the next breathing stroke cycle.

A butterfly stroke swimmer exhaling underwater
Exhale forcefully underwater

Breathing Frequency

Not every stroke cycle needs to be a breathing one. A common trade-off used while swimming butterfly is to alternate breathing and non-breathing stroke cycles.

This is generally considered a good trade-off between satisfying oxygen requirements and the increased effort needed to lift the trunk above the water surface.

However, depending on the ability of the swimmer to maintain good rhythm and speed during breathing stroke cycles and also depending on the length of the race, breathing stroke cycles can be added or reduced.

For example, you might breathe less often at the beginning of the race to swim faster and then breathe more often later when your body needs more oxygen.

Some experimentation might be necessary to find the optimal trade-off for each swimmer and race length.

That being said, top-level swimmers are often able to breathe every stroke cycle without losing speed.

Breathing to the Side

Some butterfly swimmers turn their head sideways to inhale.

The idea is that it allows them to keep their head closer to the water surface and less energy is used to lift the head and shoulders above the water surface.

However, by contrast, the bigger amplitude of the body wave needed to breathe the traditional way forward is not necessarily a bad thing. When the chest moves downward into the water, it transforms the vertical movement in forward momentum.

As a consequence, a bigger amplitude in the body undulation might translate into more forward momentum and increased velocity.

Furthermore, turning your head sideways to breathe increases the strain on the neck and also often disrupts the symmetry of the stroke.

Related Pages

You may also be interested in the following articles that cover the butterfly stroke’s swimming technique:


Saturday 15th of June 2019

I found your website really helpful. Very simple explanations to each stroke. Technical but look very efficient. Even better than many Youtube videos where we expect to look and copy.!


Saturday 15th of June 2019

Thanks a lot!