An exclusive excerpt in an ongoing series of material from Terry’s forthcoming final book, Total Immersion: Swimming That Changes Your Life
In a blog post last month, we released the first excerpt– on “Deliberate Practice”– from the unpublished draft of Terry’s final book (which is currently being edited, for anticipated release sometime in 2019). This week’s post is another exclusive excerpt from his final book, on the topic of “seamless breathing.” This article is adapted from a section of the book entitled, “Stroke School: Effortless Endurance Freestyle in 8 Lessons,” which Terry worked on last summer. In the opening of this piece, Terry first discusses the unique breathing challenges inherent in swimming; then he offers a detailed tactical approach to developing a smooth, rhythmic breath in freestyle.
(Terry demonstrating a seamless rhythmic breath while swimming freestyle)
Breathing in freestyle is the most complex and challenging skill in all of swimming. Breathing—regardless of the stroke—is much more than a skill. Breathing has panic-inducing potential for many beginners and is the main reason why fewer than 30% of American adults can swim 25 meters. Even after dozens of traditional lessons, Tim Ferriss and Vik Malhotra [TI students referenced earlier in the book] could swim no further than 15 meters, because they could not get the air needed to swim farther.
But significant breathing errors in freestyle persist even among elite swimmers. In 1997, I analyzed stroke videos for the US National Team at training camp prior to the World Championships. While reviewing underwater video with one swimmer, I pointed out that her lead hand scooped upward on each freestyle breath. This put her out of balance for an instant—something none of her coaches had caught or corrected in all her years of advanced training. In that instant, she increased her kick to compensate for the momentary loss of body position. It also put her hand in a less effective position for trapping water.
How is it possible that some of the world’s fastest swimmers still display such a fundamental weakness in their stroke? Very likely, they developed poor habits as young and unskilled swimmers—lifting the head because of poor balance. And because they were probably faster than peers at every stage, their coaches overlooked errors that only become apparent when studying underwater video, one frame at a time.
Small improvements in breathing technique can add up quickly– and it’s likely your improvement opportunities are much greater than those of champion swimmers. By learning the techniques described below, you can maintain a sleeker bodyline while you breathe.
Two Universal Breathing Challenges
1.) Breathing has Panic Potential
Running is often referred to as primal—something for which evolution has prepared us well. The only thing primal about swimming is a healthy respect for water’s perils– a respect that rises to the level of phobia, or even panic, in some.
Those perils—choking and sinking—are mutually reinforcing. Fear of choking causes us to lift or lunge as we breathe . . . which makes us more vulnerable to sinking . . . and thus more likely to choke. No wonder beginners have such a hard time of it.
The very first Focal Point in the TI learning sequence instructs you to release your head to feel the water’s support. This improves balance. It also helps quiet “lift-and-lunge” breathing instincts.
2.) Breathing is a Skill
The primary reason that people who hardly break a sweat while running a 10K can become exhausted in as little as 25 meters of swimming is the difference in the seemingly simple act of getting air. On land, air is there for the taking. But while swimming—particularly in freestyle—it’s an exacting skill.
To get a breath, we must move the head (nearly 10% of body mass) to the air. The moment we start lifting and turning the head toward the air, every other skill we’ve worked hard to learn breaks down. Drag increases and arms and legs get diverted from propulsion into “sinking-avoidance.”
In experienced swimmers, this moment of breathing passes in a fraction of a second—but is repeated 30 times a minute. In a newer swimmer, such as an aspiring triathlete, it is often the main barrier to progressing from short repeats to a continuous—and easy—mile. Solving these problems will allow you to swim almost any distance with the ease of “conversational” running.
Here’s the good news: As with the other essential skills of efficient swimming, a series of proven steps will teach you the skill of seamless breathing. These mini-skills fall into two categories—how to exchange fresh for stale air, and how to keep stroking efficiently as you do.
Mini-Skill #1 Get Fresh Air In
It may surprise you that simply getting air into and out of your lungs is a skill. But, in the water, we encounter two unique complications:
- You face resistance from water pressure while exhaling.
- You exhale for much longer than you inhale—a bit like a singer holding a note, then taking a “bite” of air between phrases.
Improve your air exchange with 4 Focal Points:
- Push air out. Exhaling should be an intentional and energetic action. When you emphasize the exhale, the resulting inhale happens as air rushes to ‘fill a vacuum’ in your lungs.
- Keep it moving. Never hold your breath or interrupt your air exchange—not even for a nanosecond. Breath-holding causes tension . . . and does nothing for buoyancy. Begin exhaling as soon as you finish inhaling.
