Swimming is a difficult enough skill to master without having to breathe and maintain continuity, especially for the crawl stroke. Good timing is needed for breathing in all strokes, but it is quintessential for an efficient crawl.

A comfortable glide position (one arm up, one arm down) and practice with single-arm stroking is the best preparation. Because the swimmer is already extended on one side, there is no need to lift the head or even to turn it for breathing.

The head in the water creates a bow wave, behind which the breath can be taken during the recovery phase.

As the elbow recovers with a relaxed forearm, the swimmer inhales in the trough created behind the bow wave. Think “eat your thumb” as it passes.

Continue that only on your preferred breathing side until a comfortable rhythm is established.

Next, try the same on the non-preferred side, which will enable you to practice single-arm stroking, even if a little less efficiently. This will help maintain a balanced stroke when you advance to breathing with alternate side stroking.

Become comfortable with single-arm stroking and breathing. Switch sides for alternating pool lengths (always facing the same wall). However, don’t try later to combine these single-arm drills by breathing on both sides while swimming an alternating-arm crawl. Just breathe on your preferred side.

For the non-preferred side, simply exhale bubbles strongly to that side. Few do this, but it does so much for a swimmer’s stroke. In addition to balance, blowing bubbles to the non-breathing side in the glide position facilitates recovery and prevents that arm on entry from crossing over beyond the midline of the body.

For breaststroke and butterfly, the swimmer is trying to keep the body level throughout. Thus it helps if the upward reaction to the exertion of arm pressure on the water is counteracted by a lift of the chin. “Dragging” the chin along the surface without bending the neck is sufficient for breathing.

Breathing is easiest for backstroke, obviously, but it should be rhythmic, inhaling on one arm’s stroke and exhaling on the other.

Most important, develop the habit of forceful (yet comfortable) exhalation. Shallow breathing does not get rid of residual carbon dioxide in the lungs that blocks and dilutes the percentage of oxygen delivered to the bloodstream and thus to the muscles that need it for recovery.

Dr. Bob Colyer of Bluffton is an actively retired college professor and coach. bobcolyer@yahoo.com