Sometimes it will be the simplest things that make the biggest difference to your swimming. Breathing smoothly and easily while swimming is a much overlooked skill that takes time to master and is probably the most important skill to obtain. Once mastered it will give confidence and control to the rest of your stroke whether you are in a pool or a rough sea.
With a smooth inhalation and exhalation, known as an exchange, your stroke will be less disorganised, smoother and you won’t feel a deceleration during the recovery phase of your stroke and so no urge to rush to catch up. This will lead to you embracing the water and not fighting it.
As with all new skills this will take a lot of practise and time. Focus on this in the warmup/build part on every swim. Use a pull buoy to remove the focus on your legs and slow your effort down to a maximum of a 5/10 effort this will ingrain a good habit that will stay in your muscle memory for the full set and eventually it will be just the way you swim with no thought to your breath.
It’s all in the exhale
Never hold your breath, just in case you didn’t get that never hold your breath. Also avoid exhaling above the water line. When you do exhale try to do it through your nose and exhale all your air, you should be nearly empty by the time you come to inhale.
If it is normal for you to still have a quantity of air in your lungs try this:
As you rotate to take your next breath and your face is still in the water do a forced exhale through your nose and possibly mouth, carry on with the rotation and take a full inhale once clear of the water.
Please note that if you do this forced exhalation too often you are at the risk of hyperventilating and becoming lightheaded.
A lot of swimmers are able to achieve sufficient exhalation primarily through their noses but this takes practice. The important thing is to exhale sufficiently so that you're ready to inhale as soon as the mouth clears the water.
Even if you wear a nose clip, you should be able to exhale out of your nose as not only does it keep the water out of there it also calms your heart rate and slows the anxiety and pressure of swimming. It may slow you down to start with but that’s a good thing. When your effort level is low, the bubbles from your nose are gentle and get more aggressive as your effort level increases.
If you don’t clear your lungs with each breath, you will tire easily. Basically, you are reducing your lung capacity with each breath. Have you tried to run fast with just nose breathing?
*Science: We get the urge to breathe due to the build-up of carbon dioxide, CO2, in the bloodstream. Exhaling the CO2 in your lungs calms that urge. Exhale enough and you can refuel with fresh oxygen leaving you feel invigorated and less desperate to get that next breath.
Pool drill: Swim an easy 50m and only breathe on strokes 3,5,7, 3, 5, 7… when you are comfortable with this add in a 9, and no speeding up of the arm turn over either. Repeat for 4 or 5 lengths focusing on your stroke and making it efficient as possible. After one or two sessions of this start to increase the effort level.
Bubble, bubble breathe
An old and relevant mantra in swimming is ‘bubble, bubble breathe’. It helps co-ordinate breathing every three strokes (bilateral breathing) and exhalation into the water.
Breathing out of your nose will create bubbles and bubbles will create the pop, pop sound as you exhale. If you cannot hear this, then you probably are not exhaling enough. If you are exhaling but can’t hear it or cant exhale enough through your nose then hum. This will ensure that you are exhaling.
Test: Take a shallow breath seal your mouth and hum a tune. It’s an impossibility not to exhale.
What if I run out of breath you say…. You won’t. You will only think you are which is the body signalling by saying ‘maybe you would like some of that lovely oxygen soon, not right now but soon’. How soon you really need it, not want, is up to you and the effort you are putting in.
Test: Relax and breathe normally for a minute. Sit on the floor and take a big breath into your stomach then your chest. Start your stopwatch and hold your breath, you will probably get your first panic signal at 20–30 seconds, this is known as a contraction, try to ignore it.
On the next contraction start to release a bit of air and hold again, repeat until you are empty. Most people should easily reach 1 -1.5 mins.
*Science: humans can hold their breath up to twice as long underwater as they can on land. The reason is that mammals, including us, have developed a reflex to conserve oxygen while underwater.
Breath and swim…
A common misconception on how to breath whilst swimming by a lot of swimmers is to push down on the leading arm and tilt the head upward, not only does this take you out of the streamlined position adding extra effort to counter this it also puts unnecessary stress on your neck and shoulders.
It is far better to stay on the streamlined position for the whole inhalation and rotate from the hips and shoulders to take a breath. The forward momentum creates a bow wave in front of your head which in turn creates a little pocket of water which is lower than the actual water level where your nose and mouth are, meaning that you only need to slightly rotate enough to get one eye clear of the water. Then inhale from the side of your mouth keeping the other side clamped shut.
Do not lift your head too far out of the water to breathe as this will lead to over-rotation and subsequently an out-of-control stroke. Even in rough seas you don’t need to lift your head that much.
Stand up and put your head in a neutral position, square on your shoulders, rotate left and right leading from your hips, start to rotate your hips and your shoulders and head will follow all together. Imagine a pole going from the base of your spine out the top of your head, that’s your rotational axis so you can rotate around this axis but never bend it.
When it’s time to breath you rotate your hips, shoulders and head and when you breath there should be a fist size gap between your chin and shoulder. Your field of vision is the side of the pool and not what’s slightly behind, up ahead or even above but directly to the side. If this is not the case then you are out of alignment and putting extra pressure on your neck and shoulders.
Another common issue is whiplashing your head by this I mean moving your head too fast when coming for a breath. It should move with your shoulders not before or after but together and the movement back to the water should be just in front of your shoulders and not be overly forceful.
When to breathe
Well it’s all about timing. Too early and it will disrupt your stroke too late and it’s a face full of water. As a rule of thumb your head will be in the correct position just after your hand exits the water and has started to travel forward and your elbow is in its highest position.
Once you have inhaled it’s time to return to that neutral position so your head should rotate back slightly ahead of your hips and shoulders as these naturally rotate back with your stroke. Your head needs to be back in the neutral position before the recovery arm is in the entry position.
If you find your upper arm brushing against your chin, then you need to rotate your head a bit earlier otherwise you will start the catch phase of your stroke too early and with your head out of position. This usually means that you will push down at the start of the catch and not pull back.
Catch phase of the stroke starts just after your hand enters the water and glides forward. It’s when you fold from the elbow to get a grip on the water and maintain it as your body passes that grip point.
Recovery phase of the stroke is the section where your arm exits the water and swings forward to re-enter.
You don’t have to be in the water
This may feel a little weird but go with it. Stand in front of a mirror and look at your stroke. Start with your left arm out in front and your right down by your thigh without rotating your hips or shoulders run through your stroke 4 or 5 times it should feel like somethings not quite right.
Try it again but with a slight rotation leading from your hips… that should feel smoother and more natural.
Now try it again focusing on your breath and matching it to the rotation.
It will be much easier to master the breath work if you swim at a lower intensity as the body can inhale/exhale passively. Once you increase the effort levels the passive exchange will not be sufficient as the higher stroke rate will give you a smaller window of opportunity for breathing.
More breath less time… this can be a real issue leading to anxiety and stress which will be reflected in your swim stroke and then the inevitable breakdown of form and that downward spiral into tiredness. To counter this introduce a momentary pause in your recovery stroke, so short is this pause that a casual observer would not notice it, this would allow you to inhale fully whilst not breaking your streamlined position or interfering with your stroke. Obviously as you get more practiced at this there will be less and less need for it
Panic attacks are quite common even in the pool, if you feel the approach of a panic attack even a slight one a switch of focus can cut it short.
As soon as you feel one coming on, start to blow bubbles from your mouth whilst humming your favourite tune and put all your focus into the bubbles. Of course in a pool you can just stand up and move to the side but as you know that this is a safe space, if you can do try this technique.