An average human being should be able to hold his/her breath for approximately 2 minutes. According to Dr. Ralph Potkin, a pulmonary specialist who prepared David Blane for his world record in holding breath, the 2 minute mark is just a starting point and it is possible to train your body to hold your breath for a much longer period of time. Check out this amazing video of what a human body is capable of.
The world record in breath holding is now set to over 19 minute mark, which on the first glance seems just incredible, however, let's examine one important rule that the Guineess folks put into place. The breath holding competitor is allowed to breath pure oxygen for 10 minutes before the actual breath holding event, so you can imagine how much more oxygen does one have in their blood stream after such a pure oxygen kick. Neverthless 19 minutes without breathing, pure oxygen or not, is still quite an amazing feat.
Now what does world record in breath holding has to do with swimming? Well, breathing is a very important aspect of learning to swim. Many beginners, especially if they come from a running/cycling background, have a problem adjusting to the breathing rhythm in swimming. In running, one can breath basically any time it is needed. Of course, there are some basic breathing techniques and patterns as well, but they greatly differ from swimming. During swimming, you have to have your breathing pattern even more fine tuned. This is why many people feel out of breath while swimming as they feel they do not get enough oxygen in their lungs. It is not because they are out of shape, it is merely the fact that they haven't discovered the right breathing pattern for them yet. So if you are one of these swimmers who feel out of breath all the time while doing your laps, don't fret, you can fix it with some minor adjustments of your technique and breathing pattern. Here are a few tips on how to improve your breathing during a swim practice:
1) If your freestyle coach or swimming lesson teacher tells you to breath every 3rd stroke (meaning you breath to one side, do a full stroke and then breath to other side), they have a reason for this and it usually is to keep your body in a symmetry. This type of breathing is also referred to as bilateral breathing. Because when you breath to both sides, you are evenly rolling on both hips etc. etc. However, as far as breathing is concerned, you do not need to wait that long to breath. Your body needs oxygen and if it doesn't get it, fatigue sets in. You can breath every other stroke (meaning: you breath on one side, take a stroke and then breath to the same side again) and rotate the breathing side per lap. So one pool length you breath to the left and the other to the right and this way you keep your oxygen intake appropriate and you are still practicing both sides of your body symmetrically. If you are a bit more advanced and you have the right head position during your freestyle stroke, you can try 2 breaths to one side, then right away rotate your head to the other side and then 2 breaths to that side. So it looks like - take 2 breaths every stroke to the left, breath the same stroke to the right and then take 2 strokes to the right). This is a bit more challenging, because if you breath directly from one side to the other, your head and body position needs to be right in order for you not to loose your speed.
a) Your breathtaking activity will take much shorter time, so you can, as we call it, "sneak a breath in" very fast without spending too much time with your face out of the water. If you wait until the last minute to exhale, you can feel the stroke stop until you finish taking your breath and thus totally throwing off your rhythm.
b) You will be more relaxed and feel less in need of oxygen, because if you hold your breath, you start to accumulate CO2 in your blood and you are also more tense. So, continuous exhalation will gradually let out the CO2 build up and will also relax you a little
c) If you incorporate proper gradual exhalation into your swimming stroke, it could serve as a great stroke rhythm holder. So your rhythm is inhale, slowly exhale, inhale, slowly exhale, inhale etc. etc.
3) Do some underwater swims or breathe every X strokes. For example, you can set a goal in one practice that you will do 5 dolphin kicks off each wall and in between you swim slower to catch you breath. This is will help you in breathing + you are also practicing your underwater kick which is priceless. You can also set a goal to breath one lap every 5th stroke and then second lap every other stroke, then every 5th stroke again etc. These types of breathing drills will help you to get adjusted to the breathing pattern in swimming. You can also see the post on lung capacity increase drills to help you master breathing during swimming.