Front Crawl Breathing

Last Updated on August 1st, 2023

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Not being able to breathe all the time is a common fear for beginner swimmers, with the head being in the water and splashing, making droplets that might make you choke when you breathe in.

Experienced swimmers can breathe confidently but may not be doing so properly, making their times worse.


How to Properly Breathe in the Front Crawl?

Breathing properly while doing the front crawl involves the roll phase of the stroke as one of the arms glides up the trunk of the body from the thigh and a trough in the water forms.

This window of air and time is when a breath should be taken by rotating the head slightly and rolling the shoulders to free the mouth from the waterline.

As the arm leaves recovery at the end of the rolling phase, the head returns to its original, neutral position in the water to minimize drag’s effect on the swimmer.

Which side you breathe on ultimately comes down to personal preference, and if you choose to alternate breathing sides, there isn’t much harm.

The biggest mistake you can make when breathing during the front crawl is to lift the head out of the water, forcing your legs and hips to sink. This will completely ruin your streamlined profile and drastically increase the effect of drag.


How Often Should You Breathe During the Front Crawl?

How frequently you breathe during the front crawl is mostly a preference that differs between individuals.

Professionals with higher stamina levels and hundreds of hours of training may find it easy to breathe every four-stroke cycle or more when they begin a lap. 

However, as their energy is depleted and lactic acid builds in the muscles causing fatigue, even these experienced swimmers will opt to breathe every stroke to keep up with their bodies’ oxygen demands.

If you feel that you need or just want to breathe every stroke from the beginning, there is nothing wrong with that, and you may end up producing a smoother, more consistent swim stroke.


Should the Front Crawl Alternate Breathing Sides?

Alternating breathing sides is known as a bilateral breathing pattern, while breathing on the same side every time is called unilateral breathing. There are merits and drawbacks to both breathing patterns that are worth knowing.


Unilateral Breathing

Because swimmers using the unilateral breathing pattern inhale on every other stroke of the arms (in other words, during every two cycles), there is plenty of oxygen supplied to the muscles. This makes it very effective over short distances and quick races.

The movement involving rolling of the shoulders and rotation of the head is usually very practiced since breathing only occurs on one side. This can lead to better times because the head performs the breath and quickly returns to its streamlined position.

However, unilateral breathing users often suffer from repetitive strain injuries in the neck because of how often they perform this motion. 

Not only that, if someone is constantly kicking up water in a swimmer’s face on the side that they breathe, they cannot get a good breath in, if they can breathe at all, without the risk of water entering the lungs.

Another relatively minor issue with unilateral breathing is that you often start to swim lopsided in favor of heading in the direction you are breathing. 

The effect usually isn’t very pronounced, but it isn’t ideal because you want to swim the shortest distance possible in your lane during a race instead of crisscrossing all over the place, making you swim further than your competitors.


Bilateral Breathing

Bilateral breathing is a symmetrical pattern that improves balance in the water by forcing you to breathe on alternating sides with every third or fifth arm stroke.

By breathing on both sides of the body, bilateral breathing eliminates many of the concerns that unilateral breathing raises.

It is unlikely to have splashy swimmers on both sides of you allowing you to breathe, rotations of the head are varied to prevent strain, and you correct any lopsided swimming quickly by breathing on the other side.

Although all these issues are solved with bilateral breathing, new problems arise. Because the head rotations to either side are half as practiced as unilateral breathing. Inefficient movements of the head may increase drag slightly, negatively affecting time.

Some claim that any breaths taken during bilateral breathing are not as full as any unilateral breath, which means less oxygen for the muscles and a quicker deterioration of energy.


Tips for Improving Breathing During Front Crawl

There are two main tips for improving your breathing while doing the front crawl:


Don’t Lift Your Head

By lifting the head, you cause the legs and hips to sink, which is bad for remaining horizontal and streamlined. Trying to lift your head to breathe also strains the neck, which can lead to debilitating health conditions later in life.


Don’t Hold Your Breath

Holding your breath whenever you are not in the water is unnatural and unhealthy, so holding your breath while in or underwater makes little sense. By continuously exhaling, your body becomes more relaxed in this natural state.

There often isn’t enough time when you’re swimming to inhale and exhale everything that you need during the small window of time you have at the end of a stroke cycle, so breathing out while you can’t breathe in anyways is healthy. 

Focus only on inhaling through the mouth when doing the front crawl and exhale while your face is in the water.

If you don’t exhale while you swim, you put undue stress on your cardiovascular system by increasing your blood pressure. The negative consequences of doing this for many years cannot be understated.


Final Thoughts on Front Crawl Breathing

Breathing during the front crawl largely comes down to personal preference, although there are benefits and downsides to the most common breathing patterns utilized by all levels of swimmers. 

By using trial and error, you can identify the best breathing pattern and frequency for you and the stage in your swimming journey.