Many swimmers struggle with side breathing when learning front crawl and here’s why. As you swim forwards, your face is submerged, then veering sideways, grabbing a monstrous breath before throwing your lead arm forwards and back into the water. That’s a lot of stuff happening all at once and all within a few seconds. One misstep in this sequence and you’re gulping pool water: game over.
If you’re having trouble connecting the dots with side breathing you are not alone. I was in the same position where you stand now and have learned from my past mistakes. Perfecting the side breath takes thousands of attempts and a lot of repetition. Luckily, you are in the right place. This article will show you how to perform a proper side breath with a series of simple progressions that have brought me and my students success over the years.
What NOT to Do
Here are three side breathing mistakes that I’ve made in the past and often see in other swimmers:
Do Not Hold Your Breath
Before I learned how to swim (and more importantly how to side breathe), I naively held my breath whenever I performed front crawl. Holding your breath in general will stunt your progress. It may look cool to see swimmers swim on (or just below) the water’s surface not coming up for air, but it’s a circus trick in my opinion.
Swimming without a constant breathing pattern will only get you a lap or two’s worth of distance before hypoxia (a condition where not enough oxygen is entering your body) steps in. We don’t hold our breath as we do dryland exercises and the same applies with swimming. If you want to be taken seriously as a swimmer, don’t hold your breath!
Do Not Look Forwards
The second all too common mistake I see are swimmers looking forwards as they take a breath. Looking forwards involves raising our head above the water’s surface throwing our body off balance.
Imagine a speedboat gracefully zipping across the ocean’s surface. Now imagine that same speedboat rising up 45 degrees and back down every few seconds. Obviously this angle fluctuation at this speed makes our front crawl ineffective and will require a lot more energy in order to keep up.
Do Not Tilt Your Head
The third and final mistake that every swimmer makes is trying to side breathe when in fact they are not. Tilting your head sideways while coming up for air is NOT side breathing. To the untrained eye, it may look like side breathing, but there are two reasons why we do not tilt our head.
Firstly, constantly tilting your head sideways involves using your neck and trapezius muscles which is unnecessary when performing front crawl. You may not feel it at first, but after doing hundreds of laps requiring thousands of side breaths, the pain emanating from your neck becomes noticeable. This method will however give you a good neck workout if that is your wish.
The second reason we don’t tilt our heads is because it restricts our airway. Stand up and run while taking giant breaths. Now do the same thing while tilting your head sideways every three or four steps. Notice a difference?
In swimming we want the most efficient breath possible with minimal effort. Cranking your neck to the sides ultimately defeats this purpose like the bending of a garden hose eventually blocking water from passing through. Now that we’re clear on what not to do when side breathing, let’s focus on what really works.
Staying Aligned, Staying Aligned
Keeping our bodies horizontally aligned with the water’s surface is key towards a good side breath. The reason why we teach floats to kids in their first swimming lesson is because it not only helps them to relax, but to also spread their bodyweight evenly along the surface. A boat floats best when it is horizontal to the ocean’s surface, but place it vertical and you’ve got the Titanic.
Spend enough time doing backfloats and you start to develop a sixth sense of water balance and where every part of your body is located relative to the surface. Note, if you’re not good at performing backfloats it’s probably due to your buoyancy versus your technique. To alleviate this, try practicing with a floatation belt.
Now do the same backfloat but this time take your right arm out of the water and hold it straight above you. Spoiler alert: your body starts to sink. Try again but this time lower your right arm straight down into the water. Spoiler warning: your body starts to sink. One last time, raise your head out of the water and try looking at your toes. No spoilers here: your body starts to sink.
Hopefully, you can now start to see how important body alignment is when it comes to swimming. In front crawl, we want our arms out of the water in the shortest amount of time possible or else, our bodies start to sink. When we front kick, we want our legs close to (and not far below) the surface or else, our bodies start to sink. Finally when we side breathe (just like a backfloat), we want our heads resting on the surface or else (you guessed it) our bodies start to sink. Now the real work begins.
Dividing Your Face In Half
In order to maintain alignment and properly position our head sideways we need to divide our face in half. I know it sounds scary at first but with enough practice, you’ll be unlocking a totally new breathing technique.
First off, wear goggles and a swim cap. Goggles to keep your eyes safe from the water and a swim cap to keep your hair nice and tucked away (Note: swim caps do NOT keep your hair dry unbeknownst to many). I know this sounds elementary but I’ve seen many people swim without both items so please get some proper gear before attempting these exercises.
Progression 1: Leaning Squats
Head on down to the shallow end of a pool (preferably facing a ledge so no one can see you) in order to practice this first exercise. In a wide squatting stance, hands resting on your knees, lower yourself into the water until you are neck deep. Starting from your hips, lean your upper body to the left. Raise your right shoulder out of the water and rest your head along the surface; left ear submerged, neck straight and relaxed. Here is where things start to become interesting.
Sink your left eye (or goggle lens) into the water with your mouth wide open. You’ll notice your left nostril being submerged (whatever you do, relax and don’t snort!) and your left cheek filling with water. Don’t panic. If both eyes or both nostrils are in the water, you’re too low. If both are out of the water, you’re too high so make adjustments accordingly.
In this position, look straight ahead (not to the ceiling)and stare at the indicators along the sides of the pool. Focus on taking deep slow breaths (mouth wide open, no blowing bubbles just yet) and seeing the world (or pool wall) with your left eye and left nostril submerged. Relax and get used to this angle by spending a few minutes on this side before switching to the other.
