Breathe Easier In The Pool: Guest Blogger Mat Hudson

Breathe Easier In The Pool

There are so many good reasons to swim for exercise, and just enough excuses to keep many people out of the pool. Are you one of those who feel some reluctance to get in?

For example, many people find swimming uncomfortable because of the stress and problems they experience while trying to breathe. This is quite common. But why is it so difficult?


The Problem

This difficulty comes from the physics of the situation. The human body in water is like an iceberg – when floating, most of the human body will be at rest underwater, and only about 5% of the body will be visible above the surface. The problem is that the whole head makes up about 10% of the body mass, and if you insist on keeping your head up out of the water to breathe, even just for a moment, gravity will immediately push another part of your body down deeper, slowing your forward movement. The brain will detect this sinking sensation and force you to use much of your arm and leg motion to push the body upward rather than forward. This insistence for keeping the head up out of the water is the #1 contributor to exhaustion when swimming.

When the head goes up, the hips and legs go down.

To be truly balanced in the water, to reduce struggle, and to move more easily through it, you must let most of your head rest underwater in its neutral position, aligned with the spine – eyes looking down, crown pointing straight ahead.

But with the head almost totally underwater, how do you breathe?

That is the trick.

In our freestyle (crawl stroke) lessons we teach you how to position your body in a balanced way parallel to and just under the surface so that you can turn to the air in the easiest way, without triggering gravity to push your body deeper again. Although breathing is immediately necessary if you want to swim more than a few seconds, learning to breathe in swimming comes so much easier when you first learn how to position your body in this way. That is what our lessons are for.

But, if you haven’t had the opportunity to take lessons yet, I want to give you some ideas for how to make your swimming a bit more enjoyable, as far as breathing is concerned.


Some Solutions

Tip #1 – Swim In Short Segments

There is no rule that says you have to swim all the way across the pool. Instead, if turning to breathe is problematic, you can swim just 7 or 8 strokes, within the time you can comfortably hold your breath. The lap pools at the Courthouse clubs are shallow at both ends, and the fitness pools have generous shallow areas. You might be able to stop anywhere and touch the bottom, or you may swim in a lane next to the wall so you can grab on any time you want. Or, you can swim away from the wall for 8 strokes, stop and stand while it is still shallow, turn and swim 8 strokes back to the wall. This is all legitimate forms of practice!

By swimming in short segments like this you can focus more easily on how your body is moving rather than be anxious about how you are going to take the next breath. To choose a suitable level of challenge on your cardio-vascular system, you can just adjust how much rest you take between those short segments – take more rest or less. It will be much easier to imprint better movement patterns if you do shorter repeats with higher quality attention to each movement (like practicing piano). By giving yourself permission to swim in small pieces while comfortably holding your breath, you will be in position to focus better on some part of the stroke you want to improve.


Tip #2 – Turn Your Face With Your Torso

If you would like to attempt some breaths in the middle of your strokes, you must realize that turning the head to take a breath is disruptive even for many of the best swimmers. To reduce that disruption work with this idea: imagine your whole spine – from tail to crown – is skewered on a long shishkabob stick – your torso and your head are fixed to this stick and can only turn on this axis. If you bend the torso like a noodle or tilt the head against this skewer stick it will cause some part of your body to sink deeper.

Instead of bending or tilting to reach the air, when your arm stroke causes your torso to rotate to one side, let the turn of the torso take your face with it – your torso and head turn together. Turn your face toward the side wall of the pool and have both eyes look directly sideways (do not look forward or backward, nor upward to the sky). Your mouth will find air in the direction of your shoulder. Take a quick sip of air and turn your face back down into the water right away.


Tip #3 – Use A Swimmer Snorkel

It is also quite fine if you would like to use a snorkel. I recommend using a swimmer snorkel (versus a recreationalsnorkel) because it is positioned in front of the face to cut the water ahead rather than create drag when positioned at the side of the face.

A snorkel will not help you learn integrated breathing (turning to breathe with the rhythm of the stroke) but it will remove your need to turn to breathe while you focus on better body position and movement patterns. It offers you a chance to swim continuously, without the disruption to your body position that each troubled breathing stroke will cause.

And, just another note: practice keeping your eyes looking straight down (that’s what that black line on the bottom of the pool is for!) and point your head with the crown – as shown in this diagram. That is the more hydrodynamic position for the head and it is the injury-free position for your cervical spine. If you feel soreness in your neck from swimming, this better alignment could really help.


Tip #4 – Exhale Underwater

This may seem like a no-brainer, but you would be surprised how many people are holding their breath underwater without realizing it. When you hold your breath it causes stress to build up inside the body, provoking unnecessary tension (extra work!) and causing you to feel even more desperate for the next breath.

The urge you feel to breathe during exercise first comes from the build up of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the blood – you don’t actually need more oxygen (there is more than enough in the blood provided by each breath), the uncomfortable signals are telling you to get rid of excess CO2. A gentle exhale will help calm this urge for the next breath.

There are two important features to this underwater exhale:

1) Bubble out of the nose, rather than out of the mouth. This exhale from the nose stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which triggers lower heart rate and more relaxation in the body.

2) Give a small, steady stream of bubbles. You do not want to empty your lungs on each exhale – release only a portion of your air.

Too much exhale and you will feel even more desperate for the next breath. Too much exhale and some bodies will start to sink. Therefore, make just a partial exhale and a partial inhale on each cycle of breathing. It seems counter-intuitive but you should try it to see for yourself how this helps.

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I hope you will find some encouragement from these tips to get you moving easier in the pool. Please let nothing keep you from the water that might be solved with a little technology or some improved technique. The swimming instructors at Courthouse are ready to help you with that.

For more information on our lessons and training opportunities at Courthouse you may visit our page.

~ Coach Mat Hudson