Here is a ‘short’ and essential checklist to help you survey your pattern to look for gaps or weak spots. If you’ve been to one of our training events you’ll recognize many of these points and remember what kind of drills we use to develop these skills. If not, just from the name or description you may be able to get a sense of what each means.
As you work through each of these and examine what you are doing (or not doing), you may identify where your biggest hindrances to easier breathing are. Using each one, one-at-a-time, notice differences in your strong side breathing compared to your weak side to find out precisely why that weak side doesn’t function as well. Then you will know what to work on rather than tolerate or avoid it.
Fundamental Stroke Skills to Support Easier Breathing
- the Torpedo Frame (or Spine) – you are going to rotate on this spine axis
- long, straight, firm Skate Position – this is the supporting platform for your entire breathing action
- Send-Force-Forward through a shapely Recovery Swing – which ties into…
- the ideal Arm-Switch Timing – which sets up the ideal moment to insert the rhythmic breath
Positioning of Head and Lead Arm
- Keep the head in neutral (weightless) position before the turn
- Turn the head on the spine axis, mostly underwater – DO NOT TILT the head
- Keep lead arm extending forward during the entire turn and return of the head – DO NOT PUSH DOWN
Timing of the Turn
- Turn the head as soon as possible – begin right with the set of the catch
- Turn and return quickly
- Take just a quick sip of air
- Do not begin the catch until the head is back in face-down position
- Steady exhale with bubbles coming from the nose (you may exhale from mouth at higher exertion)
- Clear airways with a quick blast (like a dolphin) just before touching the air
- Take just a quick sip of air
- Emphasize exhale to reduce respiration discomfort
- YOU MUST practice bi-lateral breathing
- Breathe as often as you feel need, then you can…
- Be ready to skip a breath occasionally – just emphasize inhale and exhale a bit more on next breath or two to recover
- Alternate sides – practice breathing on every 3 strokes, or 2-3-2-3, or 3-4-3-4
- Develop precision, consistency and endurance around the fundamental stroke skills – this lowers drag, preserves forward momentum, and thereby lowers air exchange demand
- Develop precision and consistency around the breathing skills – this makes getting to air much easier and less disruptive to forward momentum
- Understand asymmetric breathing rhythm is unusual, but you can get used to it
- Swimming involves some sense of air deprivation – the higher the effort the more you feel this, no way to avoid it
- Be OK with skipping a breath occasionally – the wave of hypoxic discomfort will pass in a few seconds after the next breath
- The more practiced you are in these skills, the more your brain will calm down, feel less anxious and the body will require less air exchange
- Because of this constrained breathing situation realize swimming is AWESOME for developing cardio-vascular fitness! **
This is just my short-list of skill that make breathing easier, smoother, more comfortable; I have many more not shown here which improve other details of the action. Your next breakthrough may just require one of these, or perhaps a few. I am not saying that breathing is easy to master, just that these skills, once established, make breathing so much easier. It will take time and diligence in your practice time but once the skills are in place, the breathing action will come as easy to you as other swimmers make it look.
** I want to note that if you swim with enough frequency (3 days a week or more) and with enough intensity mingled in with that (like 20% of more of your weekly training with uncomfortably high heart rate and breathing), your cardio-vascular fitness will get so much stronger. Whereas land-based fitness will not help you so much in the water, swimming fitness will carry over and benefit you on land.
Improve Stroke Fundamentals First
Let me reiterate this point: though you may want to seek out a coach to help you only with your breathing, it would be appropriate for your fundamental stroke skills to be examined first, to make sure they are ready to support the breathing action. If there are gaps or weaknesses there, it will make breathing demand higher and the attempt to get to air much more difficult. Strengthen the foundation because breathing easy depends on it.
Pick A Few, Work Them Thoroughly
In our fundamental skills 4-lesson series we devote nearly 90 minutes to breathing. We begin this only on the third lesson after we have worked on the stroke foundation first. It becomes clear with many students that once we start working on the list of breathing skills that it could fill a workshop of its own! There is so much to examine. However, it is usually sufficient to identify three or four certain skills from the list to work on for a while and though not perfect, those will make breathing so much better than it was before.
So, do not attempt to work on all of them at once. The list is also given in order of priority for development – work on a couple position skills first, then a couple in timing, then a couple in air management, then work on a couple in breathing patterns. Cycle through these over the course of a several practices. Pick one or two focal points and work those intensively until they feel familiar to your nervous system, even preferred.
You may work on the position and timing without actually breathing. Do just short repeats where you can comfortably hold your breath. By removing the need to breath in this first stage, by doing short repeats then stopping to breath between you can more easily focus on keeping things in position, and provide many repetitions for your body to figure things out. You must be in superior position to breath easily, but you’ve got to breath in order to work on the position – this is the paradox that you can solve by this approach. So, don’t bother trying to take a sip of air for a while. Just practice holding head and arm position, turning and returning the head until you can consistently touch the air with your face without feeling so much struggle or strain.
Speed Up To Fly
Here is another paradox for many less-buoyant body types: like a plane needs speed to fly, you must add some speed, some thrust in each stroke to stay near the surface, while doing so increases your need for air exchange. But you can solve this in the same way. Do short repeats, without trying to actually breath, in order to build the skills that get you into easy breathing position. To first acquire the basic control over body position and timing, you do need to slow things down in drill mode, and for many body types, this makes you sink a bit lower in the water, making it harder to actually touch the air when holding superior position. This is another reason why we do short repeats without attempting to actually breath (yet). Eventually, once those skills feel more familiar, you need to speed up the action to more functional stroke tempo and stroke pressure. This forward thrust provides lift when it connects with the lift-worthy shape that you developed in those fundamental stroke skills.
So, be precise, but don’t be delicate about your stroke movements when working on breathing. Keep the Skate Side long and firm, and make your underwater stroke deliberate and directional. You need thrust, you need lift and then your practiced breathing action will connect more easily with the air.
For some of you this three-part series will give you a lot of useful ideas to work with. And for some, you will still be begging for more. I realize breathing is better taught in video and best taught in live lessons. I hope you can access a TI Coach or one who has similar understanding of how all this works together to help your body integrate these skills.
And, let me know how we at Mediterra might help you further.
Read the whole series: