I am now starting to learn how to swim and have found that I have trouble swimming with my head in the water. Although I breathe every 1 or 2 strokes (front crawl) I found that my heart rate rises pretty high and soon I found myself gasping for air.

I am not out of shape; I run marathons and do long MTB races (80km) so I thought I can control my breathing during effort, but this seems a different kind of challenge.

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    How comfortable are you in the water? It sounds to me more like nerves than anything physical. Also, are you counting 1 stroke as one right+left arm motion? Because if you are breathing every 1 (right/left) stroke and you aren't going really fast, you might actually be hyperventilating. You might want to slow down your breathing some. Commented Mar 18, 2012 at 18:45
  • You are probably right that i don't feel very comfortable in the water. I count a stroke as a right+left motion. Commented Mar 20, 2012 at 19:57
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    As a swim instructor, I agree with @MikeHedman. Unless you are swimming a long distance, you should be breathing every 3 to 5 strokes (right/left/right or vice versa, or right/left/right/left/right or vice versa). Also keep in mind that if you are in good "swim shape" you will be in shape for a lot of other things. However, it doesn't transfer the other way--just because you are in good running shape does not mean you will be in good "swim shape". The only way to build swim strength/endurance is to swim.
    – Amanda R.
    Commented Jul 12, 2016 at 21:09

5 Answers 5


How much are you kicking? Try holding a flutterboard/kickboard/buoy between your legs and continuing the arm motion of front crawl.

This does two things.

  1. Removes the leg muscles from the equation
  2. Keeps your legs up, which makes swimming MUCH easier.

The main trick in efficient swimming is to learn to swim downhill. You want to 'Press the Buoy' which is push your chest (full of air) down, and use it as leverage to get your legs higher. You sort of eventually end up swimming downhill a bit.

Another trick is to tuck your chin into your chest, imagining you are pulling your neck and spine far enough to tug your legs up. (Its just a trick to teach you to lean forward and press the buoy, but the image works). If you try to feel yourself pulling your legs up by your chin it can be effective.

Basically these are approaches to being more efficient.


This might seem a stupid question, but are you breathing out when your head is underwater?

Most swimmers that I see struggling to catch their breath are holding their breath when their head is in the water, and then trying to both breathe out and in when they turn their head above water.

There's not enough time to do both in crawl and they inevitably struggle to catch their breath, as you've got to breathe out before you can breathe in.

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    In fact as soon as your head reenters the water you start slowly exhaling, timed to finish on the third stroke, ready to inhale again.
    – geoffc
    Commented Oct 14, 2012 at 11:18
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    I was breathing under water but apparently not enough Commented Oct 16, 2012 at 11:28
  • This is the most likely answer IMO - holding your breath causes a build up of carbon dioxide and lactic acid in the body, both of which impair ability and contribute to feeling "out of breath". You should always be breathing in or out when swimming, the same as you would for running. It just takes more practise to time the breathing in with your mouth being out of the water. Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 13:03

A good bet is that this is probably caused by being nervous, and you might be hyperventilating. Given your fitness level, there's probably not a physical reason for getting out of breath - and I bet your breath very quickly returns to normal when you grab the side of the pool.

The good news is that this is 100% fixable - and you've already taken a big step: recognizing that there is a problem.

Time in the water, and maybe some coaching will quickly bring up your experience level, and your confidence, which should smooth out those nerves.

  • The cause was indeed i was being nervous. Now i can almost swim 25m front crawl :D. I will start training with a coach in about 2 weeks, he is out of the country right now. Thanks for your advice. Commented Mar 23, 2012 at 12:23

When I started swimming seriously, about 4 years ago, I struggled with exactly the same problem. It took me a long time to break the 100m barrier for front crawl, doing bi-lateral breathing. Uni-lateral breathing was a little better but I still struggled with a sensation of panic and being out of breath.

Once I had broken the 100m limit, suddenly it became possible to go much farther, as if there is a transition between how I would breath normally on land and how I needed to breath whilst swimming. I still feel a slight pinch during training warm-up at this point, as if my lungs 'change gear'.

To beat the limit I :

  • slowed my swimming to a very gentle pace so as to be as relaxed as possible
  • repeated 50m swims at first, with a break between each to recover, then 100m swims with a break
  • eventually, I felt I could attempt to go past the 100m and try for 150m

Once I was getting to 150m, I very quickly made it to 200, 300 etc. One of the key things that helped me was to beat the barrier was expelling 50% of each breath immediately after inhaling, ie. as my face re-entered the water, I already started to breath out. The remainder of the air I slowly breathed out, through nose and mouth simultaneously, during the time my face remained under water, such that after 3 strokes it was all gone and ready for the next inhale.

As others have indicated here, breathing out is very important; when swimming you should be either breathing in or out but not holding your breath. My coach explained the panicy feeling you get as being the need to expel the C0-2 from your lungs following breathing in, which is not something you'd instinctively think to do.


I'm in a similar situation, albeit I only run half-marathons and bike up to 60km.

When I started swimming I had the exact same problem, that I couldn't breathe according to what felt a good swim effort. In the end I relaxed my swim speed as well as allowed my self to breathe every time I pulled back with an arm. I really focused on my breath and feeling good in the water. Everything else was secondary to being able to breathe calmly.

I train in a group, and before I would have to take a break every 50m and wait till my breathing came from a frantic gasping to a relaxed in-/exhale as while running. After the change I swam slower, but could actually manage 1h30 of training, where previously I would be at the end of my strength after 30min. Now, a few months later I can keep up with my group, and I breathe every 2 arm pulls, sometimes every 3 to switch breathing sides.

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