What do you do when you have done your best to solve your breathlessness problem in the pool and it is still not enough?

You followed the Checklist For Easier Breathing:

  • You’ve worked hard on your fundamental stroke skills.
  • You’ve worked hard on the breathing technique – body position, timing of the turn.
  • You’ve worked hard on managing exhale and inhale and tried different breathing patterns.
  • You’ve even worked hard on your attitude, to get comfortable with the discomfort that is normal to the exertion in swimming.

And, you are still feeling breathless. What’s going on?

Here is one more thing to check…

Where is your body generating the breath from while resting and while swimming? From your upper chest, or from deep in belly?

I was working with a student on this exact same situation in the pool recently. Upon inspection, though we found minor things to improve and added focal points for those, I did not see anything in the stroke choreography to account for his continued complaint of breathlessness after one length. He’s been training for months working on all the necessary stroke skills, but still running into this problem.

I watched his air management skills more closely. He was exhaling underwater appropriately, and his inhale appeared sufficient. Even when we increased his breathing pattern (increased the average frequency of breaths per length) to a 2-3-2-3 pattern, he was feeling slightly better, but not enough.

As he stood and rested at the wall I watched his breathing. I saw that his rib cage was expanding, the shoulders lifting on each breath. He was clearly breathing from the upper chest, or what is called ‘thoracic breathing’. He was not breathing deep with the diaphragm, which would cause the belly to expand visibly, and the upper chest to stay still.

If he was habitually breathing in the upper chest while standing, he was most likely doing this while swimming.


Why breathe in the diaphragm rather than the upper chest?

The upper lungs exchange a fraction of the air that the lower lungs do. To maintain swimming exertion the lungs need to both absorb oxygen and expel carbon dioxide. If breathing in the upper lungs alone, the athlete is not getting enough oxygen replenished, nor is he getting rid of enough CO2 from the blood stream. Enough good stuff is not getting in and bad stuff is not getting out, causing his performance to drop quickly.

But diaphragmatic breathing maximizes air exchange.

The textbook, Respiratory Physiology (West, 2000), suggests that the lower 10% of the lungs transports more than 40 ml of oxygen per minute, while the upper 10% of the lungs transports less than 6 ml of oxygen per minute. Hence, the lower parts of the lungs are about 6-7 times more effective in oxygen transport than the top of the lungs due to richer blood supply mostly caused by gravity.
During thoracic breathing, lower layers of the lungs, which are most valuable in oxygen transport, get much less, if any, fresh air (less oxygen supply). This causes reduced oxygenation of arterial blood in the lungs and can lead to so called “ventilation-perfusion” mismatch (as in COPD or emphysema). Normal breathing is diaphragmatic, allowing homogeneous inflation of both lungs with fresh air, similar to what happens in the cylinder of a car engine due to the movement of the piston. (excerpt from Normalbreathing.com)

The apparent improper breathing technique – chest breathing – could easily explain his breathlessness after short distances. Breathing from the upper chest is like trying to swim at 14,000 foot elevation! Under that condition, even one who can swim continuously for hours would feel breathless in a couple lengths.


Immediate Improvement

So, I had him put his hand on the belly below the navel, and practice diaphragmatic (belly) breathing at rest, making his hand move in and out. This is not necessarily the most precise way to do it, but it was much better than before. Then, while swimming he would attempt to emphasize exhale with the diaphragm. By just focusing on contracting the diaphragm to the exhale, when those muscles were released it would pull air deeper down into the lungs naturally without having to concentrate on it so much.

It was hard to make sure he was breathing this way while swimming, but I could monitor him while standing to rest at the wall to make sure he was getting a much better recovery than before just by breathing into the deep lungs.

After the next few lengths he was swimming a bit farther than before. He noticed it was a significant reduction in breathlessness, and interestingly, he told me that it felt like it improved his balance too. He theorized that now air was being drawn deeper into the lungs, contributing slightly but noticeably to lightening his hips, which made it feel easier to keep fore-aft balance.

I wasn’t sure how well he was executing this brand new skill while swimming, but I expected the improved recovery alone would improve the distance he could swim before hitting the wall on each repeat.

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

Take Time, Attention To Form A New Habit

Switching to diaphragmatic breathing may not be a quick fix. Though he could concentrate on this new skill while at rest, I was not expecting him to instantly be able to swim this way on every stroke. Even for just normal, non-athletic activities on land, one might need to practice mindfully for weeks or months to unlearn chest breathing and turn diaphragmatic breathing into a habit. There are muscles that need to (re)learn this pattern, and be strengthened to work in ways they have not been working (probably) since he was infant, and then be automated to operate this way without attention on it. Just like swimming muscles need to be strengthened to handle thousands of strokes with consistent precision, these under-developed breathing muscles would need to be strengthened to handle at least an hour of swimming practice. That may take some weeks.

I encouraged him to practice this form of breathing everywhere, any time it comes to mind, even if just for a few breaths – laying in bed, standing, walking, sitting, driving… anywhere. It may not take that long to form a new habit on land. It will benefit him in running and cycling (he is a triathlete) and in daily life in general.


Breathe Better To Live Better

Good breathing technique has a profound effect on health in general…

Hence, during diaphragmatic breathing, all alveoli are homogeneously stretched vertically and get fresh air supply with higher O2 concentration for superior arterial blood oxygenation. In contrast, chest breathing creates problems with blood oxygenation. This leads to reduced cell oxygenation: the driving force of all chronic diseases.

In Patrick McKeown’s book The Oxygen Advantage, he calls this abdominal breathing…

Abdominal breathing is more efficient simply because of the shape of the lungs. Since they are narrow at the top and wider at the bottom, the amount of blood flow in the lower lobes of the lungs is greater than in the upper lobes. The fast upper-chest breathing of people who chronically hyperventilate does not take advantage of the lower parts of the lungs, limiting the amount of oxygen that can be transferred to the blood and resulting in a greater loss of CO2. Not only this, but upper-chest breathing activates the fight-or-flight response, which raises stress levels and produces even heavier breathing. (p.72)

Basically, chest breathing = stress. This kind of stress leads to breathlessness, and eventually to disease. Now that should be strong motivation to work on breathing technique!

So, if all else in the foundation has been checked and improved to a degree that it could not account for your continued breathlessness, and you have been practicing regularly so that your fitness should not be lacking this much, then go back to this ‘air management’ category and examine your current technique for breathing. If it is not distinctly coming from your belly then you may get take this bad news as good news – you may have discovered a big part of the solution for your breathlessness problem.

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