Middaugh Coaching Corner - Breathing Patterns During the Triathlon Swim


Middaugh Coaching Corner, presented by Suunto

Breathing is problematic in swimming freestyle.  The primary issue is that breathing is dependent on your stroke rate and the type of breathing pattern you adopt.  The most streamlined position has your head in alignment with the rest of your spine, the water line hitting the top of your head with it mostly submerged, and your gaze aimed straight down or just slightly forward.  The problem is that you can’t breathe in this position unless you are swimming with a snorkel.  Unlike running or biking, breathing while swimming needs to be timed with your strokes.
There are only a few options for breathing.  One option is to inhale once every two strokes so that you are breathing on the same side every time (one breath per stroke cycle).  Another option is to inhale once every three strokes so that you are bilateral breathing or alternating your inhale from one side to the other.  Other options have you breathing even less frequently, such as a 2-4-2 breathing pattern, or breathing every 3,4,5 or more strokes.  When we watch the great Olympians swim short distances, we often see them breathing very little in an attempt to minimize drag and swim as fast as possible with the tradeoff being hypoxia and extreme oxygen debt.  They train to swim this way but cannot sustain it for long distances at intense paces.  When you watch distance swimmers during the middle portions of their races (not usually seen because that’s when NBC goes to a commercial break) you see much more frequent breathing patterns. 
A case for breathing every two strokes
Although it is not well documented, your breathing rate varies with your relative intensity of steady state exercise.  Seasoned runners know this and may be able to tell you that at low intensities they tend to breathe in for about 2-3 steps and out for about 2-3 steps.  At an endurance pace they may switch to 2-2 pattern, and around threshold it will be 2-1 or even 1-1.  This happens pretty naturally and they don’t need to think about it.  At an easy endurance pace, most athletes will breathe 20-30 times per minute.  Near threshold intensity it is common to be 35-45 breaths per minute.  Untrained people will peak out at about 45 breaths per minute, but elite athletes can hit around 60 breaths per minute for a maximal effort. 
osiah Middaugh is the reigning XTERRA Pan America Champion and the 2015 XTERRA World Champion. He has a master’s degree in kinesiology and has been a certified personal trainer for 15 years (NSCA-CSCS). His brother Yaro also has a master’s degree and has been an active USAT certified coach for more than a decade. Read past training articles at http://www.xterraplanet.com/training/middaugh-coaching-corner and learn more about their coaching programs athttp://middaughcoaching.com.