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How Breathing Affects Your Swimming Efficiency and Mechanics

By Bryan Mineo | March 17, 2016, 3:34 p.m. (ET)

swimmerHow are you breathing? Do you notice that you tend to hold your breath during stressful moments? Does your breathing become shallow or rapid when overwhelmed at work or school? Few of us give much thought to breathing. We breathe 10 million times per year! It comes naturally. However, we’re not fish. In the water, knowing how much air you should be ventilating the lungs with can be tricky but is necessary to creating an efficient freestyle.

There are two extremely common breathing errors I find in swimmers: working with too much air and late timing to each breath. This creates a slew of negative effects in your stroke, from a dropped body position, to excessive drag, to increased heart rate and wasted energy. The breath is the foundation of your stroke and should always be considered closely first before any other element of your stroke. With discerned breathing focus in the water, you can raise the ceiling of your swimming potential.

How Much Air Do I Need?

Take notice of the natural rise and fall your breath maintains on it’s own before you push off the wall for your next lap. Because of how regular you take oxygen in, about 20 times a minute, your body isn't demanding a great volume of air each breath. The same approach should apply during your swimming. The goal is to utilize about half of your lung capacity each breath, meaning your inhale and exhale should be equal, leaving a bit of dead air in the lungs, opposed to completely emptying the lungs each exhale. This dead air volume will allow you to maintain neutral buoyancy and body position in the water. Many swimmers take too large of inhales, causing extra buoyancy in the chest, subsequently causing a drop in the hips and legs in the water.

Each inhale should be a small sip of air through the mouth, rather than a large, frantic gulp of air. Knowing that the next inhale is only 2-3 seconds away ensures that your body isn't demanding any more oxygen each breathing cycle than the small sip.

As for your exhalation, in a relaxed, sighing sort of manner, allow both your nose and mouth to gently expire the same volume of carbon dioxide each breath. Strive to gently blow small bubbles out of your nose and mouth the entire time your face is in the water. Pay close attention that you are not holding your breath when you face first enters the water each stroke. The split second your face enters the water is when the exhale should begin, creating a smooth, seamless breathing cycle and stroke.

Sync it up

Knowing how to properly and effectively ventilate your lungs is one thing, but equally important is maximizing the amount of time you have for each breath during freestyle. It’s common to feel as if you don’t have ample time for each inhale, and luckily the fix is quite simple. The problem lies within the timing of your inhale, meaning literally when you start and finish the breath.

There is a specific unilateral breathing pattern you should be employing specific to open water swimming. Breathing every stroke, but occasionally alternating sides for symmetry and balance, allows you to sync the cadence of your stroke precisely with the rhythm of your breath. Using the mental device of saying in your head, “inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale,” will hold you accountable to focusing on your breathing. This will help to eliminate any breath holding that may be occurring while your face is in the water, as well as help you time the breath precisely with your stroke. For a left-sided breath, assign the inhale to your right arm and the exhale to your left arm. During freestyle, as your right hand slices into the water, your head and body rotate to the left side. Precisely when your right arm reaches full extension is when you should begin your inhale. If you find that your right arm is already dropping or pushing down on the water as you begin your inhale, your timing is late.

On the following stroke your left hand slices forward and body rotates to the right. Your face should return to the water simultaneously as your left arm reaches its most extended position. If you’re able to see your left hand pass your face and slice into the water, you are finishing your inhale late. This creates a hitch in your stroke and break in momentum and power.

Practice these two precise timings by slowing your stroke rate down a hair, and/or using a pull buoy to take the legs out of the equation temporarily. More often than not, you’ll find that the timing of your breath is late, causing a snowball effect of bad habits. The easy solution is to sync the breath with your stroke.

Focus on Your Breath

Our brains are only able to process and focus on one thing at a time. Your breath should always be your first focal point when swimming. Once you have the effort and timing of your breath dialed in, you can then move on and focus on an additional element of your stroke. If at any point you find yourself breathing shallow and constricted or feeling especially tense, tune back into the breath to reset your stroke. Keeping close attention to your breathing while swimming open water is particularly valuable as it helps to isolate your focus, and distract your mind from any negative self-talk or pre-existing fears. Remember: Focus on your breath.

The Swim Mechanic, Bryan Mineo, is an open water swim mechanics coach based in Los Angeles. His methodology is uniquely specific to the needs of triathletes. Bryan teaches an 'order of operations' by educating athletes on the cause and effect of their stroke inefficiencies. The Swim Mechanic holds clinics around the country, as well as writes monthly articles on swimming mechanics for several national publications.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.