The Best Way to Breathe When Swimming

The Best Way to Breathe When Swimming

In This Article

My Underwater Nasal Breathing Quest

In the late nineties, when I first came back from India and was writing my nose breathing exercise book, Body, Mind, and Sport, I was fascinated by the benefits and feedback I was seeing when people learned how to nose breathe.

As a triathlete, I was set on figuring out how to nose breathe while swimming—which, as it turned out, was no easy task.

Since the book was published in 1994, I have received hundreds of requests to help people learn how to nose breathe while they swim.

This article is about my nose breathing while swimming quest. I am thrilled to say that, after all these years, I can finally offer something incredibly effective for all of you who desire to take your nose breathing practice under water.

I learned nose breathing techniques in India, but it took me quite a while to put it into practice while running or riding my bike.

Many of my early students were having great nose breathing exercise success while I was still struggling. An old broken nose blocked my left nasal passage, which made things a little more difficult for me.

I forged on, motivated by research I read that nose breathing pranayama exercises can actually open up blocked sinus passages from issues like a deviated septum.

After a couple months of dedicated focus, I became a very proficient nose breather during exercise! I developed full respiratory capacity from learning how to nose breathe while running and biking. I was able to maintain a competitive pace running and biking breathing only through my nose.

The benefits were carried into my daily life as well, not just during exercise. I remember walking in a mall one day, and felt myself breathing totally differently than I ever had before—deeper, slower, longer and spontaneously through my nose—but only on land!

The next challenge was to see if I could learn how to nose breathe in the water while I swam.

Morning after morning, I headed to the pool with every intention of figuring out how to do this. My full focus was on figuring out how to keep my mouth shut and my nose open while I was swimming.

Breathing out through the nose was the first step and was somewhat easy to accomplish, but breathing in through the nose seemed to always carry with it a bucket of water that would stop me in my choking tracks.

I tried to master the whale technique—forceful nasal exhalation following by a quick nasal inhalation during a delayed breathing head turn.

This worked to some extent. I could make it across the pool, but after a couple months of struggle, I gave up and gave in to my desire to just swim the old-fashioned way.

Here is the interesting part… After a few months of just swimming with no biking or running, I would find myself short of breath here and there. Even while doing just my day-to-day activities, I was sort of gasping for air sporadically throughout the day. It felt as if I were trying to catch my breath.

Call it a sigh, a deep mouth gasp, or just trying to catch my breath, this was while walking around the house—not even exercising! This was something I had never experienced before.

While I focused on swimming only, was I actually just mouth breathing with very little actual nose breathing? Did I lose the full respiratory benefits that I had gained from my nose breathing training while biking and running?

We Recommend 15 Benefits Of Breathing Through Your Nose During Exercise

Upper Chest Breathing vs. Lower Chest Breathing

The chest is like an elastic band that is squeezing down on the ribs all day everyday—26,000 breaths per day. It is called elastic recoil. Nose breathing will drive the air through the turbinates (little nasal turbines) that spin and drive the air all the way down into the lower lobes of the lungs, forcing lower lung elastic recoil to open.

Breathing in is an effortful task to force open the rib cage to fully oxygenate all five lobes of the lungs.

Breathing out, on the other hand, is basically effortless, as it is the natural state of the rib cage to be squeezing air and waste out as we exhale. (1,2,3) The abdominals help out here too, but most of us don’t use them to breathe because we do not have full respiratory capacity.

Swimming requires a very quick, upper chest mouth gasp of air. The science tells us that this type of breathing will mostly fill only the upper lobes of the lungs.

In the upper lobes, there is a predominance of fight-or-flight nervous system receptors that trigger an emergency-alert, degenerative response. Imagine if you saw a bear in the woods, you would likely take that same gasping breath as you do while swimming. (1,2,3)

Over time, with upper chest breathing swimming, the elastic recoil of the rib cage squeezes more tightly on the lower part of the rib cage, making it more difficult to move air into and waste out of the lower lobes of the lungs. The rib cage can literally become a cage, squeezing down on the heart and lungs 26,000 breaths per day.

For me, as I stopped nose breathing on land while focusing on swimming, I slowly lost access to the lower lobes of my lungs and found myself only breathing in my upper chest. This was demonstrated to me as I caught myself taking upper chest gasps of air throughout the day. I was short of breath because I lost access to breathing into the lower lobes of my lungs.

Once I realized this, I re-started my nose breathing on land—during running and biking—and the gasping for air simply stopped!

Why Breathe Through Your Nose

The contrast for me was dramatic. Learning to exercise while breathing through the nose changed my breathing patterns even when I was not exercising.

Swimming forced me to become an upper chest mouth breather once again, and also changed my breathing patterns during the day.

The difference is really in whether you are accessing the lower lobes of your lungs or not. Sadly, most people are upper chest mouth breathers. More and more people find themselves snoring or with sleep apnea at night. They are easily winded during the day and the health of the heart and cardiovascular system can pay the price.

An upper chest, mouth breathing rib cage will literally become a cage around the heart. Deep nose breathing is like having twelve rib-like levers massaging the heart and lungs during those 26,000 breaths per day.

The lower lobes of the lungs are where there is a predominance of the oxygen and waste-removing alveoli of the lungs. The blood reaching the lungs is gravity fed and, therefore, most of the exchange takes place in the lower, not the upper, lobes of the lungs. The lower lobes are also where there is a predominance of calming and repairing parasympathetic nervous system receptors. (1,2,3)

We Recommend 10 Breathing Exercises (Pranayama) to Restore Mind-Body Balance

My Underwater Nasal Breathing Discovery

Over the years, I have tried many underwater nose breathing snorkel devices that all had merit, but I think I’ve finally found the real deal.

I found a full-face, free breathing mask and snorkel that allows you to breathe through your nose while you swim

The mask also gives you full breathing freedom, full peripheral vision, and the ability to not have to turn your head.

If you are not a competitive swimmer and are longing to glean the calming, rejuvenating, and repairing benefits of underwater nose breathing, you may fall in love with these new free breathing masks and snorkels. They are simply amazing.

Check out my video as I demonstrated how to use them here:

Check out the underwater nasal breathing mask I am using here (adult and kid size available)

>>> Read all about my research on the difference between nose breathing and mouth breathing here


  2. Douillard, J. Body, Mind and Sport. Harmony Books, New York 1994, 2000 (revised)

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1 thought on “The Best Way to Breathe When Swimming”

  1. Hi, very interesting article.I can’t however, see how this would help with your swimming overall?
    I have also battled with this problem and tried the apparatus you refer to.
    It completely changed my style of swimming, something I had worked on for years!
    For me, breathing through the mouth and out of the nose works best.
    I did master nasal breathing in a pool, but found it impossible in open water, my first choice for swimming.
    Thanks for the article.


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