When I am totally race fit, I don’t worry about breathing or technique – they take care of themselves. -Frank Shorter

 

Breathing isn’t optional, but it IS a choice.

It is one of those body functions that your brain maintains whether you’re aware of it or not…like your heartbeat.   However there are many circumstances in which you can choose to breath in a different pattern…faster, shallower or just differently.

Imagine how hard it would be to sing or even have a conversation if we had no willful control of when we breathe in and when we exhale? When speaking or singing, we’re able to use breath control to create phrases, delaying an inhalation until the end of a musical phrase or sentence in speech. Yet, as soon as we’re done with that activity, the brain immediately takes over again and continues respiration, in and out, indefinitely as long as we’re alive.

It’s one part autonomous, one part reflex and one part choice.   When we swim we get to choose how and when we breath…and also why.  My goal with swimming is to make my breathing seem so seamless that I get a sensation I’m breathing under the water.  My breathing no longer becomes a conscious choice, nor an instinct of survival, but an automatic part of my stroke matched with my effort at that time.

Rocky Mountain Swimming High

I recall the first time I experienced this sensation and it was a direct result of TWO things combined that might have otherwise derailed me for that summer.   The first was dislocating my thumb on my first day of work in Colorado.  The second was the fact that I was working and living at 7500 feet of altitude…thin air for sure!

With the thumb injury, I was unable to ride a bike or go fly fishing for several weeks while my hand was splinted.   The occupational therapist I saw made me a waterproof splint I could wear for working and swimming, so off to the pool I went for my daily exercise.  Two new problems cropped up once I was int he pool.   However I was so in love with swimming that I couldn’t imagine these stopping me. Instead i found a way to make these into assets for improving my breathing.

The first problem was the altitude.  At 7500 feet, most folks who do not live there and are acclimated will experience an increased breathing rate both at rest and while exercising.  That’s no consequence when you’re riding a bike or fly fishing. It happens and you don’t have to think about it.  However in the pool, where I chose to get my main exercise those first few weeks of injury, having to breath more often was almost enough to make me question if I should even bother.

My breathing wasn’t bad by any measure, but it wasn’t ideal, and I didn’t realize how many flows there were until I was forced to breath every stroke even when swimming easily.    Essentially I had created an environment not dissimilar to a beginner in which they feel the need to breath every stroke not because of a lack of oxygen, but because they are swimming inefficiently and using up a lot of oxygen…basically the same situation I was in.

While i hadn’t noticed any major flaws in my breathing before arriving at altitude, once I was there, the errors were many!

 

Breathing Skills Practice – Intermediate to Advanced Skill Level

Here are some of the skills I practiced during those weeks of recovering from my hand injury and adjusting to the altitude.  There was no other time in my swimming career where my breathing improved so much, because I was forced to work on it under those circumstances.

Breathing Skills Practice: (total ~ 2000 – 3200) 

Dry land:

Practice tall posture, pulling up through the crown of the head, draw chin back just a bit since most of us tend to slouch a little bit.  Check your posture from the side with a selfie, in the mirror or with your back against the wall.

Look for these checkpoints:

  • Are your ears over your shoulders? (if not where are they?)
  • Are your eyes looking directly forward? (if not where are they looking?)
  • Can you inhale fully drawing air downward through your diaphragm?
  • Are your glutes engaged with your hips over your heels?
  • Bonus points:  Can you stand on your tip toes without losing balance and posture?
  • Finally… are you relaxed and comfortable?

If you can’t answer yes to each of these questions, don’t worry, nothing is wrong, you’ve just highlighted some elements of your posture, flexibility and build that may need to be addressed through some daily exercises (or physical therapy).  But now that you’ve practiced that in the locker room head to the pool

Tune up: (150) 

  • 4 x 5 yards – head lead tall posture, gentle kick. I call this “toy soldier” because it reminds me of a wooden nutcracker toy, tall and toned.
  • 4 x 10 yds – start with arms extended, tall posture, gentle kick for a 5-10 seconds then add a few strokes
  • 4 x 25 yds – Start as above with soldier drill, arms extended, then swim to the end, gently focusing on posture

4 x 50  “Catch & Push” Drill, alternating right arm and left arm focus.  (200)

  • 1st 25 down:   With each push extend the lead arm and let your chin rotate towards the air along with your hips and shoulder on that same side.  When you need to breath, take a full stroke with each arm and breath to the same side.
  • 2nd 25 back:   Swim full stroke freestyle breathing to the same side as the first 25. Try to stay relaxed in the recovery arm while extending the lead arm as you breathe.

4 x 150 (600)

  • Within each 150, swim as follows:
    1st 50 breath every 4 to the right on the way down, and every 4 on the left on the way back. Easy effort
    2nd 50 breath every 3rd stroke for the entire 50.  note that you can increase your speed a little since you’re exchanging air more often
    3rd 50 breath every 2nd stroke to the right on the way down and to the left on the way back.  You can increase your effort even more since you’re exchanging air every time you stroke.

2-4 Rounds of (200 + 2 x 100 + 4 x 50) (1200-2400)

  • 200s Swim very easy breathing every 4 strokes to the same side. Alternate right and left every length.  Compare your posture in breathing strokes with your posture in non breathing strokes. Do you still feel tall and aligned like in the dry land activity?
  • 100s Swim moderately breathing every 3rd stroke (alternating breathing sides regularly).  Note that with a slight speed increase your body must rotate around a skewer in order to maintain access to air on each side.
  • 50s Swim faster, breathing every 2nd stroke, switching for the 2nd half.  Again note that your posture remains tall and with even more speed, you’ll have a better pocket to breath into making it seem as if you’re almost breathing under the surface of the water.