- Finish strong. Exhale forcefully as your mouth reaches the surface—as if trying to blow the water away from your mouth.
- Get just enough. There’s no need to completely fill–nor empty–your lungs. Get “just enough” air. Inhaling and exhaling in swimming should feel much the same as singing.
Mini-Skill #2 Maintain Stroke Efficiency
Having spent countless hours “shaping your vessel,” learning to hold your place as you stroke, and connecting your kick to body rotation, you’ve now come to a challenge with the potential to undermine everything you’ve done thus far to improve stroke efficiency.
Rhythmic breathing in freestyle is the most exacting of all skills because:
- You must fit the breath into an alternating-arm rhythm; and
- Nearly 10% of your body mass (your head) is moving to the side, while the rest of you is moving forward.
Cut these challenges down to size by imprinting 3 habits:
- Breathe with head and spine aligned: Don’t lift your head.
- Breathe with body roll: Don’t turn your head.
- Maintain the shape of your vessel. Keep bodyline long and balanced—and lead arm positioned to hold the water—as you breathe.
Focal Point #1: Keep Head Aligned.
Progress patiently through three ways of thinking about, and experiencing, a weightless, aligned head:
- Weightless Does your head feel as weightless during the breath as it does on non-breathing strokes?
- Cushioned: Do you feel the water ‘cushion’ the side of your head as you breathe—just as it cushions your face before breathing?
- One-Goggle: As an exercise, try to breathe with only one goggle above the surface.
Focal Point #2: Follow Your Shoulder.
Your pull and kick are most efficient when they’re part of a whole-body action. This is true for breathing as well. Never move your head on its own. Always fit breathing seamlessly with the action of the body. Here’s how to do this when breathing to the left:
As your right hand enters the Mail Slot, your left shoulder rotates up and back. To breathe, simply let your chin follow your shoulder. This integrates the breath with body movement and minimizes the chance of your head moving by itself.
Focal Point #3 Stay Tall
Staying with the example of taking a left-side breath:
- Continue extending your right hand as you rotate (follow your shoulder) to air.
- Keep that arm extended—below your body with palm back—for as much of the inhale as possible.
- Start the right-hand stroke only as your head begins to return to neutral.
Both Sides Now
In August 1972, in the first 10 minutes of the first workout I ever coached, I noticed that every swimmer on the team I’d just begun coaching had asymmetrical strokes. Those who breathed to the left torqued noticeably in that direction; right-side breathers did the same to the other side.
While I had no formal knowledge of stroke mechanics at the time, instinct told me that these excessive sideways motions probably hurt efficiency. When I instructed the team to breathe to the “wrong” side the next day, their lack of symmetry disappeared. Before long, I made it a standard requirement for the swimmers I coached to breathe bilaterally during practice.
Earlier, I wrote that a primary reason breathing in freestyle is such a frequent occasion for stroke errors is the difficulty of keeping the body aligned, stable, and traveling forward when 8% of body mass (the head) repeatedly moves to the side. When we move the head only to one side, it’s inevitable that, over time, the body accommodates these uneven forces in various ways—none of which promote efficiency.
Though I required my swimmers to breathe bilaterally as early as the 1970s, when I got serious about improving my own efficiency in the early 1990s, I was still a unilateral breather—breathing almost exclusively to the left, as I’d done since 1964.
One day in March 1992, I decided to breathe to the right for an entire 800-meter swim. I was swimming in Los Banos del Mar, a 50-meter pool in Santa Barbara. For some time, I’d made it a habit to count my strokes. It really got my attention that my stroke count improved from 41 SPL (strokes per length) breathing to my habitual left side to 39 breathing to my unfamiliar right side. Though breathing to the right felt awkward, that measurable improvement in efficiency motivated me to continue. For several months, I breathed more to the right than to the left, which helped me adapt more quickly. I’ve been a bilateral breather ever since.
If you’ve always breathed to one side, it will feel awkward for a time. There will be a learning curve. But if you apply the series of Focal Points above to breathing on your weak side as well, you’ll soon feel much more comfortable.
Don’t be surprised if eventually your awkward side feels smoother and more comfortable than your natural side. That’s been true for me for 10 years. And because of insights and awareness gained from my more-efficient right side, my natural left side is strikingly more efficient today than it was when I only breathed one way.
Your primary goal is to make your left and right sides identical in every regard. I guarantee that the effort to do so will make you a far more efficient swimmer.
Learn seamless breathing and the other elements of efficient freestyle with the Total Immersion Effortless Endurance Self Coaching Course.