[I apologize for posting a week late – I was caught up in preparations and then marrying off one of my daughters this last weekend! It went very well, thank you. I intend to write an extra post soon to make up for that week.]
In the previous post, I pointed out that there could be a situation where you are holding your breath too long and that could cause some stress as you start out on a swim in the pool. But in this post I want to make a case for the opposite – holding breath intentionally!
The Reasons Why?
First, if swimming a lot in the pool, there are going to be times in every session where air was not where your mouth expected it to be. The surface may be rough because the pool may be busy and no lane lines are in. You may be sharing a lane. You may not be consistent in your breathing technique. It will really help your forward momentum if you are able to skip a breath from time to time without disrupting your form and rhythm and then make up for it over the next few breathing opportunities ahead.
Obviously, if you feel desperate for every breath you take then skipping a breath will seem impossible to get away with. That situation takes us back to the examination of your stroke economy, the way you get to air, the way you manage exhale and inhale, your level of fitness, and we may possibly need to find out what fears are still swirling around deep in your brain causing problems for your respiration. Your goal is to have each of those developed enough so that you can feel abundantly supplied with air even at high intensities and therefore able to skip a breath from time to time, and recovery quickly from the stress of it without disrupting your progress or happiness.
Imaged used by licensed permission from 123rf.com
Second, in open water, you are going to be skipping breaths even more often. Waves, wind, turbulence caused by people close by may conflict with your air space.
How To Practice
How you practice for this is to get into your normal breathing pattern and then skip a breath on every length or two, and discipline yourself to wait for the next breath in that pattern and instead of breathing more often to make up for it, exhale and inhale a bit more deeply for the next two breaths – practice letting yourself recover from that extended breath hold without disrupting your rhythm, pace or pattern.
When you hold breath longer than expected, the body will feel stress and send signals of discomfort to your brain, which urge you to forget about your progress and do whatever is necessary to get air NOW, no matter what. If, under best conditions, your breathing action is already a bit disruptive to your streamline and stroke choreography, breathing with desperation is only going to magnify that problem.
Another way to practice this is to get into your regular breathing pattern and then take quicker sips (smaller sips) of air. You’re still getting something, but not quite as much as you’d like. This would simulate a situation where you went for air and had to stop it short when a wave sneaked up your face and closed the window too soon.
By disciplining yourself to maintain your best form under the stress of brief deprivation, you’ll not only preserve your momentum forward, you’ll discover that you’re not going to die when this happens. The stress you feel from skipping a breath will dissipate over the few strokes after your next two breaths. That tolerance of the discomforts of limited deprivation, that confidence that you’ll be OK, will be of great service to you in more difficult swimming conditions, especially in open water.
Another way to practice this is to do competitive-type flip turns (a.k.a. tumble turns), which when done well, may have you holding breath for 6 or 7 seconds. The sequence is like this: holding breath starting from 2 strokes away from the wall, coming to the wall full speed, flipping aggressively while exhaling from the gut, push-off and glide past the flags and breakout, then breathe on the second over-water stroke. Every length you’ll be holding breath for an extraordinary amount of time, which for competitive pool swimmers is ordinary. If that becomes a normal part of every practice, every length, then skipping breaths from time to time becomes no big deal.
Over months and months, slight but regular deprivation will provoke your body to make deep vascular adaptations, and what formerly left you breathless will no longer do so. It will also cause you to perceive deprivation less negatively, to the point where it become mere (neutral) sensation. And one day you may find that you find that you actually like that tingle inside when the O2 and CO2 levels are a bit extreme!