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Why breathing out is more important than breathing in when swimming

Breathing properly is an important part of any terrestrial activity, but particularly when exerting energy during sports activities especially swimming.

Swimmers need to be aware of the following basic facts:

  • Breathing in whilst underwater is still NOT possible for humans

  • Air is absolutely necessary when swimming.

When swimming backstroke, breathing is made easier as our mouths and noses are clear of the water for the most part. With the other 3 strokes it was necessary to create swimming stroke actions that allow the mouth and nose to exit the water to access the air. With freestyle the process required to breathe in air is to rotate the head sufficiently so that the mouth can breathe air in.

But before we can breathe in we need to make room for it in our lungs by breathing air out underwater.

Most people think that they are out-of-breath because they aren’t getting enough oxygen. The reality is a bit more complicated than that.

As our bodies use oxygen, it creates carbon dioxide (CO2) as a waste product. Kicking excessively is a quick way to use more oxygen. As CO2 builds up within us, we need to relieve the out-of-breath distress by breathing out the CO2.

Our breathing urges are driven by excessive CO2build up (just like a pressure cooker) not by a lack of oxygen. Getting rid of the CO2 helps relieve the out-of-breath distress. Swimmers who do not exhale properly will quickly feel winded because of this reflex, even though they probably aren’t really suffering oxygen deprivation. This is why many extremely fit triathletes may feel that they can only swim a few lengths of the pool before needing a long rest break—they’re holding their breath. Another reason for people experiencing breathlessness is Shallow breathing, or chest breathing. This is where people draw minimal breath into the lungs, usually by drawing air into the chest area using the intercostal muscles rather than throughout the lungs via the diaphragm. Shallow breathing can result in or be symptomatic of rapid breathing and hyperventilation.

A word of caution: Hyperventilating (taking a series of shallow, fast breaths before you swim) purges your CO2 reserves, which eliminates the safety mechanism of the breathing reflex. This can cause shallow water blackout, a condition in which your body runs out of oxygen and you pass out and drown without ever recognizing that you’re in danger. You should never hyperventilate before swimming.

Tips for terrestrials

Distance runners and cyclists would never dream of holding their breath during a competition, yet our instincts are to clamp up and stop breathing when our faces are in water. To become an effective swimmer, we must mindfully change this instinct.

Terry Laughlin founder of Total Immersion swimming taught me the skill of exhalation at the start of every swim to place me in a “cocoon of calm”.

Trickle breathing out, creates a sense of calm when we breathe in. The more urgently we breathe out the more urgently we breathe in, creating its own form of fatigue.

Sprinting versus longer distance swimming will use different volumes of oxygen and therefore the rhythm of breathing will also differ.Experiment to find what rhythm works best for you and conserves the most energy for each swim distance.

It's also important to blow at least some of the air out your nose to maximize the airflow and avoid getting water in your sinuses. As a longer distance swimmer, I nearly always exhale out exclusively through my nose. This is especially critical when exhaling while you're upside down during a flip turn or on a backstroke start. Getting water up your nose is a show stopper… water in the mouth is merely an inconvenience.

Many experienced and elite swimmers are able to achieve sufficient exhalation primarily through their noses. For less experienced swimmers, this takes practice—the important thing is to exhale sufficiently so that you're ready to inhale as soon as the mouth clears the water during the breathing phase of the stroke.

Bilateral Breathing

Most coaches encourage swimmers to breathe on every third stroke instead of constantly breathing on the same side. The two key advantages are:

  • It generally makes our strokes more symmetrical and helps us recognize stroke anomalies.

  • Switching breathing sides during a race allows us to see our competitors more easily and makes us more adaptable to variable weather conditions in open water.

The common mantra amongst swimmers is Bubble - Bubble – Breathe to achieve a good bi-lateral breathing pattern. In shorter distance pool racing (except 50m) the majority of swimmers including, Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky breathe every two strokes to their preferred side. A good freestyle practice session is one where you breathe approximately as many strokes to the left as you do to the right.

Breathe with Economy

The process of breathing, no matter how well it is done produces a small amount of drag. This is why in 50M sprints most swimmers these days try to swim the whole distance without taking a breath. In fact taking a single breath can be the difference between standing on the podium or not. So, it would then seem logical to assume that it’s better to take as many strokes as possible between breaths to avoid any drag created by the breathing motion. This might work for some 50M sprinters, but after about 30 seconds of effort, your body switches to metabolic processes that require oxygen. If you want to maintain power past that point, you must breathe. If you’re swimming any sort of distance at all, you should never hold your breath. Instead, work with your coach to develop a smooth and drag-free breathing motion and good inhale/exhale rhythm. I like to do practice sets of breathing every 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 strokes then working back down the scale. This really helps imprint a pace that matches an economical breathing pattern.

Exhale Panic and Swim with rhythm

There are times when you’ll feel especially out of breath, such as during the madness of a triathlon start, or coming off the wall from a flip turn. In those cases, focus strongly on breathing out a little harder to expel the CO2 waste. You’ll often find that you have more energy than you thought and can get into that wonderful swimming rhythm after you get rid of the “bad air.”

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