In the last post, we considered the importance of complete expirations in the water and a normal breathing rhythm while swimming freestyle, to avoid the build-up of carbon dioxide (which drives the urge to breathe), shortness of breath, anxiety, and even panic when not done adequately. In this discussion, we consider the importance of rate of breathing while swimming and the use of a safety swim buoy.
Just like breathing on land, breathing while swimming should vary somewhat with exercise intensity, but the difference is that swimmer’s breathing rate is regimented and dictated by the cadence of your arm strokes. Essentially then, the only time you can breathe in is in a short window as you turn your head to one side, and leaving a disproportionally longer time to breathe out, while your face is facing down, with your head almost completely submerged in the water. It would almost seem to need the luck to be able to match your breathing rhythm to your arm stroke rhythm without either hyperventilating or not breathing enough to meet the exercise demands of swimming. Either way, you cannot sustain this breathing rate, causing you loss of control of your breathing and then your stroke pattern, and with it anxiety. How does one keep a breathing rate both under control, and yet modifiable as demands of exercise increase?
There are two answers to this seeming conundrum. First, recall that swimming is the only exercise where you have to build your stroke around your breathing (not the other way around). So one needs to get comfortable gliding with each of your strokes – holding one arm straight out in front of you, while the other rests at your side after completing a pull phase until you have adequately expired into the water and you are ready to breathe in again. Your stroke rhythm and your physical movements wait for your breathing cycle to be completed; your stroke is built around your complete breathing cycle. To get good at this, always start swimming this way, to practice establishing your breathing cadence over everything else.
The second variable to manipulate is your breathing cycle. Most swimmers are taught to breathe (and therefore swim) symmetrically, to breathe on both sides, separated by 3 alternating arm strokes. Breathe in on the left side, then, while continuously expiring, right arm, left arm, and right arm pull before turning to the right to breathe in. This is called breathing every three. However, this may be too easy or too hard, depending on how hard you are swimming, so what is the alternative? Learning how to alter cadences. Many sprinters will breathe every two arm strokes, breathing on the same side. Long distance swimmers may start breathing every four or even five arm strokes, given that they may have developed large lung capacities. And most important, experienced swimmers can change easily if they need to. They change from breathing from every 4 to every 3, and sometimes breathe every two arm strokes as they need to, whether for more air, because they missed a breath because of a wave, or because they needed to sight off to the other side at that time. An experienced swimmer can alter breathing cadence on the fly without needing to stop to regroup.
Occasionally, even good swimmers find themselves hyperventilating with a loss of control of breathing. They may have swallowed water, didn’t warm up properly, started swimming too fast, got hit by another swimmer, or underestimated the coldness of the water. When this happens in open water, it can be initially scary, as they may not be any immediate safety platform or open water swim buoy to grab onto, which may intensify the anxiety of the moment. Here too though, there is a solution: having a reliable recovery stroke to return to (your happy place), be it heads up breast stroke, side stroke, backstroke, simply easy treading water, or having a safety swim buoy to hold on to. All of these are, of course, much easier wearing a wetsuit, which provides warmth and floatation while you recover your breathing, and usually settles within 1-2 minutes if the head stays out of the water. To find your happy place, you need to practice it in open water (preferably using an open water swim buoy), until you can trust your ability to get to it, in case of loss of breathing control. When your respiratory rate has returned to normal, restart your swim stroke easily, gliding long enough with each breath to regain breath control.