Breathing. A simple and natural action, yet often a highly problematic component of proficient swimming. Poor air exchange is easily observed in beginning swimmers - no underwater bubbles, large head lift followed by an urgent and gasping breath, and an overall impression of struggle. Center mount snorkels or simple reduced breath swimming can workaround the issue for a time. Eventually though, we all need to learn how to plentifully exchange air with minimal disruption to the swim stroke.
The issues related to insufficient air exchange can be categorized as follows:
1. Insufficient underwater exhale
2. Insufficient rotation
3. Breathing is not coupled to rotation
4. Stroke rate too low
5. Breath rate too low
6. Timing is off
For beginners, it would be rare for only one of these to be an issue, and not uncommon for all of them to contribute to difficulty.
Exhaling and timing
One of the simplest activities to improve the ability to effectively breathe is "bobs". Yep, just bob up and down. Done as described in the video, you will learn to exhale while underwater, while sensitizing the body to inhale as soon as the face resurfaces. It's easy and works amazingly well in a short time. Repetitive bobbing will specifically work on insufficient exhaling and timing. It can be practiced for longer periods initially, and as you begin to reap benefits, reduced to a few moments before proceeding to other activities.
Complete exhalation can't be stressed enough. Without delving deeply into physiology, let's just say that carbon dioxide saturation is perhaps an equal performance limiter as oxygen debt. Breathe it out, to breathe it in.
Connect breathing to rotation
A second activity which can help with your rotation, and specifically connect that rotation to breathing, (as well as timing), is our old friend, The Float & Paddle. Review the linked video if needed and then take a look at F&P with Breath Timing to understand how the rotation of the torso both properly times and physically drives the breathing motion. Much of the work of getting the face in position to breathe should be accomplished through rotation, and when the breath is then timed to this rotation, minimal head lift or turning is required. The body turns with the stroke, the head turns with it, and we breathe when expedient.
Turn over faster, breathe more
Moving on to stroke rate, this is really a simple math problem. I am not going to insist that you modify your stroke rate, but simply stated, successful open water swimmers largely complete between 70-90 strokes per minute. Assuming one breath per cycle (2 strokes), that is between 35 - 45 breaths / minute. That range is in the ballpark of respiration rates when performing other intense activities. Probably a good thing, as you don't hold your breath when you run or bike, so why do it when you swim?
Adult onset swimmers typically have lower stroke rates. While difficult to put concrete numbers on this segment, I will postulate for this discussion that a range of 35-60 strokes per minute is close. So we have adult onset swimmers with respiration rates up to 50% lower than elite swimmers. (And that is assuming they breathe every cycle, which they often do not)
Disregarding the conventional (correct?) wisdom that open water requires higher stroke rate, I hope to convey the simple idea that simply bringing the stroke rate into alignment with the range of successful swimmers will pay simple dividends in air exchange, ergo the ability to sustain higher intensity for longer periods.
Bilateral doesn't mean every 3rd
Next I would like to draw distinction between stroke & respiration rates and actual breathing patterns. Most world class swims longer than 200 meters will see an almost exclusive once per stroke cycle breathing pattern. One exception to this pattern will see an athlete not wait until the 3rd stroke for the next breath, but actually breathe on concurrent strokes (on opposite sides). An extra breath if you will. This 'breathing every stroke' is a common practice among successful distance and open water swimmers. It provides both more air and the ability to see competitors on both sides.
Adult onset swimmers on the other hand, struggle with the bilateral concept. Most whom I observe seem to assume bilateral breathing means an oxygen limiting 'breathe every 3' pattern. Even worse, they struggle so badly with breathing in general that they adopt a 'breathe as little as possible' strategy, foregoing bilateral entirely. Combine those aforementioned low stroke rates with every 3rd, 4th or greater breathing patterns, and you produce adult onset swimmers who are lucky to have 25-30% of the air exchange of their elite counterparts. (And then hang out on triathlon forums debating whether oxygen intensive kicking is useful or not)
In any event, occasional breathing every stroke (twice per cycle) can be considered the icing on the air exchange cake. There is likely far more fruit to be harvested through some simple bobs combined with the rotation and timing improvements available via Float & Paddle. F&P can itself stimulate an increase in stroke rate, so those two simple activities can help with most of the problems listed above. Once you make some progress, add in small bursts of 'breathing every stroke' work to ice your cake.
An Advanced Topic
Last thing... (and those just starting out could probably ignore this) ...let's call it 'breath initiation timing'. Sorta abstruse, but if coupling the head rotation to the body rotation can be thought of as fixed in time, the remaining head movement, the turn or pivot, should be thought of as happening when we choose. I would encourage you to "choose as soon as you can"
Many swimmers wait too long for this movement and suffer the consequences at the end of the breath cycle and into the next stroke. Specifically, the effectiveness of the next stroke suffers via pulling with incomplete spinal alignment (as the head is still on the return trip). Alternatively, spinal alignment is achieved late (as the face returns to the water), the pull takes place late, and overall timing and stroke rate suffers. See our recent head lead blog for more on this interplay. Begin turning the head to breathe as soon as the pulling arm is clear.
I'll leave it at that.
Good luck. Get to it.
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