Late breathing fixes (freestyle)
Does anyone know of any drills that I can work on to help fix my breathing (in freestyle)? I typically breathe too late, and it is really obvious in the 50 free and the 100 free because my breathing will throw off my stroke tempo. The only way that I am able to breathe efficiently is by focusing heavily on it and thinking the phrase "quick breaths" over and over throughout my race. I think it would be beneficial to make this more of a habit, because I am normally only concentrating on it during meets or at the end of practice when we are practicing sprints off the block (it would also allow me to focus on something else while swimming). In the 200 and 500 I feel that it isn't as drastic, due to the fact that I am not trying to turn over my arms as fast as I can. However I do suspect that my breathing could cause some shoulder issues down the road since my shoulder is in an awkward position during the long breath that I take.
I would ask a coach to watch me to observe what is actually happening.
Many people "panic" breathe. This may consist of breathing too deeply and holding the breath before beginning to exhale. Check this out when you are swimming easily without race effort. Take very shallow inhalations and begin the exhale while your nose is still in the air, bubbling as your face enters.
This may not be your issue, but you can rule it in or out.
Jim has given some really good advice to "begin the exhale while your nose is still in the air, bubbling as your face enters." I would add to that, to try to make your inhale as "invisible to the rest of your stroke" as possible. When we rotate to our breathing side to get our quick inhale, we need to take that small breath and get our faces back into the water as quickly as possible. When we take too long to get the breath, our bodies become unbalanced in the water, and can cause too much pressure on our non-breathing side shoulder. If we keep our faces in the water for almost the entire stroke, we remain more balanced, and the timing of our stroke becomes better, and from a much better orientation with regard to our shoulders. I would suggest thinking about the inhale as just opening your mouth, and then immediately begin to blow it out. You'll get the air if you just open your mouth, without thinking that you have to "swallow" it. Get your head and body back quickly, as you rotate to your non-breathing side, exhaling the entire time. You'll be ready for the next inhale and find that you'll have increased speed, by a more naturally fast turnover.
Additionally, at a comfortable pace, try taking about 6 strokes without inhaling, paying careful attention to the rhythm of the stroke. Then add in the inhale, but try to match the rhythm of the stroke when you were not inhaling. That will give you some idea just how quickly that breath can be so that you don't disrupt the balance of the stroke.
I think you have accurately assessed what happens to most swimmers. It is hard to time the breath in freestyle when sprinting. This happens to almost everyone. Without seeing your stroke I do have a pretty simple fix. Often times I tell this to my swimmers and it helps their breathing fit within their sprint tempo.
The fix: When breathing during your sprint efforts in practice and also during the race think about not taking a full breath. I tell my athletes to take a half or 3/4 inhalation instead of completely filling their lungs to max capacity. Think about breathing of an exchange of air where you never fully exhale and never fully inhale. Hopefully, this helps your breath.
Even a number of the Rio olympic freestylers demonstrated an unevenness in their stroke related to their breathing side. I have the idea, though unproven, that a more even stroke with even rotation should be more efficient and ultimately faster. In my own case, I have always had a preferred breathing side. The less comfortable side suffers from a failure to rotate enough to the non-breathing side on recovery. Always something to work on!