Obviously, your brain handles all your daily breathing without the need for you to control it or even think about it. But do you know how you breathe in daily life? I mean, do you know which part of your body, which muscles do most of the work for each breath? Do you know that breathing can be done in different ways? Do you know if it matters or not?
Perhaps you are one of those trained in martial arts, yoga or some other sport or body-aware practice that teaches a certain breathing technique, and you understand how it works and why it is important to do it that way. Even if so, when you get in the water, does that awareness and technique come along with you while you swim?
Over the years, from being confronted with several common complaints about breathing I have developed a checklist for systematically testing and revealing the specific areas that contribute to a particular swimmer’s breathing struggle. It is rarely just one thing, but a convergence of a few gaps in skill that set up the struggle. Each person may have a unique combination of those. My checklist (which you are can read here) is long but organized and prioritized. To reveal individual errors, I can view the swimmer during a few laps to spot any obvious ones and make some educated guesses for which items on my list we should check for, which can save us some time in testing. Then we follow a patient process of swimming short repeats while we work down that abbreviated list. Taking one item at a time I give a focal point for each repeat and the swimmer uses that focal point to examine a particular detail in their pattern, looking for differences between their non-breathing strokes and the breathing stroke, or looking for differences between the left side and the right side breathing action. Rarely is someone totally symmetrical. When one difference is uncovered we apply a correction with that particular focal point and test again to see how much it improves the breathing action.
My preliminary checklist (there is an advanced one too) is organized into these four sections:
Position (of lead arm and head)
Timing (of the turn and return of the head)
Air Management (for exhale and inhale)
Breathing Pattern (relative to intensity and tempo)
Under each of these sections there may be many specific focal points we could examine, each one contributing some benefit to breathing action.
Between my observations and working through these sections of skill we may expose and solve most common complaints.
When Stroke Skills Are Not Enough
However, some swimmers return who have been faithfully practicing initial breathing skills for weeks and months, yet still complain of feeling short of breath. Occasionally, one comes back with technique refined enough that I cannot reconcile the amount of breathlessness he still complains of with the apparent efficiency of his movement patterns. Even if technique was not close to perfect, the shear amount of swimming he has done should be producing more compensatory fitness than it has. So what’s going on?
I’ve learned now to make more observations. One of those is to watch swimmers as they are resting at the wall – specifically, I watch to see how they do their exhale and inhale while standing up. I watch to see which is predominant: does their upper chest expand and shoulders lift then fall, or does the chest stay still while the belly bulge out then pulls back in on each breath?
In other words, I look to see if this swimmer is a chest breather or a diaphragmatic breather, because how he is breathing while standing at the wall is likely how he is breathing while swimming, or worse.
Breathing from the upper chest (known as thoracic breathing) is a technique meant to turn on in fight-or-flight situations, or in extremely high-intensity exercise efforts, but not for everyday activity or endurance-type exercise. Instead, our bodies are designed to predominantly use diaphragmatic breathing (so called ‘belly breathing’) and derive great health and exercise advantage from it. However, though we started out breathing this way as babies, for some mixture of reasons, modern life may (it is said) de-trained over 80% of people to no longer breathe this way. You might be one of them.
Improve Your Swim, Improve Your Health
Let me share some recent comments made by Robert, one of my swimmers, after we introduced this change into his breathing…
This afternoon I spent a couple hours just working a length or lap at a time using the breathing technique you recommended. I went very slow and just tried to breath the new way. My natural technique seems to be exactly the opposite.
Last week I would be in huge oxygen debt nearly the entire time I was swimming those longer distances. I was extremely uncomfortable for most of the swim. Using your recommended technique each day I was able to swim more laps without a sense of oxygen debt and when I was in oxygen debt it was not as severe. So I was much more comfortable during these recent long swims.
Today on my long run I practiced this breathing the entire time. It is difficult to tell for certain (there are always other factors that could be in play – including my distorted perceptions) but I think the change in my breathing routine made a lot of difference in my run today. It was easier.
I think changing my breathing technique is going to be a GAME CHANGER in my swimming development.
Now I feel that breathing has been the fundamental problem all along. It fits in so many ways as the cause and solution.
During my practices of the last few days I monitored and redirected my breathing. I can tell from these practices that when I am not struggling so much for oxygen I can better control my body. When I’m in oxygen debt I’m not able to control my body very well – I am mostly trying to get air. So I think once I can breathe better (using the technique you recommended) I will be able to get the swimming skills I am working on to “stick”.
If you are breathing from the upper chest, not only are you going to suffer in exercise, you may be setting yourself up for disease also:
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.
Breathing technique that is not suited to the activity – namely, upper chest breathing – could explain a swimmer’s breathlessness after short distances. Breathing from the upper chest is like trying to swim at 14,000 foot elevation! Under that air-restricted condition, even one who can swim continuously for hours at sea level would feel breathless in a couple lengths!
If you’ve been swimming regularly, a few times a week, for many months, yet you are still feeling breathless after a few laps, or even after many minutes of what should be moderate swimming, then you may consider this to be one of the prime suspects.
For sake of space I won’t go into a full lesson about how to breathe from the diaphragm. You can look at TI Coach David Shen’s blog post on Abdominal Breathing and you may find a consensus on Youtube for how to test and practice this kind of breathing… on land. The trick here is to translate that into the water where you are weightless and horizontal and your brain may be occupied with other priorities. But, the brain is also very concerned about getting enough air exchange, and if you’ve been suffering from breathlessness, you may feel enough motivation to turn attention to focus on diaphragmatic breathing as a possible solution.
If you suspect this may be one of your problems, here is a recommended approach:
Practice diaphragmatic breathing while resting at the wall. It will permit a better recovery.
Practice any time during the day, when it comes to mind, even for a few minutes or a few breaths. You can start to build a mindful habit for this.
Set aside some time in swimming to focus only on this. It may take all your attention just to breathe in a new way.
Here are some instructions you may try out to get you going with this in your next practice time:
When you rest at the wall, place one hand flat below your navel and breathe deeply so that each inhale presses that hand out (bulging the belly) and each exhale pulls the hand back in toward the spine. On the inhale you can feel the diaphragm pushing downward on the intestines and the pelvic floor for a good visceral massage. [Note: as you will see in Coach David’s blog post, there is more to good technique than just pushing the belly out and in. My recommendation here is just to get you started in the right direction with few words. Please study the technique more thoroughly.]
When swimming, concentrate on regulating the exhale with the compression of the diaphragm. With the intention to exhale only about half (or less) of the air in your lungs, begin exhaling gently from the nose, and gradually increase the rate until your face turns and touches the air, ready to inhale. You have an extended amount of time during the non-breathing strokes to think about exhaling from the diaphragm, and then you can let the very brief inhale take care of itself, to refill the volume you just pushed out.
Outside of pool practice time, you may lay in plank position, long and braced, and then practice breathing deeply with the diaphragm. This will show you how one set of core/abdominal muscles can be activated to bridge and stabilize the long body line while there is still room and enough relaxed tissue to permit full, deep breathing. In plank (and variations of it) I always practice diaphragmatic breathing and only through the nose. I count breaths to measure time in that position, which further reinforces full, earnest exhale and inhale.