If done properly you are juggling three things at once. First, you are controlling the water in your left cheek (by not inhaling it). Second, you are breathing slowly and comfortably with your mouth wide open while partially submerged. Lastly you are not inhaling water up your nose or mouth which often happens when we are not focusing or relaxed. I recommend practicing both sides (yes we breathe on both sides when performing front crawl for balance) by doing this recommended routine:
- Right Side Breathing: 3-5 sets, 60 seconds per set
- Left Side Breathing: 3-5 sets, 60 seconds per set
If you need help visualizing how this all works here’s my personal take. Imagine you’re at the dentist getting your teeth cleaned. The view is strange, your mouth wide open (but breathing), and you’re not guzzling down anything the dentist is cleaning (pretty gross I know). For a real test, try speaking vowel sounds in this position just as you would sound talking to your dentist while in the chair.
Progression 2: Crab Walks
Now that you’re used to dividing your face in half while juggling a cheek full of water it’s time to add some movement. Before we run, we must learn how to walk, crab walk that is. In the same area of the pool with a wide squatting stance, raise both arms straight out to the sides. We’re going to be simulating a side breath in slow motion by crab walking to one side. For example, if we’re side breathing on our left, then our left arm will be our lead arm.
First we’re going to crab walk in a line taking 5-10 lateral steps performing a right side breath. For now, our arms will just be out to the sides for balance. Get used to the water moving past your face with your mouth open breathing deeply. We want to take deep breaths in this position comfortably so take it slow practicing both sides.
Next, add your front crawl arms. With your left arm out in front, slowly raise your right arm out of the water. Swap arms and turn your body with your head facing down into the water and blowing bubbles. The entire sequence should look like this: right side breath, right arm back into the water, left arm pull, face down blowing bubbles, right arm pull, right side breath and so on.
Practice this movement paying attention to your body turning as one. Always lead the rotation with your hips and shoulders and never twist your neck. If done correctly, your neck should be perfectly glued straight throughout the entire motion.
Practice first on one side crab walking from one end of the shallow area to the other and visualize your front crawl with your arms pulling gently. Finally, practice alternating sides which means your crab walking will also be facing opposite directions. Here is my recommended routine:
- Crab walk right side: 5 sets, 5- 10 steps
- Crab walk left side: 5 sets, 5-10 steps
- Crab walk right side with arms: 5 sets, 5- 10 side breaths
- Crab walk left side with arms: 5 sets, 5- 10 side breaths
- Crab walk alternating sides with arms: 5 sets, 5-10 side breaths
Progression 3: Assisted Side Kicks
We’re almost there! The last progression we need to work on before attempting side breaths on our own is assisted side kicks. Side kicking is difficult for beginners so I recommend wearing fins and holding onto a kickboard with your lead arm for support:
As you perform the side kick, the fins and kickboard should do most of the work as it is your job to focus mainly on your side breathing and full rotation of the body (remember to relax and not to twist your neck). Follow the same order we did with crab walks practicing in a pool lane:
- Side kicking right side: 2-3 sets, 2-4 laps
- Side kicking left side: 2-3 sets, 2-4 laps
- Side kicking right side with arms: 2-3 sets, 2-4 laps
- Side kicking left side with arms: 2-3 sets, 2-4 laps
- Side kicking alternating sides with arms: 2-3 sets, 2-4 laps
When you’re ready to move on, try it without fins, and then the final form without a kickboard.
Fixing the Most Common Side Breath Mistake
The most common and final mistake most swimmers need to correct is the angle at which they side breathe. Really pay attention to where you are looking. If you’re looking up to the ceiling that means you’re over-rotating particularly in the shoulders. If you’re looking behind that means your neck is not straight and leaning forwards. Finally, if your side view is a little slanted (the final mistake that needs correcting) that means you’re not pulling or kicking enough, your hips are too low, your shoulders are off balance or a combination.
One trick that works for me in order to really dial down a good angled side breath is to headbutt the water. Every time I side breathe, I take the top of my head and headbutt the water in front using my entire body to propel me forwards. It’s pretty fun, give it a try!
We’re On Your Side
Unlocking the side breath takes time but is key towards entering the world of long distance swimming. After that it’s nothing but smooth sailing (or swimming for that matter). I recommend documenting your journey. Film your side breath attempts using a GoPro or waterproof camera so you can review the footage intensely. Share your progress with other swimmers and ask for help if ever you get stuck. Good luck!
Frequently Asked Questions
In front crawl, should I side breathe on both sides?
For continuous lap swimming yes, swimmers breathe on both sides for balance and long distance. For alternating sides, an odd number of arm pulls is incorporated: 3, 5, 7, etc. If you are strictly a sprint swimmer or swimming your hardest at the last lap of the race then one sided breathing is acceptable (ie. two arms for every breath).
Do I have to side breathe when performing front crawl?
If you want to front crawl long distances without side breathing try using a swimmer’s snorkel. Competitive swimmers train with them in order to focus just on their arms and legs however, they do come with a steep learning curve and risk gulping huge amounts of pool water by accident.
How do you breathe without inhaling water?
Control the water in your mouth by blowing consistent bubbles through your mouth and nose. Maintaining a strong breathing pattern is key towards continuous swimming.
Can I use a snorkel mask instead?
What’s the difference between front crawl and freestyle swimming?
Freestyle is not a stroke, it is a category used in swimming competitions ie. perform whatever stroke you wish. Since it’s a race, most swimmers choose the front crawl stroke making the two synonymous.