Gary Hall: Swimming Myths Debunked (8)

Ten Swimming Myths Busted

Myth #8: When it comes to getting oxygen in freestyle, breathing every cycle is as good as it gets.

In almost every other sport but swimming we get the luxury of breathing whenever we want. With maximal exertion, we are typically inhaling at a respiratory rate of between 50 and 65 times per minute. That is not the case in swimming.

In freestyle, most swimmers breathe every cycle and only to one side (a cycle is two arm strokes). For hip driven freestylers that use a stroke rate of around 60 strokes per minute, the respiratory rate with this breathing pattern is 30; hardly how one would breathe if they had the choice. Try running or biking with that respiratory rate and see how you do!

But you do have a choice. First, you could learn to swim with a higher stroke rate, adopting more of a shoulder-driven technique. That would likely increase your stroke rate to the high 80’s or low 90’s for endurance swims and your respiratory rate to about 45. Second, you could try a different breathing pattern.
When Sun Yang (hip-driven world record holder in 1500 meters) swims the 1500,  his stroke rate is about 60 strokes per minute until the last 100. Except for the turns, he breathes every cycle (respiratory rate of 30). Going in to and out of every turn, however, he changes his pattern to breathe on two or three successive strokes going in and about three successive strokes coming out of the turn. In my opinion, this extra oxygen gives him a clear advantage and helps him to finish faster than anyone else ever has (by far). In London, he finished in 25.6 on the final 50 meters!ZoomersGold You can try copying Sun Yang (Kieren Perkins also did this to less extent in the 90’s), but what about in the open water swims? Personally, I have adopted a different breathing pattern.

What are the pros and cons?

Pros: You get 17% more oxygen than if you breathe every cycle, and with oxygen you’ll produce 15 times more ATP than without it, and hopefully less lactate. You also get the associated benefits of breathing more, such as experiencing less fatigue and getting to see the scenery on both sides of the lake or pool.

Cons: Many swimmers feel awkward breathing to their weak side. The act of breathing slows the stroke rate. Breathing often results in the arm being pulled too far under the body, creating more drag. In open water swims, if there is a nice swell on one side, breathing to that side may lead to swallowing more water.

It remains to be seen if others will adopt Sun Yang’s breathing pattern or attempt a 2:3 pattern. But for me, an almost 60 year old not-so-superbly conditioned swimmer who enters an ocean swim once or twice a year and dislikes any pool race over 100 meters, I love the 2:3 pattern. I especially like it on long aerobic sets. And for those swimmers who dare to try it (and it takes some getting used to), you may not actually swim any faster by breathing every cycle, but I’ll bet you will feel a lot better afterward.

At The Race Club we don’t believe that anaerobic (breath holding) training helps the endurance athletes as much as the sprinters. Getting enough oxygen in a race clearly benefits the athletes in any race over a 50-meter sprint. We also recommend Activated Stabilized Oxygen before and after each race to all our Race Club swimmers, sprinters or distance. The product is available on our website at


Gary Sr.

The Race Club