Attitude and Breathing – Improving your ability to take in air while swimming

By Kim Brackin – April 9, 2013
Photography by Flashbax 23

Well, folks, its three months into the New Year…is it time to dust off those resolutions or to offer congratulations on a job well done? Either way, where you are today probably had something to do with the attitude with which you approached the challenges that lay before you.

One of the swimmers I admire most is Missy Franklin; I am in awe of the positive energy she always appears to exude. She seems to genuinely express gratitude for the good fortune in her life AND for the outcome of her focused, hard work. How in the hell does she know how to do this at age 17? Not quite sure, but I am certainly not above learning from a “kid”!
Instead of resolutions for 2013, I wrote a gratitude list and decided to act upon it. Each of my articles this year will be written with an air of expressing an attitude of gratitude.
I am grateful for my two big, healthy, strong lungs…they allow me to take in oxygen!

_DSC9560Think of one of the top reasons why you might panic during a swim practice or open-water race: You choke, you can’t breathe…you panic! I am sure that the fear of a lack of oxygen impedes many average swimmers.

I even remember a few sets of repeat underwater 25s I once gave as a college coach that turned stud collegiate swimmers into panicky 5 year olds! Or, for fun, go down to a UT swim practice when the freshmen are told to wear their snorkels for the first time; I guarantee that at least one won’t make it a 25 before sputtering to the surface for air! Lack of oxygen does crazy stuff to humans. Understandably, we APPRECIATE oxygen!

One of the most common causes of inefficient swimming is poor body position. Poor body position is often caused by the act of breathing: lifting your head during the breath, taking it too late in the swimming cycle, and lasting too long in duration. When swimmers breathe, they will typically lift their heads, which will cause their hips to drop, causing them to swim “uphill.” I have also watched people breathe too long or too late, which will lead to over-rotation of the hips and shoulders. Since we breathe so often in our swimming, I advise you to appreciate your oxygen and practice getting better at taking it in. Here are a few suggestions on how to do that:


You may feel silly bouncing up and down in the pool, but it is important that you have rhythmic breathing: Exhale all of your air underwater so you can get a quick breath of air while your mouth is exposed. You may hear differently but, if you are going to breathe fairly often, don’t be afraid to hold your breath until the last moment, where you will exhale forcefully. The oxygen in your lungs allows for more buoyancy while swimming—and don’t we all want to be floating at the surface as much as possible?

Breathe off your spine

Continue to rotate your head with the body for a breath, but you can also turn your head independently of your body’s rotation on your spine. Practice this skill right now: Lookstraight forward. Now, turn your head to look to your side, and don’t turn your entire body. That is how I’d like you to try taking a breath. Turn your head to the side and then snap your head back into a forward, nose-down position quickly. This technique can dramatically reduce shoulder dropping and arms crossing over the midline of your body during the breathing cycle.

Breathe “underwater”

There is a bow wave that is created as the water wraps around both sides of your head. Picture a boat cutting through the water: The water flows around the bow. This bow wave allows you to breathe without turning your head too far, because there is literally a pocket of air along your face. Although it may feel like you’re getting more air the farther you turn your head, the ideal position would be to keep one goggle in the water and turn just enough to get one goggle out! Test yourself by closing the right eye when you breathe to your right and leave only the left eye open; if you can see above the water, you know you’ve turned too far.

Breathing pattern

Does your 2 year old flip out when you take him off his schedule? We all like patterns; they are rhythmic and soothing in that you know what and when to expect. Create a breathing pattern that feels comfortable to you. Ideally, you should bilaterally breathe so that you maintain balance on both sides of the body; therefore, an odd number of strokes to every breath is great (e.g., breathing every third or fifth stroke). If you need to breathe more frequently, take two breaths–three strokes–two breaths. I always liked sets that included breathing patterns designed to challenge your lungs (and mental toughness). For example: repeats of 300s, breathing every three strokes on the first 100, every five strokes on the second 100, and every seven strokes on the third 100. Don’t let the flip turn stop the pattern; instead, count the flip turn as two strokes within the counting pattern/cycle. Practicing with “hypoxic” sets such as this will strengthen your lung capacity, help you develop a rhythmic pattern, and teach you that you don’t need to breathe every stroke!

Open-water swimmers combine sighting with breathing. While sighting, I encourage you to slightly lift your head forward and peek over your shoulder and arm to sight your buoy. You may need to take two to three strokes with the head up to find your buoy. Once you’ve found it, combine that sight with a breath to the side and then snap your head back into correct alignment with the spine. It is important to not leave the head up too high, or the hips will drop.

I bet while reading this article you didn’t once think about the act of breathing; it is an unconscious act. Aspire to swim, and let the breath happen more naturally.


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