If anyone can help school you on the proper freestyle breathing technique, it's Melvin "Pat" Patterson, a former collegiate swim coach at Texas A&M, Rice University, University of Arkansas and the University of Texas at Austin. When asked how most people get it wrong, he didn't hesitate to answer. "They hold their breath and try to blow it all out when their head has surfaced," he said. "You never, ever want to hold your breath." Simply put, he said the goal is to start your breath as a slow exhale and then increase it to the point of getting rid of all of the air before your head comes up for a new breath.
Here are some other common problems facing beginning swimmers -- and even a few advanced ones -- and tips on how to fix them.
Problem: Not getting enough air
Solution: In addition to not holding your breath, you have to be sure you exhale fully before rotating up to take the next breath. You also want to be sure you breathe as early as possible so you can get the most air.
Problem: Losing momentum
Solution: If you decelerate slightly every time you take a breath, concentrate on breathing with your mouth parallel to the water rather than above it.
Problem: Taking in water
Solution: If you suck in water instead of air, try bilateral breathing (see the next section for details). You can also practice improving your balance in the water with the one-arm drill, in which you swim using just one arm at a time and breathe on the opposite side of the stroking arm.
Problem: Jerking your head around
Solution: You want to keep your head stationary when you're not breathing, so try looking at a fixed point along the bottom on the pool, only rolling your head slightly to breathe every third stroke. When you swim, you create a bow wave with your head and body, similar to the way a boat does, and experienced swimmers breathe through the wave, barely turning their heads at all to inhale. You may also need to practice good body rotation, because if you're rotating it properly, you only need to tilt your head ever so slightly to be able to breathe.
In the next section, we'll discuss bilateral breathing and how it can improve your stroke.