There are several details to making the breath (in freestyle stroke) feel relaxed and easy.
Among the several here is one that, coincidentally, several recent students have noted as making the biggest breakthrough:
Turn to breathe sooner.
Now, this assumes that you are already keeping your head down, and rotating on your laser spine (I label it the “Shishkabok” here in Turkey) because that is the only way this will work smoothly for you. If your head is tilted up it disrupts the whole set up.
So presuming you are holding good head position, let your head rotate to air with the turn of the shoulders, as soon as you set the catch. The Catch, torso rotation, and turn to breath are one smooth, unified movement.
As I have heard so many coaches say, “You can’t breathe too early” (in the catch phase).
As a matter of fact, there is so much inertia in the whole equation that is wanting to push your breath later and later in the catch phase, and perhaps blow it all the way into the recovery phase. What you end up with is a classic-looking, but poorly timed breath while your recovery arm is swinging forward. Just because it is so common does not mean it is a trait that should be imitated. Test it and you will see for yourself.
Ideally, you should have taken a quick ‘sip’ of air, and have your head turning back, by the time your recovery arm starts its swing forward. A visual cue: your eyes should not be able to see your recovery arm coming forward.
In Google Images I typed in ‘swimmer breathing’. I was embarrassed for all the swimmers I saw on that first page with poor timing. The only two pics that came even close to showing good timing was this one with Terry, coincidentally…
You’ll notice how the head is nearly hidden in the water while taking his sip of air. Goggles are split by the water. There is a nice little trough where his mouth is because his head has stayed down. If, in fact, his head is already turning back to its down-looking position, then this is about as late as you’d want to be doing it.
And another positive example snapshot here:
Head is down. You can get the sense of his spine pointing straight down the lane (not up into the sky), and the spine is one straight line from head to tail. You can see that front arm holding position nicely in front. He’s (hopefully) finishing his sip of air and ready to turn back without seeing that arm swinging forward.
No doubt, this early breath takes some training and constant upkeep, because, like I said, there is a great deal of inertia (water resistance, imbalance, poor head position, exhaustion, old habits, rough water, etc) pulling you towards a late breath. Even swimmers with highly develop breathing skill need to keep this tuned up because everything is constantly working against it, especially under challenging race or water conditions. But that late breath creates a chain reaction of drag inducing adjustments in body position and loss of streamline that make you a bit more desperate for air. A negative spiral.
So, we can organize easy breathing in three learning steps:
1) head position
3) breath management
When my students adjust the timing back to an early breath (after making sure the head is down, goggles split by the water, laser-spine-shishkabob thing pointing straight down the lane), they report a dramatic increase in how easy it is to get enough air. It’s not just that they have more time to take a breath, but that their bodies suddenly require less air – they were formerly burning up so much just from poor head (and therefore, body) position. They have perceived that it became easy because their entire swimming became easier – just from keeping the head in good positions and the sip of air well-timed.
Little things like this add up, and little things can make a huge difference – for ease or for exhaustion. You choose which by how you train.