Lesson #2



The most important basic swimming skill of all is BREATHING! Specifically, integrating a breathing pattern in water, while swimming. Swimming is the only sport where breathing matters—a lot–in fact, if you don’t have your breathing under control, your stroke mechanics don’t matter, and essentially, you cannot swim.

On Breathing

The commonest hurdle new swimmers have to sustained swimming is finding and maintaining a steady breathing rhythm.

It seems paradoxical—we all have no problem breathing in all of our day to day land activities, since it is almost automatic. You don’t have to think about it, you can do it whenever you want to, and both inspiration and expiration are almost effortless. So why is it so hard when swimming?

Why breathing is harder when swimming

  • You can’t inhale spontaneously (your face may be underwater)
  • You have to exhale with force (water resists your expiration)
  • Your breathing cadence is different (less time for inspiration, more time for expiration—you have to learn to integrate breathing with your swim stroke)
  • Any anxiety you have makes things worse (it affects both your cadence and the completeness of your expirations)
  • Cold water makes things worse (you feel tighter, the cold stimulate your urge to breathe, and it is hard to be a relaxed breather)

Some physiology you need to embrace

  • The drive to breathe is not primarily based on your need for oxygen—it is driven by rising blood levels of carbon dioxide (CO2). This means that, to keep the urge to breathe controlled (and avoid feeling short of breath), you have to focus primarily on getting air out of you (and not so much getting air in).
  • Unlike on land, breathing rhythm cannot be spontaneous or automatic when swimming, because you can only breathe in when your mouth is above water. Therefore you need to both understand how to develop a sustainable and regular breathing cycle that mimics what you do on land, without becoming short of breath. Since the face-down posture of swimming puts restrictions on when you can take in air, inspirations have to be both quick, forceful, and well timed to inhale well.
  • Breathing out is different as well: You have to expire in water, and exhaling into water requires physical effort. This often leads to incomplete inspirations, and a build-up of carbon dioxide, which can quickly create the feeling of shortness of breath.
  • Since breathing is so easily upended in the swimming environment, it means you have to prioritize and preserve your normal breathing rhythm. To be a successful swimmer, you must keep your focus on, and control of, your breathing, and not stroke mechanics. So much so that you have to build your stroke around your breathing, not the other way around.
  • Three mechanisms of breathing are used in swimming:
  1. Diaphragmatic (or “belly breathing”) is what most of you do at rest, as you are reading this. Only your diaphragm muscle works, pushing down onto your abdominal cavity to suck air in, then relaxing to push air out of your lungs.
  2. Chest breathing—Your chest usually starts to heave up and out to get more air into your chest, proportionate to your level of physical activity. There are small (intercostal) muscles attached to your ribs that help lift and open your chest up, requiring more effort than belly breathing. The release of this increased inspiratory air in is automatic and easy, because it is based on the recoil of your chest wall wanting to fall back to its normal resting position.
  3. Forced abdominal expirations. Note that, at the end of an easy resting expiration, you can still expel more air by tightening your abdominal muscles. This is an important mechanism to rely on at the end of every breath cycle when swimming, to be sure that carbon dioxide is not starting to build up. It also helps to snort out air to clear out your nose as you are turning to breathe.


1) Feel your breathing

Put a hand on your chest and on your belly while at rest. Notice your belly moving and not your chest. This is diaphragmatic breathing, lightly using just one muscle–totally effortless, right?

Now, for chest breathing: take in a deeper breath. Feel the chest move, and not the belly. This takes more work, since you are now engaging a lot of extra muscles to lift the chest. Try taking a deep breath in and holding it for a few seconds: Notice how easy it is to release the air out of your chest with chest breathing. This is because of chest wants to collapse back down to where it was—it doesn’t like being stretched out, and so with elastic recoil pushes air back out.

Finally, return to easy diaphragmatic breathing. At the end of one expiration, tighten your abdominals, and notice that you can expire even more air. This is abdominal breathing.

2) Completely empty your lungs by combining chest and abdominal breathing.

Repeat the chest expanding breath in, and passively release it. Lots of air comes out. But there is lots of air still in your chest that needs to come out. Tighten your abdominal muscles to exhale more air—try snorting the last part of air out through your nose. When chest breathing, think of your exhalations as having two phases: a) a passive elastic recoil, and b) an active, forced abdominal finish to completely empty your lungs. This is the best way to completely your lungs, which is critical to keeping your CO2 from building up, and to keep your drive to breathe (and therefore your anxiety) under control.

3) Integrating breathing with your swimming stroke

When breathing every 3rd stroke in freestyle, you will take a chest breath inhalation in almost entirely through your mouth (since that is the quickest way to get a lot of air into your lungs) on one armstroke. As your face returns to being face down in the water, your exhalation begins automatically with the recoil of your chest for at least one armstroke. Continue the exhalation until you forcibly expire with a snort (abdominally) to maximize emptying of your lungs as you turn to breathe in again, but on the opposite side.

If you are breathing every 2nd stroke, then the two phases of exhalation are more hurried. This faster cadence is often used when sprinting.

In both cases you should be having a smooth and continuous expiration, especially at the end of the breath, so that water doesn’t get up your nose. One useful trick to use to assure you are continuously expiring is to hum while your face in in the water, finishing the last part of your exhalation with a snort through your nose.


1)Integrating breathing with swimming

Now try the same breathing processes while swimming: A quick, powerful inhalation in through your mouth using your chest, followed by a two phased expiration, emphasizing complete emptying of your chest, using humming and a finishing snort to help you as necessary. Try to swim this way for 50 to 100 m, and use a recovery position if necessary if you lose control of your breathing. If you can do this breathing routine for 100 m without becoming short of breath, try to go longer.

2) Varying your breathing cadence

Once you have nailed a regular breathing cadence, whether every 2 or 3 armstrokes, without becoming short of breath, it is time to get comfortable with varying your breathing cadence, while swimming, without losing control of your breathing.

Try 20-25m of breathing every 2 strokes (same side breathing), or until it feels like you are breathing too much. Then start missing every second inhalation, so that you are breathing every 4 strokes, and maintain that until you feel you can’t handle it anymore before reverting back to every 2 strokes. Then experiment with breathing every three, every 2, or every 4 strokes as you feel you can tolerate, all without losing control of your breathing. Finish your workout with a continuous distance swim, such as an 800m loop, practicing various breathing cadences.


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