Breathing for Swimmers

Sage Rountree explains how yogic breathing can help you when swimming.

As summer arrives, you may find yourself inspired to go for a swim in the pool or open water. If it’s been a while since you swam, you may find yourself feeling winded sooner than you expect. Learning to time your breathing with your stroke in the water is a critical swimming ability. Without proper breath timing, swimming is infinitely harder. You’ll tire more quickly, lose stroke efficiency, and spend more energy than you need to if you don’t breathe smoothly and in sync with your stroke.


Before you can breathe smoothly in the water, you need to practice on land. The breath for swimming is a quick inhalation followed by a long exhalation. Here’s where yoga comes in handy: breath ratio exercises will help you gain comfort with this unfamiliar pattern. First, consider that while you may breathe nasally on the mat, as you swim you may need to breathe through both your nose and your mouth simultaneously. Let your lips part as your face relaxes, and don’t be afraid to let your breath come through your mouth as well as your nose.

Start by taking a quick inhalation on a count of one and breathing out for a count of two. Once this is comfortable, try lengthening your breath to a count of three, four, five, or more. If you have trouble with bilateral breathing—the ability to breathe to the right or to the left—practice with even numbers, breathing out to a count of two, four, or six. This helps you gain ease with the pattern before you try it out in the water.

Depending on your speed and the distance you’re swimming, you’ll need access to a full range of breath patterns, so experiment in your breath practice. Sometimes the waves are approaching from one side and you need to breathe to the other, or there are other swimmers splashing as you turn your head to breathe. When you swim, especially in open water, you need to be able to shift your breath moment to moment to match the demands of the water. That is: You need to be doing yoga.