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Your head should rotate at less of an angle during freestyle than is needed to drive a car safely, says USA Swimming.
One of the keys to swimming freestyle is proper rotation of body and head as you turn to breathe to the side, or rotary breathe. For effective rotation, you'll need to be balanced in the water and have your head positioned correctly. Being relaxed and breathing efficiently are also important when turning, or rotating, your head during freestyle.
Head and Body Rotation
Most of the freestyle stroke takes place on the swimmer's stomach, rather than side, which means the head is facing down in the water for much of the stroke. The body rotates from the shoulders, rather than the hips, says USA Swimming, with the best freestyle swimmers rotating about 30 degrees to each side underwater as they turn their heads to breathe. Hips rotate, too, but not as much because too much rotation of your legs means less effective kicking. Unless you are turning to breathe, your head should be straight down in the water. Extending your neck, even slightly, to swim in a forward-looking position can upset your body's balance in the water.
Turning to Breathe
When rotating to breathe, your head should turn with the rest of your shoulders, rather than over-rotating. Head and body rotation should take place along the long axis, or imaginary line running through the swimmer's body from head to toe. You need only rotate your head enough to get your mouth out of the water enough to take in air. The water next to your head while swimming will be cupped, rather than flat, forming a pocket ideal for catching a breath of air without turning your head all the way out of the water. Proper rotation, explains USA Swimming, means you shouldn't be turning your head more than 45 degrees to the side to breathe.
Relax the muscles in your neck and shoulders as you turn to breathe so that you don't use more energy than needed to turn and to avoid over-rotation. Relaxing also means not holding your breath while you swim. You should be exhaling slightly -- not blowing air out hard, just letting it escape -- the entire time your face is in the water. This will serve two purposes. First, your core muscles will remain relaxed, using less oxygen. Second, when your mouth clears the water for a breath, you'll be ready to inhale immediately, rather than having to exhale before taking in air. This is important because it means you'll be able to take in more air before your face goes back into the water rather than not getting enough, or holding your head to the side too long to breathe, throwing off the rhythm of your stroke and slowing you down.
While many swimmers prefer breathing to one side over the other, learning to rotate properly to both sides for breathing is important. Bilateral breathing helps the swimmer take in more oxygen during long workouts and keep an eye on competition during races. Bilateral breathing is also useful in open water, where water conditions may make it necessary to breathe to a specific side. Swimmers conditioned to breathing to only one side often find it difficult to breathe to the weaker side, resulting in over-rotation and stroke imbalance.