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TL;DR: What is the thinking behind turning to breathe every stroke (i.e. every two arm pulls) in freestyle?

Isn't this wasteful, since breathing necessarily disrupts your flow?

I'm a keen swimmer, swimming 3-4 miles a week freestyle. I breathe every 3 strokes (six arm pulls) and thought this was a great idea since

  1. it doesn't disrupt my stroke to keep turning to breathe
  2. it presumably means I have decent lung capacity.

But then I see Michael Phelps and all the others breathing each and every stroke, and I can't exactly argue with them. Why?

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"since breathing necessarily disrupts your flow"

I think the amount of disruption relates to how far from perfect your form is. Since they need to breathe, they put a lot of work in perfecting their body and stroke movement so there is almost no additional body movement related to breathing. If the catch and pull are done correctly, the body is swiveling back and forth along the center-line/spine axis with every stroke cycle.

So, if they do it efficiently, there is just a minimal turn of the head and opening of the mouth. At that level, swimming as form-perfectly as they do, lactic acid build up and maximizing oxygen intake is a major consideration that trumps any very minor form imperfections that breathing brings.

They are swimming 7, 8 or more miles every DAY during peak conditioning training, so avoiding that kind of oxygen deprivation is much more important for their training than someone who does half of that in a week.

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I suspect they breathe that much because that's just how much they need to... when going all out at that pace. From what you described of your own experience, you seem to be doing more long-distance/endurance swimming, which is pretty different from sprinting.

Speaking for myself, when I do long distance, I definitely breathe less often than when I'm sprinting.

Could it be that simple? :)

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  • +1. Yeah I suspected this might be the case, though I also see good swimmers in my pool doing endurance but still breathing each stroke. I guess it makes sense to breathe more if you're going flat-out, but even then I might have thought that, with their level of fitness and lung capacity, they'd do at least a couple of strokes head-down rather than turning to breathe each time.
    – Mitya
    Aug 14, 2016 at 11:22
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    Actually, it's more important to get more oxygen for long distance races. In a sprint, you exertion is such that you're already pushing the body into anaerobic metabolism/energy use, but since the race is over quickly, building up an inordinate amount of lactic acid is something you can kind of power through, in the short terms. Over a longer course of time, aerobic vs anaerobic makes a difference on your ability to sustain those repetitive movements without your form breaking down The oxygen is more important over distance. Aug 15, 2016 at 17:10
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Trent Grimsey swam the English Channel in 6hrs 55mins (WR time) breathing every stroke (every two arm pulls). There is exceptional balance to his stroke and it doesn’t compromise his efficiency. It takes a lot of work to perfect. I have also noticed that swimmers that breathe every stroke tend to swim with a regularly irregular rhythm. I don’t understand it but it’s obviously what the science has indicated to the pros as the best method.

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  • Interesting! Thank you.
    – Mitya
    Dec 19, 2023 at 16:20
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It very much depends on the swimmer, the distance and the type of race. If you watch the 50 freestyle swimmers, they will breathe once, maybe twice in the whole race. As you get to the longer races, they will breathe less often at the beginning, more at the end.

Freestyle is unique in the strokes in that it's the only one you don't automatically get a chance to breathe on every stroke. If you are swimming an IM (All 4 strokes in a race) then by the time you get to freestyle, you are definitely in oxygen debt.

The other reason they may do this is to keep an eye on opponents in other lanes. You are taught bilateral (Both sides) breathing for this exact reason.

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  • Interesting. I've seen people (not necessarily good swimmers) in my pool doing bilateral breathing and I always thought they were wrong. I was never taught this - only unilateral.
    – Mitya
    Dec 19, 2023 at 16:21

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