Improving ease of breathing is probably the top request I get from new and returning swimmers. It is no wonder – breathing frequently is necessary, swimming requires a lot of respiration, and breathing with the head underwater most of the time is quite an unusual position for a land mammal to be in. Our native instincts for how to get to air actually makes things worse, and its hard to override those instincts.
Breathing Is An Advanced Skill
Breathing is complex and we should consider it an advanced skill because better breathing depends on other stroke skills being firmly in place first.
Better breathing comes from fundamental stroke skills which create more economic movement patterns = lower respiration demand. It comes from more precise, less disruptive movement to and from the air. And it comes from good ‘air management’ skills – how you exhale and inhale, which involves a lot more details than most are usually aware of.
Then there is the breathing pattern itself. People often ask, “What breathing pattern should I use?” I answer, “You don’t conform to the pattern, the pattern conforms to your need for air.” You need to change the pattern according to the effort level and the stroke rate (which determines when your windows of breathing opportunity occur). You should learn bi-lateral breathing and practice a variety of breathing patterns so there is a suitable solution for each situation.
And, even smooth, economic swimming form requires effort and land mammals are not naturally fit for this activity. Those who are fit for running or cycling on land quickly realize that doesn’t transfer well to water. For a new swimmer it can take 3 months of mindful training 4 or more times per week to build up the neural, muscular and metabolic systems to the point where swimming continuously for 800 meters feels relatively comfortable.
If you’ve worked on form, if you’ve worked on breathing technique, if you’ve been training persistently for months and yet find yourself breathless after a length or two, there are more possibilities for the cause.
Recently, I’ve caught a few swimmers making one mistake that has been contributing to their early or extraordinary breathlessness: they are holding their breath too long after pushing off the wall at the beginning of a new repeat. They push off, glide, break out and then still hold their breath more than half way down the lane! This is putting them into a respiratory deficit right at the beginning of their swim.
Note The Lag Time
When you rest at the wall, resources are being restored to the muscle cells. When you rest just enough after strenuous repeats, those cells get what they need to immediately get back to swimming. You need to rest because it takes time for the respiratory/circulatory system to get stuff there, to resupply what will be so quickly used up in the moment ahead. There is a lag time between muscle action and respiration catching up. When you take off on the next repeat, your cells will immediately be using up supplies faster than the blood stream can resupply, and you will feel the stress of that in the form of breathlessness. It can take over a minute or two (depending on your level of fitness) for respiration to catch up and maintain an adequately steady supply.
If you are doing repeats that last over a minute or two, then (granted, you’ve built up some fitness base) you should feel your respiration catch up and feel like you could sustain this effort a while. You might be breathing heavily, but you’re not ‘breathless’.
If you are doing repeats that last under a minute at high intensity (what we’d likely call ‘sprints’) then you may never feel like respiration catches up because it can’t. Sprinters are always operating in a deficit and the body has to be forced to adapt to it. Breathlessness, to some tolerable degree in those who are fit, is part of sprinting.
This lag time is one of the reasons why we don’t want to rest too long while doing sprint repeats – we need to keep the heart rate up, and breathing strong so that there is less lag between the cells burning up oxygen and the respiratory/circulatory system resupplying it. If those systems are still pumping strong, it won’t take them as long to rev up to the exertion level of the cells once we get going again.
So, in either case, (unless you have a very specific tactical reason to train otherwise), when you launch on the next repeat, you should aim to take your first breath right after you break out. It is advisable to do it on your second above-surface stroke so that the body has a chance to balance, but don’t wait until your third. When pushing off, if done well, you’ll already be holding breath for about 3 seconds, and waiting until your second stroke will be 2 or 3 seconds more. That’s a LONG TIME to be holding the breath in swimming. If you wait longer you create a deeper deficit of resources for the muscle cells which are burning through those so quickly, and that means it will take longer for your respiration to catch up, more than 2 minutes, if ever. The less fit you are, the longer that lag will be and the less you will be able to tolerate the discomfort of it.
So, don’t hold your breath longer than necessary after pushing off the wall!
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