In this post I am continuing to answer questions received about breathing problems. You may like to view Answers to Breathing Questions #1 and #2.

Breathing Deeply From The Belly

W from Germany had quite a few questions on the topic of diaphragmatic breathing…

At what stage in my development as a swimmer should I start working on belly (diaphragmatic) breathing? 

Rooting the breathing down in the diaphragm would be desirable in all swimming situations because of how much more you can exchange air on each breath when squeezing the lungs that way (which I wrote about previously in It Matters How You Breathe). But it may not be possible for those deep muscles to move that far, that quickly, under highest swimmer efforts until you train them to do it.


On Land First

The first thing we would want to know is whether you normally breathe from the diaphragm in daily life – sleeping, sitting, eating, driving, standing in lines, walking around, running, etc. (I happen to know that W is a choir singer and is quite conscious of breathing from the diaphragm). I’ve read a few specialists estimate that less than 20% of adults normally breathe from the diaphragm. If you happen to be one of those 80% I would suggest working on making diaphragmatic breathing your normal breathing in daily life first, or work on it outside the pool as well as in.

Why? If you can’t breathe this way habitually when conditions are easy, it’s going to be very hard to get your body to do it automatically in high exertion. The particular muscles that need to do the work of proper diaphragmatic breathing need to get fit for that kind of continual work. If this becomes the breathing pattern for the 90% of your waking day (outside of swimming), then those neural connections and those muscles will be in a much better position to work that way while swimming. 

To further the strength and automation of diaphragmatic breathing you can (and should) also practice using it while doing other exercises – like yoga, taiji, lifting weights, holding plank position (especially my favorite ‘hard plank‘), and many other rhythmic movement arts.

Don’t be self-conscious of your ‘buddha belly’ breathing!! Let it expand. But that doesn’t mean letting your posture go slack.

Sooner Than Later

Back to the question: at what stage should you work on this?

That’s a hard one to pin down with a general answer. I would say: start working on making yourself use diaphragmatic breathing as soon as your stroke skills are strong enough to allow you some room in your attention to start focusing on this. The more you feel that poor cardiovascular fitness is your biggest limiting factor to going farther or faster, the more you should be motivated to work on breathing this way.

W made this comment later on…

This focus on belly breathing can sometimes cause additional tension in upper chest and shoulders that is really unpleasant… 

The moment you start working on dealing with breathing weaknesses, forcing yourself to do things that are difficult for the body in several dimensions, you’re going to increase the stress level in your swim training. Because the brain is now shifting priority to ‘getting air’, and getting air in a way it is not used to, it may likely mess up other parts of the stroke that are not quite stabilized in automatic motor control. Your performance may go down for a bit until those new details in the breathing technique are ingrained deeply into your nervous system.

If breathing deep down like this has not been your norm, your body may initially be confused about how to keep the body aligned with certain internal stabilizer muscles while letting go of others to allow the diaphragm to expand and contract completely. That may not be the way your body has been arranging muscle activation in your dominant (chest) breathing so things are going to get crazy inside until they learn their new roles.

Despite the challenge that awaits, I am trying but can’t think of a case where someone might want to delay working on diaphragmatic breathing, if he knows he’s not doing it, and he’s got the fundamental stroke skills working more or less automatically. Who would want to train using only 25% of his lung capacity, which is what upper chest (thoracic) breathing is said to access? Training under this kind of respiration deprivation would not turn into an advantage because your body isn’t trained to switch to diaphragmatic breathing where it can then cash in on it. You just get really good at getting breathless quickly.

So, the answer is: start working on it as soon as you can handle it with your attention. But realize it may not be fun for a while.

First, make sure you are at least breathing from the belly when resting at the wall. If nothing else, get high quality air exchange in those rest intervals so you can start the next breath-deprived repeat in better condition.

Then, as you push off into the next repeat, you might start with a discipline of making yourself to take the first 2 or 3 breathes deep down, before you let your attention drift elsewhere in the stroke. If you do this habitually, you’ll be priming your brain to always start with this kind of breathing, making it more likely it will carry on to a few more breathes. (I did caution you to not hold your breath at the beginning of a repeat, just because you feel like you can get away with it – you won’t after the next turn.)


Gradually Faster Deep-Breathing

There seems to be a obstacle for me when I try to keep timing with my fastest tempos. If I try to breathe from the belly I don’t feel like there is enough time to get the fill up I need. It seems like chest breathing gives me a way to breathe fast enough, or maybe it’s a mix of chest and belly breathing…

As I noted above, when first practicing breathing this way, those deep muscles are not fit enough to work this often, this deeply and this quickly. Your swimming muscles are developed out of proportion to your breathing muscles. You need to gradually train them to get more powerful, and they get more powerful by just using them more often. The more powerful they become, the easier it will feel to breathe deeply and the easier it will be to get that sensation of full breath in the brief moment of your highest tempos.

Because of the unique body position and movement patterns of each stroke style, the breathing technique and muscles get their most significant training from just swimming and making yourself stick to your best technique. If you invest in training this – in other words, if you force yourself to do it, it will eventually become easier to maintain, and eventually automatic, so you don’t have to think about it any more. You might have to put in the thousands and thousands of breathing repetitions to get there, but you will get there.


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