We are often focused on fixing breathing problems during the stroking part of the swim, what’s happening away from the wall in the lap lane of the pool. But as I work with swimmers to uncover the causes of their breathlessness we may eventually come to look at what’s going on with their breathing near the wall, in that section of the pool swim where they are approaching, turning and pushing off again. 

Let’s break down this part of the pool swim:

From the backstroke flags to the wall, there may be a couple more strokes and then a glide toward the wall.

Then the swimmer makes either a flip turn (a.k.a. tumble turn) with head underwater, or an open turn with an opportunity for the head to come out of the water.

Then there is the push off and glide (with or without a kick) to the first underwater stroke and breakout.

Do you know what you are doing with your respiration in each of these sections?

Let’s discuss them…

Whether doing a flip turn or an open turn, it goes best to come into the wall at top speed so you have force to rebound more powerfully with. But what you do with your breath depends on what kind of turn you are making.

 

Flip Turn Approach

If you are going to make a flip turn, the glide to the wall, the turn, the push off and glide to the eventual breakout could mean you will go up to 6 or 7 seconds before your next inhale opportunity, if you go slowly or go far on those glides. Just about anyone will experience some sense of deprivation when going that long between breaths.

So the first thing is to get in a final inhale closer to the wall, but not too close. Take that breath after the backstroke flags, but before reaching the “T” at the end of the lane. Avoid taking that inhale while gliding because it will break some of that helpful momentum into the wall.

I would recommend holding breath on the final glide to the wall until you actually start the roll of the body into the flip turn. You can then expel some air as you are contracting your abdominal region and flipping the body in order to keep water from going up your nose while the face is upside down.

But as you push off, you may hold your breath again for just a moment. It might be about 3 seconds or more before you actually break out of the water. You may hold your breath until the moment you take that first underwater stroke, and start exhaling in anticipation of the moment your upper body breaks the surface (the breakout) and you have the first opportunity to inhale again. That reserve of air in the lungs also provides some buoyancy so the water will lift you toward the surface a bit quicker.

On that first underwater stroke, the one which pulls your body the final way to the surface, you may anticipate the approaching opportunity to inhale and time your final, measured exhale at the last moment so you are ready to inhale immediately as the face breaks the surface.

If you are not feeling too uncomfortable it may be better to breakout and wait for the second over-water stroke before taking your first breath. Unless that breakout is perfect, it is likely your body will not be back to parallel balanced position at the first over-water stroke so waiting until the second stroke may permit you to take a sneakier breath with less disruption to your streamline and momentum.

 

Open Turn Approach

Flip turns are cool and a good flip turn is a marker of an experienced pool competitor. But frankly, if you are a triathlete or open water swimmer, or otherwise have no one you need to impress, then I recommend you work on perfecting a good open turn, because when done well, it is compact, nearly as fast as a flip turn and you get a brief refreshing breath at the wall. For open water swimmers, you rarely have situations where you are holding breath for 6 seconds, so flip turns put you in a deprivation situation that has little to do with the conditions you are training for. 

With that said, an open turn gives you an timely air exchange opportunity in the middle of this action at the wall.

In this case, you may be able to take your last breath farther from the wall, like at the backstroke flags (about 2 or 3 strokes before reaching the wall). Then as you glide the final distance into the wall, do a massive exhale right up to the moment your head pops out of the water. A massive exhale is permissible in this particular situation because you’ll have one hand on the edge or lip of the pool wall and in a very secure position to take a single, massive replenishing inhale. You can make that moment a little slower to accommodate the time you need to finish the inhale. This can be a big boost if you were feeling a little deprived from the last length.

Then quickly tuck the head back down between the streamlined arms and push off.

Then I would give the same recommendation as I did for the flip turn folks at this point. Initially hold your breath, until that first underwater stroke, and then start exhaling up to a measured amount – aim for a partial exhale, rather than a massive one – anticipating the moment you’ll take the first breath on the first or second over-water stroke.

 

Avoid A Deficit At The Start

But take a breath on that first over-water stroke if you feel the need, because the whole point is to start the length feeling replenished. Think about it: if you start the stroking section of the length already feeling a respiration deficit, you are in trouble already, and you will end up taking the rest of the swimming section trying to make up for it, and then just plunge yourself into another deficit at the next wall.

So, while you are working on making the stroking part of your pool swim feel more sufficiently respirated, you may also take a look at what you are doing around the wall to reduce or completely remove the deficit you may feel when you start each new length. 

 

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