It’s apparent that making breathing easier is one of the top concerns for swimmers. And so, virtually all programs and methods offer some ideas for how to improve it.
I’ve written several posts on breathing for swimming that several seemed to have appreciated:
In response to the need for more breathing help I created an 8-week Master Class Breathing course in our Online Coaching Program. to guide swimmers through a process for integrating a full range of breathing skills. It takes time, mindful attention, and patience in the process, and it works.
Coincidentally, as part of a larger project I am working on, I have been studying some resources on breathing technique on land, or “breathwork” as named by the author Gay Hendricks PhD in his book Conscious Breathing: Breathwork for Health, Stress Release and Personal Mastery.
This study has urged me to add some land-breathing work to the swim-breathing work in that course, to complement each other.
And this is what I want to highlight in this blog – the relationship between breathing on land and breathing in water.
Yes, we need to arrive at easy breathing in swimming so that it no longer poses any restrictions for us. But, I propose that learning to breathe better on land can help us perform even better in the water. Consider how many hours you spend breathing on land compared to the hours in the pool each week. It will be very hard to overcome inferior breathing habits in the water if we are reinforcing those inferior habits all the time away from the water. And, according to what I’ve read so far, inferior breathing is the norm for adult land-based humans, with a host of illnesses that are provoked by it.
So, if we want to have superior breathing habits in the water, let’s do at least some basic improvement for breathing on land.
There are three basic habits, commonly taught in breathing practice, that I have acquired over the last few years, which I continue to consciously practice throughout my waking hours.
1. Become aware of my breathing
It is so simple that it is too easy to overlook, or to dismiss.
Awareness is the foundation for any attempt to change or improve some undesired habit. The stronger my ability to focus and maintain awareness on some point, the better my position for affecting a change.
So, periodically, at any time of my wakeful day, I take note of what my breathing is like. I do this standing at my desk (I have a standing desk). I do this often while driving, standing in line, walking down the street, sitting at the dinner table, approaching a potentially stressful interaction, etc.
It is easy to understand why breath-awareness is the starting point for so many meditation practices. It is universal, it is portable, it is perpetual. Everyone has it, and it goes with me everywhere I go, and it will never stop until I do.
But the quality of that breathing will affect the quality, and arguably, the length of my life. What will make it better?
2. Breathe from the diaphragm, not the upper chest
In two of the books I have read recently, they both mention this fact: the top part of the lungs circulate less than 1/10 of a liter of blood per minute, while the lower part of the lungs circulates more than 1 liter of blood per minute – 10 times as much! (Conscious Breathing, p.44) When breathing from the upper chest, expanding only a small part of the lungs, the effective oxygen exchange is just a fraction of one’s air exchange capacity. While a diaphragmatic breath pulls air deeply into the lungs, all the way to the bottom and gets fuller potential for exchange. We’re not talking exaggerated breaths either, just normal automatic breathing, but having it initiated by habit from a different set of muscles.
Add that understanding to this:
The human body is designed to discharge 70 percent of its toxins through breathing. Only a small percentage of toxins are discharged through sweat, defecation, and urination. If your breathing is not operating at peak efficiency, you are not ridding yourself of toxins properly. If less than 70 percent of your toxins are being released through breathing, other systems of your body, such as kidneys, must work overtime. This overwork can set the stage for a number of illnesses. (p.17)
Not all breaths are equal – and technique really matters – it’s just that most of us adults need to re-learn this proper technique. We lost it somewhere along the way.
An interesting observation Dr Hendricks made: virtually every baby he’s seen breathes correctly, but by the time children reach about 12 years old, most are breathing wrong – from the upper chest. Something in those first few years has wrecked their original, superior breathing program. Not only is chest-breathing less effective, it contributes to the build up of toxins and stress in the other systems of the body.
I think this diaphragmatic breathing is just about a steady habit for me now, but it was not this way originally – I had to work on it over time. And I keep working at it. I observe that I finally have rhythmic diaphragmatic breathing during conscious activities – my dry-land conditioning exercises, during my running, during my swimming – and now I think I am doing it most of the time during my work day while my mind is focused on things outside my body. Again, the habit of awareness, or specifically, the habit of checking in on my body regularly, helps me reinforce this superior pattern.
One way I practice deep breathing with a firm core, to simulate how I do this in water, is to get into plank position, then count deep-breaths to mark the time I hold that position. The muscles below my navel are firm, while I feel the flex of each breath in the muscles just above the navel – a sign that my diaphragm is working the breath. A steady, controlled breath is about 3 seconds long and when I’ve done 35 or so of these I’ve held plank for over 90 seconds. A few repeats (in different plank positions to work different muscle groupings) and one has a nice breathing + core exercise set.
3. Nasal breathing
There are a host of benefits to the body listed by breathwork specialists for breathing through the nose, rather than through the mouth. One that catches our interest for athletics and daily work life most is how nasal breathing triggers the parasympathetic nervous system to lower heart rate and lower stress response in the body.
I imagine this could be challenging for some to master from a long habit of mouth breathing. But don’t hide behind excuses, if the change will bring you a net benefit. In my family genetics some of us have a small and somewhat obstructed septum in the nose so that if there is even a little irritation the passage feels mostly obstructed. My sister even had surgery to open hers up a bit more in the hope it would help. If there is even the lightest cool breeze my nose is dripping, and so trying to inhale through the nose while running in cool air feels a bit like breathing in a shower, with drops clogging my nose on each inhale. When running I often ‘farmer-blow’ my nostrils clear so one who runs next to me should take care! Of course, in the water, you don’t notice what’s being discharged from everyone’s body (Yuk! You didn’t want me to remind you of that, did you!).
But, despite the challenges I learned to use nasal breathing regularly in aerobic and lower level activities, and the response in my body is worth the effort to master it. Unless one has a clear medical reason to stay away from nasal breathing, you should seriously consider developing this habit, despite the initial awkwardness.
What we’re aiming for, from this conscious reformation of breathing technique on land, is a new habit, and a habit is a program that takes over unconsciously to effortlessly trigger the action. When we put in the time and effort to retrain a system, what was formerly difficult and seemingly unsustainable becomes automatic and perpetual.
Human beings are re-programmable to an unbelievable extent. We need to practice awareness of the habits that drive us, and consider if they are truly good enough or not, then put in some effort to improve those that need it.
Think about it – if we are breathing better on land, we recover faster, we replenish energy faster, we think better, we feel better. And, then join that with superior breathing technique in the water and we become athletes with more energy, more awareness, more control, more power, more happiness.
Sounds good, doesn’t it?
So, what’s happening with your breathing right now, as you read this? What’s one thing you can practice this week to improve it?