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Waiting to Inhale

(Revised from a 1996 article published in Swim Magazine)

by Coach Emmett Hines

Let's face it, the human body wasn't designed for swimming. The Good Lord did not intend Man to leap headlong into a river and chase after his dinner. He gave the greatest of the apes the power of reason and the fly rod came to be. If Man should fall into that river, the instinct to lift his head toward the heavens, thrash about wildly and scramble his hairy carcass back onto the shore would serve immediate survival needs well enough. (Dear Reader: If you have a political correctness hang-up please feel free to replace the preceding references to “Man” and “his” with “Woman” and “her” — but the “hairy carcass” thing stays put.)

The advance of civilization has allowed those of us at the top of the food chain to spend some idle time toying with nature. As such, we have made some modest progress in the area of aquatic ambulation. Yet the instinctive need to lift the head skyward has not been overcome completely in the freestyle stroke — even in many elite level swimmers.


We all know, or should know, that lifting the head to breathe is incorrect. Yet, if you watch a pool full of swimmers and pay close attention (perhaps even using slow motion video) to the head motions of each you will find that perhaps 95 percent or more of them are still lifting their heads to some extent to breathe. Most people don't even recognize it as a problem, much less an easily solvable one.

A swimmer moving in a longitudinally balanced position — head, shoulders, hips and legs all in a straight line parallel to the surface (see Of Air and Gravity by this author) — has the minimum form drag possible. Now he raises his head a bit. What happens? The hips and legs sink a bit. In fact, a 2-inch vertical lift of the head can cause a four to six inch drop of the hips, which shows up as an eight to 12 inch drop of the feet. This is enough to nearly double the total frontal surface area and thus nearly double form drag. You know this instinctively — you'd much rather kick with your kickboard sliding edgewise through the water than hold it upright like a tombstone, pushing it broadside-first through an entire kick set (this is assuming you are one of those people who still uses a kickboard at all).

If you study swimmers who are lifting their heads a bit when they breathe you won't always notice lots of hip and leg drop. Why? Many people use their kick to boost their hips and legs to the surface. All of the extra kicking needed to keep the legs up at the surface when the head is lifted is wasting energy — a lot of energy.


You've no doubt been reading and following the advances in the swimming technology as espoused by such forward thinkers as Bill Boomer and Terry Laughlin (a.k.a. Total Immersion) and have a grasp of the concept of body alignment and balance.

Assume now that you are swimming along, your head is “attached” with your crown in line with your spine and you have finely tuned your “buoy” pressure to maintain dynamic body balance as your body rolls from side to side (like I said before, see Of Air and Gravity). Let's say you've just taken a stroke with your left arm and are ready to take a breath on your next stroke. Follow the details:

  1. You are gliding along on your right side (belly button facing the left wall), your right arm is extended toward the far end of the pool, your left elbow is high in the air above your shoulders moving forward with the hand and forearm dangling toward the water and your nose is pointed at the bottom of the pool. Secret: At this instant, imagine a light thread connecting the tip of your chin to your collarbone.

  2. As your left hand/forearm moves forward and just passes your head, begin to roll your body and stroke with the right arm. Allow the head to “hitch a ride” with the rotating torso so that you do not break or stretch the secret chin-collarbone thread. In other words, the head and body should rotate as a single unit as you take a stroke with your right arm and extend your left arm. During this roll it's easy to allow instinct to take over in one or both of the following ways:

    1. Lifting the head slightly. To counteract this tendency you could press the side/back of the head slightly toward the bottom of the pool so that it is in contact (or nearly in contact) with the extended left arm. The idea is that you don't want the gap between the side/back of your head and your extended arm to widen as you rotate to breathe - if anything, you should be trying to close that gap a bit while rolling to breathe.

    2. Pressing down with the extended arm. As you complete your roll and as you breathe, it is important that your left arm remains fully extended toward the end wall of the pool. A common mistake is to put downward pressure on the extended arm or to "lean" on it. This raises the head and shoulders a bit, thus putting lots of downward pressure on the hips. Instead, think of keeping the extended arm “weightless” in front of you while you “lean” on your armpit instead. Sometimes it is even helpful to think in terms of lifting the extended arm slightly as you go for a breath.

  3. As body roll reaches its farthest point onto your left side (belly button now facing the right wall) your blowhole will gain full access to life-giving oxygen. If you've really kept your head “stationary” with respect to your torso (haven't stretched or broken your imaginary chin-collarbone thread) your nose will be pointed straight up (or nearly so). If you've successfully avoided pressing down on the water with your extended left arm, kept consistent pressure on your buoy and resisted the temptation to lift your head, you'll still be completely balanced longitudinally and both your ears will be under water.

  4. While you grab a lung (or two, if you must) full of air and while you are still gliding along fully on your left side with your nose pointed up, recover your right arm by picking the right elbow up and moving it forward. During the recovery, allow your forearm and hand to dangle from your elbow like dead meat. Your chin-collarbone thread should still be intact.

  5. As your high-right-elbow-with-dangling-forearm/hand moves forward and just passes your head, begin to rotate your body and head as a single unit back in the opposite direction from the previous roll - toward the lying-on-your-right-side position you had in step #1. As you begin this roll, start taking the next stroke with the until-now-fully-extended left arm and extend your right arm fully toward the end wall - think of using this roll to “trade hands” out front of your head (see Swimming in Circles by this author). If, by the end of this roll, you have still avoided stretching or breaking the chin-collarbone thread you'll be back fully on your right side with your nose pointed straight toward the bottom of the pool.

There you have it. Following the above will allow you to overcome the instinctive tendency to lift your head and in so doing, decrease the amount of energy you waste either with extra kicking to keep your hips and legs near the surface or with extra stroking effort to overcome unnecessary added form drag.

Copyright 2001. Houston Swims, Inc.

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Emmett Hines is Director and Head Coach of H2Ouston Swims. He has coached competitive Masters swimming in Houston since 1981, was a Senior Coach for Total Immersion Swim Camps for many years, holds an American Swim Coaches Association Level 5 Certification, was selected as United States Masters Swimming’s Coach of the Year in 1993 and received the Masters Aquatic Coaches Association Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002. He recently overhauled his popular book, Fitness Swimming (Human Kinetics, publishers) and the second edition was released mid-2008. Fitness Swimming has been published in French (entitled Natation, pub. by Vigot), Spanish (entitled Natacion, pub. by Hispano Europea), Chinese (entitled Jianshenyouyong), Portuguese (Natacao Para Condicionamento Fisico, pub. by Manole)  and, soon, in Turkish and Italian. Currently Coach Hines coaches the H2Ouston Swims Masters group in Houston, TX and works privately with many clients. He can be reached for questions or comments at 713-748-SWIM or via email.

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