Phase 3--Breathing Made Easy
Breathing Made Easy
How to get your muscles all the oxygen they need…and stay efficient as you do.
By Terry Laughlin
The rules of breathing are simple in sports like cycling or running. You need a breath, you take a breath. Oxygen is always there for the taking. But not in swimming where, to frustrated novices and cross-trainers, even the simple act of getting oxygen to your muscles is a technique. And the stakes are high. You'll never know how well you could really swim if you’re not getting air. Wiped out by just a few laps? It’s probably not your fitness. It’s far more likely your breathing that gets in the way of a good workout or discourages you from swimming altogether.
Poor breathing technique and poor balance are the two primary challenges faced by unskilled swimmers. Both seem manageable so long as your face is in the water. But sooner or later they have to get some air and instantly they’re struggling instead of cruising, with their stroke falling apart 30 or more times a minute (or about 10 times every 25 yards). When you get the breathing right, it fits naturally into the stroke flow, and in fact, can even add power to your stroke because body roll is what produces power and you should roll more when taking a breath. But the key is to breathe with body roll, not by turning the head. This exercise will illustrate why: As you sit comfortably reading this, turn your head 90 degrees, pointing your chin at one shoulder, then the other. I enjoy good range of motion in my neck, but head-twisting like that creates noticeable tension in my neck and upper back. Next try that head-twisting action while craning your neck in the head position typical among novice swimmers. Even more tension and discomfort. Repeating these biomechanical errors 1000 or more times an hour will cramp anyone’s style.
So if we shouldn't breathe in the traditional way, how should we do it? Very simply. Rather than turning your head, breathe by using body roll to take your head to air while keeping your head aligned with your spine and your chin aligned with your sternum; you'll start swimming more easily, comfortably and efficiently immediately. Here are five skills that should help you breathe easy immediately:
1. Align Your Head and Spine. Before you can breathe with body roll, you need to be able to roll easily and smoothly – and that takes a long straight body line. Start by holding your head as you do when you're not swimming. Between breaths, point your nose directly at the bottom of the pool. Imagine you’ve got a laser beam coming out the top of your head directly on a line from your spine. Keep that laser line pointing straight ahead at all times – particularly as you roll to breathe. That means keeping the top of your head pressed into the water as you roll for the breath.
2. Roll like a Log. Now that you’ve got your head on straight, try this exercise while standing: Looking straight ahead with your head aligned with your spine (remember that laser beam image), and with your right arm extended overhead, bicep pressed to ear, turn your entire body 90 degrees toward your left side, keeping your chin and sternum also aligned – as if doing a military left-face. You’ve just rehearsed the correct movement for freestyle breathing. The object is to keep head and spine aligned as you roll a long, sleek, balanced bodyline. The degree of your roll should be sufficient that it takes your mouth easily to the air. In fact, if you imagine that you’ll breathe through your navel, not your mouth, you’re almost guaranteed to do it right.
3. Stay “Tall” as you Roll. Years of bad breathing technique virtually always creates habits that destroy efficient stroke technique. Turning or lifting your head create pressures that drive your extended arm down and back. By the time you inhale, your arm has collapsed below you, hurting your efficiency because: (1) that collapsing action is non-propulsive, wasting most of each breathing stroke, and (2) the water resists you far more in that position, than when you have your arm extended. The fix is similar to the exercise above – rotate your body while keeping your arm extended. During each breath, your arm should be stretching forward. And just as important, your hand should be angled downward to help you “hold onto your place” in the water. You should almost have a sensation of hanging onto a hand-grip in the water, with your hand extended well forward, throughout your inhale. You begin stroking only as your head begins to return to the water.
4. Breathe Rhythmically. Your stroke rhythm is a body-rolling rhythm. Since you breathe by rolling your body, your breathing and stroke rhythms should be indistinguishable. One of the most common stroke errors among novices is trying to prolong the breath by staying on your side just a bit longer. Breathe by rolling to where the air is and immediately roll back the other way with no interruption in your rhythm. When you want to stroke faster, you do it by speeding up your body-rolling rhythm, so you also breathe faster.
5. Emphasize the Exhale. You spend more time in each stroke cycle exhaling than inhaling and completely clearing stale air from the lungs is one of the most important things you can do. An increase of carbon dioxide – from breath holding – not a decrease of oxygen, is what makes you feel oxygen deprived. Because of the pressure differential between air and water, you need to exhale more emphatically into water than into the air - and you do exhale into water for 80% of your breathing cycle. So begin exhaling as soon as you finish inhaling – without the slightest interruption – and put more emphasis on the exhale, particularly the final 20% just as your mouth and nose clear the water again.
And one more key issue:
Should I Breathe to Both Sides? Virtually all swimmers favor one side in breathing, because it feels more natural. Trying to breathe to the other side feels awkward and who needs to feel even more awkward in the water? The problem with breathing only to one side is that it tends to make your stroke asymmetrical. In an hour of swimming, you'll roll to breathe 1000 or more times, meaning all your torso muscles pull more in that direction and less to the other side. Multiply that by hundreds of hours of swimming and you'll soon be making a lopsided stroke permanent. The best correction is bilateral breathing which can be done in several ways.
Breathing every third armstroke is the simplest, but that also means you breathe one-third less often than when you're breathing every cycle on one side. That shouldn't be a problem when you're swimming easily, but could leave you feeling winded when you go faster. So I breathe every third stroke when going easily, but add more consecutive breaths on one side – two, three or four before switching to the other side for a similar number of breaths – as I swim longer or faster. When going at race intensity, I breathe to my right side on one length and to my left side on the next – or when racing in open water, I may take 10 breaths to the right, followed by 10 to the left. That gives me more oxygen when my muscles need it. And breathing 8 to 10 times consecutively on your “weak” side gives you a concentrated opportunity to work on the five skills cited above. And if you move beyond fitness swimming to racing, you’ll find it’s helpful to be comfortable breathing to either side in a triathlon or open water swim race as well as in pool races.