Swimming breathing. Should I breathe out through the mouth or nose? (#1 Golden Rule)

Swimming, swimming technique -

Swimming breathing. Should I breathe out through the mouth or nose? (#1 Golden Rule)

One of the most challenging things to master in the water is simply the timing and control of your breathing.

One of the frequent questions asked by new athletes is,

“should I breathe out through the mouth or nose?”


In this article, we will go over if you should mouth breath or nose breath while swimming, be that in a pool, or in a triathlon.


The #1 Golden Rule  - To use mouth or nose breathing in swimming

As an overarching rule, when swimming you never want water up your nose. It is painful and this is going to either stop you from swimming or be a bad distraction.

If you want to experience what water up the nose feels like, feel free to drink a glass of water through the nose like these guys..... (starts at 5.45min)

Needless to say water up your nose does not feel good!


When are the most common times to get water up your nose?

The most common times you are likely to get a shot of water up your nose as a swimmer or a triathlete are the following:

  • Attempting a tumble-turn.  This is usually the main reason people get turned off doing tumble turns aside from dizziness.   
  • Pushing off underwater on your back
  • Open water swimming and getting a wave or some other cross chop up your nose
  • At the start of a triathlon, with a fellow competitor causing cross splash into your nose


So what are the solutions to NOT get water up your nose while swimming?


Interesting Fact: 

Young babies before 3 months old, have an automatic response and KNOW how to hold their breath and will not 'sniff water'.  This is because inside the mother's tummy they are underwater and receive oxygen through the umbilical cord!

Here is a shot of me and my own daughter before she was 6 months old chilling underwater.



Given this, you have simply forgotten something that you have always known.

Firstly the key technique to learn how to keep some air pressure in your nose. If you are able to keep a consistent pressure in your nose, it doesn't matter if you are on your back, or doing a tumble turn, you will never have water shooting up.     The technique is very similar to how divers equalize their eardrums as they descend down into a dive, or how you may equalize your ears when taking off on an aeroplane.   Usually, you would pinch your nose and then try to blow air out.   

Unfortunately, when we are swimming, we do not have the chance to pinch our nose, so we need to learn how to create a block at the top of the nasal passage.

To do this focus on the bridge of your nose and try to create a 'pinching' with your facial muscles.   You may find your mouth closes and air fills your cheeks.    Luckily for us, the amount of pressure you need to maintain to prevent water from going up is not actually very much.  So with some practice, you will quite easily be able to maintain a normal face and block your nose.

Once you are keeping a consistent pressure in your nose, you will be able to 100% mouth breathe. This is why some elite swimmers sound ‘nasally’ when they talk, because of the hours underwater and habit


Are there times when MORE pressure is needed?

The times when additional nose pressure or exhalation through the nose is needed, are usually

  • when you tumble turn
  • do backstroke or kicking on your back when your head goes under the water
  • when your jumping into a pool, especially from a height
  • or if your surfing or in the surf and getting tumbled about in a broken wave's white water

In these instances it’s more likely you need to exhale through the nose as the pressure of water trying to enter your nose, is very high.   It is important to practice a slow exhalation. 

Here is the technique:

  • Take a short sharp breath in (simulating a final breath) - no more than 1second long
  • Start a long slow exhalation of about a 10second release, out through the nose.   

Once again you can practice this on land many times before even getting into the water.   This consistent stream of bubbles and pressure out will stop the water rushing in!


BONUS Tips to stop water going up your nose while swimming


There are some additional things that can help you from preventing water from going up the nose.

These are:

  1. Having a breathing pattern. This can be modified to fitness and ability but the key is the pattern. You need to find a comfortable rhythm. This could be a standard frequency such as every stroke or 3 strokes (bilateral) Or a mix such as a 1:3:1 pattern
  2. Slowing down - often breathing issues are due to someone trying to rush the stroke or kick too hard too early. The components of a stroke can be broken down and trained separately - specifically kicking can be done with a kickboard and head up out of the water. So slowing down will allow you to time the stroke easier and feel less out of breath. Over time you can increase the pace again once the cardio improves
  3. Wearing a nose plug - perhaps the final option is to wear a nose plug. This should only be used if all other options have failed


Final thought - Developing fundamental techniques early in life


Ok so this final tip may not be for you, however, you may have children, or have family friends with kids.   It is extremely helpful to encourage children to have swimming lessons as early in life as possible (ideally from 2months old and on. 

Specifically with regards to nose equalization and mouth breathing, the younger the child is, the easier this learning process will be.   

If you want to know more about early swimming progression read our other full article HERE