I now keep my head low while breathing to the left.

                                     Terry keeping his head low while breathing to the left

This week’s blog is a look back at a Nov. 2010 post from T.I. founder Terry Laughlin on the ever-popular topic of breathing in freestyle: an essential component of swimming with ease and confidence, no matter the distance. Being able to breathe comfortably is the very foundation of being able to swim comfortably– can’t do anything without air! And yet, this primary skill of swimming mystifies and confounds many swim students because our instinctive human impulses to get to the air (lifting the head up, pushing down on the water with the arm as a “brace” to stay aloft during a breath, etc.) contradict the elements of efficient breathing that characterize T.I. swimming. Terry often remarked that virtually every skill of efficient swimming (as opposed to “survival swimming”) is counter-intuitive and he referred to this dilemma as the “Universal Human Swimming Problem” or “UHSP.” Swimmers who struggle are not outliers, he observed, once writing: “Indeed, swimming poorly–or swimming ‘okay’ without realizing you could be swimming much better–is so common we call it the ‘Universal Human Swimming Problem.’” Fortunately, we can transform our reflexively inefficient “survival swimming” through conscious practice of the counter-intuitive skills of efficient swimming. Learning to breathe in balance is a huge piece of solving the “UHSP” and this article addresses that specific issue, offering insights and practical suggestions for how to develop and refine this crucial skill. Enjoy… and Happy Laps!

Editor’s Note:  The discussion thread Terry mentions below is now archived as a “read-only” thread in the old discussion forum.

November 24, 2010


A focus on Balance shows up virtually every day in one or more threads on the TI Discussion Forum. Today, in a thread titled Back to the Roots, forum member Haschu reported: 

This morning I practiced in a  15-meter hotel pool. I watched Shinji’s video of holding Superman Glide for 12.5 m. I wondered how he could glide such a long distance and tried to match that. So I did SG repeats for about 20 minutes, finally reaching 10, perhaps even 12 m.

Haschu continued: 

After that, I did a few laps of full-stroke breathing to my left, which is my ‘bad’ breathing side. I’m deeper in the water and always lift my head when breathing left. I could never figure out why. I tried to adjust my right spearing arm and other things, but nothing seemed to work. Yet after that extended period of SG [Superman Glide] my mouth was clear of water as I breathed. I find it quite amazing how much benefit one can gain from very ‘basic’ drills like SG and core balance. I can only encourage everybody to use those drills intensively. They make everything else so much easier.


I’m not at all surprised that extending one’s practice of Superman Glide far beyond what most people would consider resulted in finding the solution to a long-term “breathing puzzle.”

Once you’ve practiced T.I. for several years, most of your Kaizen – continuing improvement – opportunities will be rather subtle. You can swim as far as you like. On the whole you feel pretty good when swimming – perhaps even experience “flow states” (aka: feeling “in the zone”) at times.

Yet – because you tirelessly seek small flaws to improve – you find them. Your “symptom”– feeling a bit lower in the water, and that you lift your head slightly when breathing to the left — is clearly balance-related. But it’s difficult to correct because (to quote Sting) every breath you take reinforces the error.

If you analyze a bit, you realize:

1) Lifting your head causes the “sinking feeling”

2) It probably also means that your right hand is “bracing” rather than extend-and-catch

3) All of this happens because you don’t feel as well supported as you roll to your left

Nothing deepens sense-of-support (and emotional security) like Superman Glide. As well, no drill is quite as good at helping you really, really, really release your head. At first just when looking down. It takes greater focus to keep really, really, really releasing your head as you roll to breathe.



“Really, really, really release your head” while breathing


One way to develop this skill is to repeat SG (Superman Glide) until you feel yourself really, really, really releasing your head while gliding.

Then add some strokes and really, really, really release your head while stroking.

Finally, take a few breaths to evaluate whether you’re still really, really, really releasing your head while breathing.  I look for a feeling that the side of my head is floating on a cushion as I breathe.  I don’t mind doing 20 minutes of very short, intensely-focused repeats in pursuit of it.

That kind of practice will often look something like this:
4 x SG (7 to 8 yds)
4 x SG + 3-5 strokes (10-15 yds)
4 x SG + 2-3 breaths (15-18 yds)
4 x SG
4 x SG + 3-5 strokes
4 x SG + 3-5 breaths
4 x SG
4 x SG + 3-5 strokes
4 x SG + 4-6 breaths

As I’ve said previously, just because there’s a convention to make pools 25y/m doesn’t mean we always have to swim that far without stopping. I stop in mid-pool regularly when working on an elusive skill or sensation. As I feel it improve, I  keep adding one more successful cycle at a time.

15m hotel pools are not so good for lap swimming, but they’re perfect for refining subtle skills, as is extended practice of the more basic drills.

Blog Comment– Troubleshooting Question for Terry

Blog reader Craig: I have tried to find this kind of balance for years, but haven’t [gotten it]! I am 6′ 1″ and 165 lbs. so floating is difficult and my legs are very “heavy” in the water. Is this possible for my bodytype? Thanks for all your great info/videos!

Terry: When you say you’re 6-1 and 165 and so floating is difficult I don’t understand, because many elite swimmers have similar body type. Please don’t confuse “balance” with “floating.” The human body is intended to sink to some extent – i.e. only 5% of body mass will typically be above the surface. Balance means to “sink in a horizontal position.” It’s a skill acquired by specific changes in head and limb position and redistribution of body weight.

Craig: I have tried everything to achieve the “Superman glide,” but still end up with my feet about 3 feet under water as soon as my forward speed is lost. If I blow out my air, then I will sink level, but go straight to the bottom of the pool? I can’t find leverage to keep my chest down and legs up? Thanks.

Terry: Mine sink too . . . at some point. Start stroking while you still have a bit of momentum. Start with 3 to 5 strokes and just one thought.

Learn all skills and drills described in this post– and the other elements of efficient freestyle– in our downloadable product: Effortless Endurance Freestyle Complete Self-Coaching Toolkit