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7 Tips for Improving Your Open Water Swimming Breathing

open water swimming tips

Perhaps you’ve ever gulped a mouthful of water whilst open water swimming. If so, then you’ve experienced first-hand how different breathing mechanics can be in open water.

Sure, you may have mastered breathing in the controlled environment of a pool, but add howling winds, bobbing waves, freezing water, and a swarm of competitors into the mix, and you’ll quickly realize that open water breathing is a different ball game altogether.

One of the key aspects of improving your open water swimming could actually come down to weight management. Because this post focuses on breathing tips, take a look at this epic guide to learn more about swimming for weight loss

To help you make the most of your open water swimming and get a leg-up on the competition, we’ve compiled seven expert tips for improving your open water breathing. 

Mastering these tips will help you settle into your race, stay calmer, and cross the finish line in a new personal best time. 

Plus, there’s a free drill session to try at the end.

Sounds good? Let’s get to it.


1. Master the Fundamentals of Breathing First

If you’re not a proficient breather in a pool, then your first port of call is to become one. 

Because as with any skill, you want to learn how to perform it well in a controlled environment first. 

Honing your breathing technique in a pool allows you to focus on what you’re doing, without the plethora of distractions in open water that can pull your attention away.

Plus, you can get feedback from a coach who will help you improve at a much faster rate than going at it yourself down at the local lido or beach.

If not, here’s a quick video that goes over the basics:

If you find it challenging to learn from watching YouTube or reading our blog, then the fastest way to learn the fundamentals of front crawl breathing and become a more confident swimmer is to look at taking private swimming lessons.


2. Prepare Before You Enter The Water

Once you can breathe proficiently in a swimming pool, it’s time to head into the open water. But before you do, it’s essential to familiarise yourself with the route you’re going to take.

Because needing to lift your head to sight your next buoy too often messes up your breathing pattern and throws off the natural rhythm of your stroke.

You’ll end up taking half breaths, then holding your breath, then getting a mouthful of saltwater all the while your competition is steadily swimming away.

As the old adage goes “failing to prepare is preparing to fail.”

pre-race open water swimming breathing

So, no matter if you’re waiting for a competition or simply preparing for a training session, you must take the time to analyze your route before you dive into the water.

Locate the buoys and study prominent landmarks on the shore that you can use to orientate yourself in the water.

Memorizing such key reference points and visualizing your route before you start will help keep you on course without the need to erratically lift your head every five strokes to see where you’re going.

The result? More consistent, rhythmic breathing, a more enjoyable swim, and no time wasted swimming off-course.


3. Slowly Exhale With your Face in the Water

Swimming in open water can be stressful. It’s cold, it’s hectic and there’s a lot that can set off your fight or flight response.

The best way to combat this is to use your breath as your ‘home base’. With even, slow, controlled breathing, you’ll be able to keep your stress response under control and focus on swimming your best race.

See, when you’re stressed, your breathing rate shoots through the roof. But by managing the breath, you can send signals to your brain that everything is ok.

Plus, not only will slow exhalations keep you calm, but they also help keep your lungs filled with air for longer. That means you’ll benefit from increased buoyancy which will allow you to travel through the water with less resistance.

So, practice breathing slowly with your face in the water for five minutes every time before you set off to swim. Allow your pulse to slow, and mentally ‘come into’ your body.

Anytime during the race or training session that you find yourself holding your breath, remember to relax and gently exhale bubbles via your mouth and nose.


4. Try the Three-Two-Three Breathing Pattern

Some coaches will tell you to ditch bi-lateral breathing altogether when you’re swimming in open water. But we don’t think that’s the best approach.

Breathing consistently to one side can result in stroke imbalances (and even injuries like scapular winging). Plus, in an open water racing scenario, it’s useful to be able to look to both sides to keep tabs on the competition and your surroundings.

The breathing pattern we recommend is the three-two approach. This preached by most top swim coaches, including Terry Laughlin and Sheila Taormina. With this tactic, you take three strokes between breaths and then two, then back to three.

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Doing this allows you to get the rhythmic benefits of breathing to the same side, while also swapping up your side every five strokes too. Think of it as two breaths every five strokes (which is slightly less taxing than the standard three, three bi-lateral breathing approach).

To master the three-two-three breathing technique, it’s best to practice in the pool first. Use it in your warm-ups and cool-downs to get a feel for it over time.

As you begin to be able to take stock of when you want to breathe and combine it with slow exhalations, you’ll find that your stroke becomes much more relaxed. This, in turn, increases your stroke efficiency and reduces your need to hoover up air. So, the virtuous upward spiral begins.

