Do you breathe to the left? To the right? Maybe, somewhere along the line, you were told that you ought to breathe every three strokes, but you’ll go blue in the face before you manage to make THAT happen!
Regardless of where you are in your training, breathing is important to every athlete, and particularly so for swimmers. Today, I want to talk about breathing basics. How often should you breathe and why? By taking the time to develop an understanding of how breathing impacts your stroke, you can build the foundation necessary to experiment with your technique and find the freestyle form that works best for your unique body type.
- Inhale, Exhale
“Don’t forget to breathe out” seems like silly advice, but in truth it is one of the biggest challenges for swimmers. Human instinct says that we should hold our breath while submerged, but this can cause a range of issues in an otherwise competent freestyle stroke. Holding in your air can disrupt your buoyancy in the water, preventing you from getting into a streamlined position and causing you to waste energy with an inefficient stroke. The tightened chest muscles that accompany breath-holding can prevent you from relaxing into your stroke and make your more prone to injury. Not to mention the fact that holding your breath actually makes you feel like you’re running out of air sooner than you would otherwise!
To alleviate these problems, swim a few laps focusing on the exhale that comes after each breath. Don’t get rid of all of your air – instead, exhale about half of your air underwater. As you become more comfortable with the motion, you can begin to use the exhale as a foundation to set your pace off of, allowing for a stronger, safer and more efficient stroke.
- One-side, Two-side
“Breathe to the side!” – If you’ve ever swam freestyle, odds are you’ve heard this phrase. Breathing to the side is, indeed, an important step maintaining an efficient stroke, but it is only the first step in perfecting the motion. Too often we learn to breathe to the side, we find a somewhat comfortable position that works, and then we stay there. Breathing in the exact same position for lap after lap, day after day can have a severe impact on your stroke.
The breath dictates how the rest of your body moves. By locking in the exact same breathing position with every arm-pull, changing other pieces of your stroke becomes incredibly difficult. Focusing on the exhale can help you overcome this, but sometimes the best way to reevaluate your stroke can come from changing your breathing pattern. Try swimming a lap breathing on the opposite side from what you’re used to. Odds are, if you only ever breathe to the right, breathing to the left is going to be really tough! This is because your stroke has evolved to center around that right-side breath. Perhaps you’re rolling more to one side than the other, or maybe your taking shorter or less precise strokes with your non-dominant arm.
They say that the best way to spot mistakes in a picture you’re painting is to hold in up to a mirror. The flipped image is seen in a new way, and our eyes are immediately drawn to the flaws that were invisible before. In the same way, flipping the side on which you’re breathing can draw your attention to the flaws in your stroke and help you achieve a more balanced technique.
- How Often Should I Breathe?
So we’ve established that bilateral breathing, or breathing to both sides, is important, but how can we apply that to a workout? Sure, we can breathe every three strokes to ensure that we don’t begin to favor one side, but after a couple of 100-yard swims our bodies may start complaining about the lack of air. From this conundrum is the naturally arising question: ‘How often should I breathe?’ The answer depends on what kind of shape you’re in, what race distance your training for, and what kind of pace you’re trying to hold, among many other considerations. The best way to determine how often you should breathe comes from having a coach on deck. A professional coach can evaluate the many factors that affect breathing and help you to come up with the training and race strategies that will carry you towards your goals.
Of course, life often gets in the way, so if you are unable to find a coach or a team to help you out, there are a few general rules of thumb to keep in mind when determining how often you ought to breathe:
- Every breath that you take slows you down momentarily.
- Breathing frequently allows you to sustain your pace over a longer period of time.
- Mixing up your breathing pattern across sets or workouts can help you to spot flaws in your stroke, because it draws your attention toward physical movements and away from cerebral distractions.
- Mixing It Up
If you are a beginner swimmer, or you are a swimmer that has gotten used to breathing every two strokes, you may find it aerobically challenging to take fewer breaths while swimming. A common complaint that I have from adult athletes is that the decreased oxygen leaves them out of breath, yet without the muscular exhaustion that accompanies a good workout. For someone who is training to compete, it can be extremely frustrating to go from holding 1:10s on a set of 100s while breathing every two, to holding 1:20s while breathing every three strokes. If you find yourself facing this problem, then try adapting your breathing pattern slowly over time.
For example, use a 2-2-3 pattern. Take two strokes, breathe, take two more strokes, breathe, then take three strokes, breathe. This pattern allows you to breathe bilaterally and improve your aerobic conditioning while avoiding the problem discussed above. Alternatively, you can change your pattern by length. If you’re doing 10×100 meters, try breathing every 5 strokes on the first length, every 3 strokes on the second length, every 2 strokes to the right side on the third length, and every 2 strokes to the left side on the fourth length.
Over time, you will find that you can swim at faster speeds with fewer breaths, as your body adapts and becomes more efficient at utilizing the oxygen you take in.
- Consider Your Environment
So, now that you’ve got an idea of just how important breathing is, it’s time to jump in the pool and churn out some laps! Before you go, however, I want to touch on one final point. We’ve talked about how to breathe as well as how often to breathe, but not about what you breathe.
Swimming is widely considered one of the least mechanically stressful ways you can work out. It’s easy enough on your body that you can do it from the time you’re two until you’re too old to walk. But even swimming has dangers to watch out for, two of which are all too common. The first is shoulder injuries, which can take up a blog post all on their own. The second, however, is something that many athletes fail to even consider until it strikes – breathing problems. The development of exercise-induced asthma is something that swimmers are especially prone to, and onset can severely inhibit your capacity to train. More often than not, this is a preventable problem so long as you are aware of your environment.
Don’t train at a facility without proper ventilation. Clean air is perhaps the most important thing you should look for when searching for a place to train. If you show up to a pool and you can smell the chlorine in the air, then you’re better off making a beeline for the hot tub and taking the day off, because working out in an environment like that does more harm than good. If you train at an indoor facility, make sure that the doors and windows are open, and that the fans are circulating air.
As for me, I’ll stick to outdoor pools. The air might be cold, but it’s always fresh.
If it’s a day ending in ‘Y’ Coach Nate can be found on deck at Sendero Springs pool, coaching swimmers and tormenting his lanes with what he affectionately considers ‘really fun workouts.’ Reach him by email at coachNate@t3multisports.com
-Nate Cox, Swim Coach, T3Multisports