Better Breathing, Better Swimming

No matter what level of swimmer, the basic fundamentals of body position, leg action, arm action, breathing and timing of the swim stroke apply to each and everyone. The difficulty that occurs for many weaker swimmers is that there is a sense of urgency to apply lots of effort to swim quickly in order to keep up with others. The rushing of the swim stroke in an attempt to go faster is often the root of all technique related problems. Swimming without control over the basic fundamentals leads to excessive fatigue and resistance and ultimately frustration. If you are looking to improve your swimming performances then start by learning to swim slower with more control. In a race, experienced and elite triathletes will have a stroke rate of approximately 35 / 44 stroke cycles per minute (70/88 strokes). By slowing this rate down when working on technique by at least 50% you will find that you have more time to control your actions. By and large, the movements that are made in the swimming strokes conforms to Newton’s 3rd Law of motion “an action creates an equally an opposite reaction”. Therefore if you do something wrong on one side of the stroke you are sure enough going to have a counter problem on the other side. A simple example – If you incorrectly press down to assist the breathing and lift your head, then your legs at the other end of the body are going to sink. The key to getting the swimming stroke right is to make the least possible disruption to the balance, forward propulsion and streamlining of the stroke. In a nutshell, to move forward in swimming you have to apply backward pressure to the arms. If the pressure applied is in the wrong direction then opposite forces occur creating resistance and drag. To create an image that might act as a useful parallel. Imagine a rower in a single scull, (If you have ever tried to row one you will know what I am on about!) balance is everything, one wrong move and you are in the water. The idea is to sit tall and still, the movements of the stroke include, just like swimming, a catch phase, a sweep stroke, and an exit and recovery. Now imagine if the rower pulled too deep with one blade. The scull would keel over to that side causing loss of balance, rhythm, timing and ultimately speed, not to mention the extra effort required to recover from the fault. To row well requires a great deal of discipline, and a great deal of time is spent developing balance and coordination at slower speeds so that when the pace is gradually increased the control and efficiency of the stroke remains. This is exactly the same principal required to develop a more effective swimming stroke. The reason it is so greatly overlooked is, by and large, confidence and lack of understanding. The need to keep up and try to swim fast must not overshadow the learning of key skills. Speed will most certainly come following an improvement in swimming efficiency.  Basic Steps and practices
  1. The breathing cycle, when performed incorrectly is the biggest disruption to the balance of the body and all the key components of the stroke and accounts for the majority problems experienced by novice and improving swimmers. Try swimming short distances from a push off; say 6-10 slow strokes without breathing. Repeat this over and over again until you can sense a high body position and a smooth relaxed rhythmical arm action. The key is to work on the overall body relaxation whilst keeping the shoulders, hips, and heels high and in line with the surface of the water. Use a relaxed shallow gentle leg action to assist.
  1. To practice fitting the breathing movements into the stroke stand, leaning forward in the shallow end with your shoulders submerged below the surface and one arm extended with the other arm by your side. Take a breath and place your head into the water. With the leading hand remaining still and extended, begin to exhale fully turning your head 90^ to the side as you near the completion of your exhalation. Now begin your inhalation, taking a good clear breath before turning your head back to the centre line. The practice should be performed over and over again slowly until the timing seems to become easier and the movements of the head are smooth. It may be useful to stand with one leg forward and one leg backward as this can simulate the natural roll of the body.
  1. To fit the breathing cycle into the stroke, begin by using a one arm swimming drill. Hold a small float in the extended hand to help maintain a stable position. Push and glide from the wall with two hands extended, (one holding a small float) as you sense the momentum reducing from the glide begin by taking a very slow swimming stroke with the free hand. It is important to hold your breath for the first part of the stroke until the hand is approximately level with the chest, and then begin to exhale. As the hand nears the back of the stroke;
    • Roll to the whole body slightly to 40-45^ toward the breathing side using the purchase of the hand at the front and the back of the stroke to apply leverage (pressure against the water).
    • Turn the head smoothly from the centre line to face the side of the pool just after the roll has begun. During this movement complete the exhalation and then begin the inhalation as the elbow exits the water. At this stage, if you are in a streamlined position and you have produced a reasonable amount of momentum you will experience breathing into the bow wave around the head and body. Ensure that the head does not turn too far to breathe and that there is a slight angle as though your head was lying on a small pillow. Try to feel like you are taking a breath so that no one would notice – don’t rush, take your time. If you are really good at this you will be able to breathe so that only one of your goggle lenses is visible from the side.
    • The inhalation should be completed, as the recovering arm is approximately ½ way through its recovery action.
    • When the recovering arm comes into line with the head the head is turned in time with the body roll back to the centre line whilst the recovering arm extends and enters the water to begin the next stroke cycle.
tick TIP: “The key points of the breathing cycle are that the breathing fits into the framework of the stroke. Therefore whether you breath or not the stroke movements remain the same”.
  1. Now practice performing the breathing into the full stroke cycle. Swim slowly and over short distances. Aim to improve efficiency before moving to longer distances. In my opinion, it is important to be able to learn the timing so that you can breathe on every stroke. To do this ensures that you have achieved the correct timing of the stroke and are not rushing any aspect. Once you have mastered the once every stroke breathing cycle try adapting your new technique to perform the breathing cycle every 2, 4 and even 6 strokes. Once you have mastered that then try breathing every 3, 5 and 7 strokes. There is no rule to which breathing pattern is best it is down to a matter of what suits and obviously what is practical. It would be no good breathing every 5 or 6 strokes in a triathlon when oxygen is in high demand!