Breathe Easy while Swimming

This blog entry is going to be a little different (and long!) but bear with me hopefully it’s worth it. I’m going to talk about breathing during swimming for this one which was requested by someone who’d read some of the other entries in my blog.
Breathing is something I've thought about a lot over the years as an athsma sufferer and years spent designing emergency hospital ventilators (the things that get plugged out in teary hollywood endings).
Breathing is obviously a key component of swimming and without good breathing it is very difficult to swim well.
We breathe to take in oxygen which is part of a chemical process used to produce energy in the muscles amongst other places. The second is to remove carbon dioxide which is a by-product of respiration.
During front crawl we are prone with our face in the water. This means we need to make a movement in order to breathe. We do this by rotating our head to the side. This movement, even when done well, is a disruption to our stroke rate and form and slows us down. As swimmers we strive to minimise this disruption. World class swimmers will take either two, one or no breaths during a 50m freestyle sprint race. Don’t try this it’s for the pros only!! They generally breathe on 3 for a 1500m race.
The components of a swim breath are:

  • 1. Breathe into the water while face is submerged
  • 2. Rotate head during arm recovery until mouth is clear of water. Body rotation helps this.
  • 3. Breathe in
  • 4. Rotate head back to neutral position

Sounds easy! It’s not. It takes time to get this right even under instruction of a coach. So don’t feel there’s something wrong if you don’t nail it immediately, keep striving to improve it. Watch a fast swimmer, it can be hard to tell they’ve even taken a breath so smooth and efficient is their movement. This is another thing that makes them fast. Always try to learn from faster swimmers.
Importance of exhaling into the water:

  • You spend less time with mouth out of the water since the air only needs be sucked in and not blown out as well.
  • Urge to breathe is triggered by build-up of carbon dioxide not lack of oxygen. If you hold your breath while swimming it tends to cause a feeling of panic, not a good thing.
  • Exhaling into the water also helps to improve body position. This applies more in the pool. The air in your chest tends to make the chest float more than the legs. Exhaling some air gives a flatter (faster) body position. This isn't relevant at all in the sea in a floaty wetsuit.

Bilateral vs Unilateral Breathing:
Fancy terms which mean breathing on one side or both. Open water swimmers should aim to be able to breathe comfortably on both sides, their left or right. Pretty much everyone has a naturally more dominant side but we can train to be almost ambidextrous in our breathing. In a swim race I breathe on 3 or 2 depending on what part of the race.
Advantages to bilateral breathing include:

  • 1. Get a fuller view of the swim course allowing for better navigation.
  • 2. Fatigues the muscles more evenly
  • 3. Tend to swim in a straighter (quicker) line
  • 4. Can switch to one side if needs be in choppy conditions or glare on the water.
  • 5. Better view of competitors
  • 6. More breathing combinations 2/3/4/5 instead of 2/4

7. As a teenager I was very one sided in my breathing and spent a few months breathing only on my bad side and I 
    found that a very effective way of doing it and now I cannot really tell the difference unless I’m wrecked when I would
    switch back to my good side!
Common Breathing Mistakes

  • 1. Head lifting instead of rotating causing dropping of the hips (slower body position)
  • 2. Over-rotation of the head putting the body out of position and sometimes causing a wide kick to correct (extra drag). If you can keep one goggle in the water it prevents this.
  • 3. Not exhaling into the water.

Hypoxic Drills
This is swimming with less breaths. An example would be breathing on 5 strokes when one normally breathes on 3. Used to be thought that this was in some way equivilant to altitude training but this has been widely dismissed. What it can do though is to cause a swimmer to relax and swim with a more efficient stroke since the air is not coming as often and can’t be wasted. I’ve done these with local swim legend Scot Reid breathing on 9 and it really forces you to become efficient in your energy expenditure. John Dolan (Ironman) pointed out another benefit to me in that they mean you don’t panic if you miss a breath for whatever reason as you know you will get another one shortly.
So there you have it, one of the longer blogs but swim breathing is something that once perfected allows you to swim an awful lot faster.
Shane O'Doherty

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