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Old 08-02-2011
mikeleegang mikeleegang is offline
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Default Phase 1--Breathe: It's Job One for New Swimmers

Breathe: It's Job One for New Swimmers

By Terry Laughlin


I've always thought you should swim with longer strokes, but lately
someone has been telling me to windmill my arms for speed. When I do that, everything tenses up, and I lose my breath. In fact, even when I'm taking it easy, I have little panic attacks, choking on the water and feeling so anxious that my heart races. Out of the water, I’m in the best shape of my life from running and teaching spin classes; in it I feel helpless. What should I do? Kerry O.

Dear Kerry

Start by making “Never Practice Struggle” your swimming mantra. Your discomfort in the water doesn’t suggest there’s anything wrong with you;
120 million American adults feel much the same…if indeed they can swim
at all. However, any of them – and particularly YOU – can learn to be at home in the water by taking the time to become comfortable and to make breathing matter of fact.

Since we opened our Swim Studio, I’ve been teaching regularly in our Endless Pools, which brings me much closer to my students than I’ve ever been. That proximity has shown me something that I never fully appreciated until now: Difficulty with breathing is the #1 issue for every inexperienced swimmer.

These experiences have convinced me that, until breathing becomes routine, effective focus on other skills is impossible. Your anxiety, racing heart, and choking have everything to do with breathing and little to do with your stroke. The recommendation to windmill is just making it worse. So let’s hold off on consideration of your stroke and focus on breathing basics. When you achieve breath control, stroking skills will come easily.

Securing Your Airways
The #1 source of tension for new swimmers is the very real fear that water will go up your nose or down your air passages. I particularly see this fear manifest while teaching balance to novices. Minimizing head lift is essential to good balance, but this brings the water perilously close to nose and mouth. When they rotate to breathe, they fear they’ll inhale some water rather than the air they seek. So they lift the head abruptly so the nose and mouth will be at a “safer” distance from the surface. And the instant they do, they become unstable, which increases their discomfort.

Here are some simple steps you can take to feel more secure about getting all the air you need, while minimizing the chances of inhaling water:
1. As illustrated by TI coach Cari Laughlin, practice breathing in a mixing bowl filled with warm water. If you have a mirror that can fit into the bottom of the bowl, put that in too. Then try the following:
• Dip your chin into the water and leave it there while you breathe in through your mouth and out through mouth and nose. Observe how your breath ruffles the surface. Continue for 30 seconds or more until this feels almost meditative.
• Next, lightly touch your nose and lips to the surface and practice inhaling through the small space at the corners of your mouth. In the mirror, notice the “blotting” created where your nose and lips touch the water. Play at this with a spirit of curiosity for about a minute or until you feel almost "bored" with it.
• With goggles on, lower your face into the water, keeping your mouth open but without exhaling. Notice how natural air pressure keeps water from entering your nostrils or mouth. As you lift your face, notice how you can inhale easily, even with water dripping around your mouth and nose. In this and subsequent exercises, try to inhale with the tip of
your nose still touching the water.
• Repeat as above, but this time bubble gently from your nose. Watch in the mirror, trying to keep your bubbles small and quiet. The smaller and quieter they are, the longer you’ll be able to sustain one exhale, before lifting to inhale again. Next, repeat this exercise, but bubbling only from your mouth.
• When you can do each of the above in a calm and contained manner, advance to “rhythmic breathing.” Lower your face and bubble out for
a count of four or five-one-thousand. Lift and inhale for a count of one-one-thousand. Lower and repeat. For an interesting challenge, alternate between mouth bubbles on one exhale and nose bubbles on the next. Your goal is to inhale with the tip of your nose still in the water and your mouth barely clearing it. Repeat until you develop a relaxed and seamless rhythm.
2. Repeat the final exercise in shallow water at the pool. (Precede it with the other exercises if you wish.) Crouching with hands resting on knees or the pool gutter, dip your face for a sustained bubbling exhale, then lift it to inhale with minimal clearance. Repeat until this feels effortless and meditative. Its calming effect will help you resume swimming with a greater feeling of comfort and control.

3. After a few minutes of the above, progress to bobbing. Start with shallow and brief immersion – just dipping to your hairline – and work your way to longer, deeper immersion, focusing on sustained steady bubbling. Bob up, beginning to inhale as soon as your mouth clears the water, working on being comfortable getting air through the water flowing down across your nose and mouth, then without pause, bob back down again.

4. Resume swimming, beginning with easy 25s. On these 25s, let your need for air entirely dictate the speed and rhythm of your stroke. If it helps, count off your exhales and inhales by one-thousands, as you did in the bowl. For your rest interval between 25s, take several deep, cleansing “yoga” breaths. When you can repeat 25s, with a sufficient sense of ease that you need only three cleansing breaths before starting the next, you can progress to 50-yard repeats.
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