One small thing to note is that if conditions are choppy in the water, it’s best practice to roll slightly further than you would in a pool. It’ll give you the clearance you need to avoid filling your lungs with water.


5. Seamlessly Sight and Breathe 

We couldn’t write an article about open water breathing tips without touching on how sighting and breathing interact. 

Because with no black line to follow, it’s easy to add up to 20% extra swimming to your race if you can’t sight properly.

What’s more, sighting also offers you the opportunity to breathe without disrupting your rhythm. When done right, it looks like this:

improve open water swimming breathing tips

You’ll want to learn this technique to maintain maxim stroke efficiency – so here’s how:

  1. As you pull one arm backward slowly exhale the last of your air, lift your shoulders upwards by extending your lower back and begin kicking harder to stop your legs from sinking and slowing you down.
  2. As your shoulders rise from the water, roll more weight onto the suede with your lead arm extended, lift your chin as if you were breathing while swimming butterfly, keep your lead arm extended for a split-second longer to maintain balance.
  3. Don’t hang around, inhale quickly, take your sight and lower your face back into the water, continuing your stroke as you pull your lead arm back and bring your recovered arm over.
  4. Resume your normal breathing and stroking pattern; there’s no need to sight once every ten meters. Even the most perfectly timed sight is more taxing than regular swimming and will add a few milliseconds to your swim time. Instead, save it for every eight to ten breath cycles.

For extra points, time your breathing and sight for when you approach the top of a wave. That’ll give you the best vantage point from which to get your bearings and adjust your course appropriately, while also minimizing the chances of inhaling water.

It’s worth saying that an appropriate pair of swimming goggles makes sighting much more manageable. 


6. Get Used to Cold Water

If you’re new to open water swimming or a first-time triathlete, water temperature alone can be enough to knock the breath from your lungs.

So do you get better at overcoming the initial shock of cold water? Dr. Heather Massey, a researcher at the Extreme Environments Laboratory at the University of Portsmouth, shares the secret:

“Just swim in cold water more often.”

cold open water swimming

See, your body has a fantastic ability to adapt to extreme environments. The more you expose yourself to cold, the greater your tolerance for it becomes.

The most comfortable time to start is in the summer months (and even out to September) when water temperatures are at their highest. Generally, anything above 15 degrees Celsius is a suitable temperature for first-time sea-goers.

The key to eventually becoming polar-bear-like is to build your exposure over time. So, start with just five to ten minutes in the water. Then stretch it out to fifteen, twenty, and beyond. 

To make things more pleasant, always have warm clothes to change into at the end of your swim (a flask of hot chocolate can go a long way too).


7. Practice Open Water Breathing Drills

The best way to reinforce the breathing ideas we’ve shared in this blog post is to incorporate them into a training set that you can perform 1-2 times per week until you’re happy with where your open water breathing is at.

Stick the following breathing set into your pool training session after your warm-up, but before your main set. 

The rest period between repetitions is five exhales – that means you take five slow controlled breaths at the wall before starting the next repeat.

The idea here is that instead of performing these drills for time, you focus on getting them just right, and never take your concentration off your breath.

Rest @ 5 Exhales | All front crawl

  • 1 x 100m: Focus on exhaling via nose and mouth as slowly as possible
  • 2 x 100m: breathe every 3 strokes on the first length, every 5 strokes on the second, every 7 on the third, and every 3 on the fourth
  • 4 x 50m: as breathing in a three-two-three pattern
  • 8 x 25m: swum as 4 strokes + one forward sight + 4 strokes + one sight
  • 1 x 100m: You can only take 8 breaths for the whole swim (use them whenever you want)

Set distance: 800m (feel free to adjust according to training capacity.)


Go Forth & Breathe!

Becoming proficient at open water breathing isn’t a walk in the park. But as captain Mathew Webb, the first man to swim to the English Channel, said: “nothing great is easy.”

We’re confident that with a little patience and effort, you’ll get the hang of it in no time. And hopefully, these open water swimming tips and drills can help you improve your triathlon swim a little bit faster.

And now, over to you! If you want to share your experience with open water breathing, have any good advice we should include, or need coaching assistance with your swimming, let us know.

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Head of Content at Better Triathlete | Website

Endurance athlete, professional off-road cyclist, and avid blogger, Tyler Tafelsky participates in long-course multisport and cycling events. Today, Tyler competes in ultra-distance cycling races at the professional level. Since starting Better Triathlete in 2014, he has been the head of content for the site's editorial team. Learn more about Tyler