Coach Becky Black
Becky Black is a triathlon and run coach at The Fast Lab in Colorado. She has her Master’s in exercise science with a minor in sport psychology. She has been coaching triathletes since 2011. For more information or questions, please e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org
As a coach, I take a progressive approach to teaching swimmers. Just like a kid learning to throw a ball, you don’t teach the wind up first, you start with a simple overhead throw. In swimming, I start with the basics when it comes to breathing. In this article I will share my foundation breathing method, designed to help you more speed up that learning curve on learning your good stroke mechanics and building endurance. While most swimmers see immediate improvements within one or two sessions, for those with extreme fear or anxiety it will take you longer to fully master the technique, so it’s imperative that you remain patient. Before we begin, let me help you understand why this will help you.
The Case for Breathing Less Often
Subconscious or involuntary breathing occurs when the brain receives a signal that oxygen (O2) and carbon dioxide (CO2) in the blood is out of balance. As the body uses O2 to make energy, the byproduct, CO2, rises and your brain receives a signal to breathe to maintain the appropriate ratio of O2:CO2. When exercising, your respiratory rate increases as CO2 is pumped more quickly into the blood. But what if you don’t exhale CO2 at the same rate you’re inhaling O2?
For experienced swimmers, breathing happens involuntarily, like in running. But for new swimmers, who have to breathe voluntarily, they struggle with over-inhaling and under-exhaling. As the CO2 builds up in the lungs and blood, the body responds the only way it can, by telling you to breathe more, but with each less than optimal exhale and the “desperate for air” inhales, the problem is only exacerbated. Thus despite rapid breathing, new swimmers are left feeling breathless, dizzy, and fatigued as they can’t get in the oxygen they need.
Breathing faster unnecessarily can also increase stress and cause a panic attack. This is because when breathing frequency increases so does your HR. Breathing hard when you’re sprinting is appropriate, but if not, your brain will respond as if something is wrong. So even if you didn’t start out anxious, your body became convinced that you are because of the unnecessary, fast breathing and poor oxygen flow.
Rapid, deep breathing also costs more energy. Breathing like all else takes work and requires energy input and contrasted to the energy efficient, quiet breathing of sleeping, breathing during exercise costs more because of the additional muscle recruited and the increased force and rapidity of contraction. However, in most cases, your subconscious mind matches your breathing frequency & depth to your effort in order to optimize efficiency. But as a new swimmer, nothing is automatic and breathing is very inefficient, costing more energy input and muscular strength than is comfortable.
Learning to Breathe Efficiently: The Exhale
To sum up what we learned from the above information; in order to get a better grasp on breathing, efficient, relaxed breathing with a bigger focus on exhaling is key. And since it’s typically easiest to learn good stroke mechanics when you are going at a slower, more relaxed pace anyways, you’ll get double the benefit. I recommend that practice starts while kicking on a kickboard.
In order to better help you understand what to do I will explain it in two different ways. When exhaling, I want a slow and steady exhale, preferably through the nose*, but if you exhale through the mouth purse your lips together gently. You want to see a small steady stream of bubbles trailing behind you. Imagine you’re trying to create small, evenly shaped bubbles. Here’s an analogy that offers another way of thinking about it. You all know what a trumpet and clarinet are correct? If not google photos of people playing a trumpet, then people playing a clarinet. Notice the different shape their mouth makes. The mouth piece of the trumpet is significantly wider than that of a clarinet, as a result, to play the trumpet, you have to put quite a bit of force into your exhale in order to hit the right notes. In the photos you can see their cheeks blow up like a puffer fish. Whereas a clarinet requires much less force to play and you can see their lips pursed together and cheeks are thin. Interestingly, if you blow too hard on a clarinet it causes an awful squeaking noise. While swimming at your comfortable pace, you want to exhale like you’re playing a steady note on the clarinet (remember you can do this through the nose or mouth). Playing the trumpet is a useful way of breathing during your hard sets.
When beginning, I’d focus on fine tuning how long you need to exhale at your given pace. If you don’t exhale enough your lungs will start to feel like over-inflated balloons with your next inhale. But if you exhale too much or too long you will feel like your lungs are collapsing (that was slightly dramatic, but you get the idea). After your initial practice on the kick board, you will need to play around with your ideal stroke number. I’d recommend breathing a minimum of every 3-4 strokes and a max of about 7. Don’t worry if it’s not the exact same number of strokes each time, but consistent is best. One drill you can do is start breathing every 2 strokes then each time you do a length add a stroke between breaths until you find your sweet spotYou should not need to screw up your stroke mechanics in order to get to your next inhale, nor should you still be exhaling when you go to inhale. . Listen to your body and try to find what feels comfortable and sustainable.
Returning to the clarinet analogy for a moment, many find actually humming while they swim very helpful. And no, you don’t hum the notes to a song, just a single steady note. There are many advantages to humming. It helps you to control the length and force of your exhale, and it clues you in to if you are breathing too little, too long, or if you are feeling anxious. If you’re note is choppy or broken or very loud you will know you need to adjust what you’re doing. Lastly, humming will actually help your relax by giving your mind something to focus on as well as through the vibrations of the vocal chords.
Learning to Breathe Efficiently: The Inhale
At your slow-comfortable pace, you need to inhale less often. Your inhale should come through the mouth and should be quick enough to not cause a delay in your stroke and should not fill your lungs to capacity. Depending on how efficient you are and how often you are breathing will depend on the volume you take in per breath. As a rough estimate, at my comfortable Z1/2 pace I breathe on average every 7-8 strokes and probably only inhale about 60% of what I do at my Z4/5 paces. Remember, the bigger the breath you take, the longer you will need to exhale. Most new swimmers are not going to be comfortable breathing every 7-8 strokes, nor are they going to be comfortable taking in tiny little sips of air to accommodate breathing too frequently. Like the exhale, there is going to be a “sweet range” that you will need to try to find. Remember, the more relaxed you are the better. Panic will cause you to over-inhale. One clue if you are ready to inhale is a tiny pause between your exhale and next inhale (you’re not holding your breath) that happens while you are rotating your head to breathe. If you are still exhaling when your mouth hits air, you are breathing too soon. In good stroke timing, the head is only out of the water for a fraction of a second, if part of that time is spent exhaling, you will definitely not have sufficient time to inhaler or you will have to slow down your stroke to accommodate the extra time.
You should find that within a few sessions, you are already spending less time thinking about breathing allowing you to better focus on your mechanics. As you get stronger, build up your endurance and start working on getting ready for race day, it is imperative that you not only work on your race speeds, but also your race breathing (higher frequency and more forceful). Remember, your breathing should match your effort.
*Exhaling through the nose is beneficial for a few reasons including it helps keep water out of the nose, helps keep water out of your mouth, and it is easier to control the rate of the exhale.