It’s All About Breathing

It is now early June, and the lake temperature (incredibly) at Gyro Beach here in Kelowna this morning was a balmy 18°C today. It is warm enough to enjoy swimming in the lake–already we have fishermen, paddlers, sailors, waterskiers, power-boaters, windsurfers and swimmers vying for their piece of the water (it’s important to be seen using a safety swim buoy). However, with the enjoyment of the open water summer season now underway, we also have the return of an old nemesis: drowning, most of which are preventable. A sobering reality: Okanagan Lake remains the number one body of water for drownings in BC.  (

This column will provide some simple open water swimming tips, including recommending to buy open water swim buoy, and will be written by the members of the Across The Lake Swim Society, who has been encouraging people to safely enjoy swimming in open water well enough to, yep, swim across our fine lake.

It’s all about breathing.

Whatever you have learned about the technical aspects of your arm strokes, or your cadence, or your body position when learning endurance swimming, none of it matters anywhere near as much as breathing does, and most importantly, staying in control of your breathing. There is no other sport where you have to as much as think of breathing: Inspirations are done on demand, without any barriers, at the depth and rate you desire, consistent with the intensity of the activity that you are doing, while expirations can seemingly just passively fall out of you. Swimming though, is quite different: For most strokes, how you breathe and when you breathe appears to be dictated by your stroke; to get good at this requires you to get comfortable with inspiring only when your mouth is sufficiently out of the water, while expiring well and completely requires learning to forcibly blow air into the water, in a way that does not build up carbon dioxide and cause hyperventilation, or air hunger due to hypoxia. For most newcomers to swimming, this is the rate limiting step: Often after as little as 25 meters of swimming, inexperienced swimmers are short of breath, simply because their breathing cadence has not adequately dealt with their needs—they become too short of breath to continue, and it has nothing to do with fitness. How does that happen? An example on land may help:

Imagine walking briskly for a few hundred meters, breathing out quickly and incompletely every 3rd step, and inspiring quickly right after that—how long would it take before you got short of breath?

So the first fact you need to know: Swimming is the only sport where breathing matters — a lot. It is the only sport where you need to build your technical skills (your stroke) around your breathing, not the other way around. If you are a beginner, you may want to start even just standing in a pool, developing a breathing cadence that is manageable first—every expiration is with your face in the water, and every inspiration is where your face is out of the water. This should feel boring and repetitive before you proceed to move slowly in the water, perhaps with fins on, repeating the same thing: every expiration is in the water, every inspiration is out of the water. Start with a side stroke position, propelling yourself with your fins only, with one arm extended with your face exposed out of the water, turning your face into the water to breathe out. Try this on both sides, and when ready to try it, alternate to the other side while moving forward. Beginner swim classes for children and adults are available at most YMCA’s and local swimming centers to work through these basic principles.

The second fact you need to know: The drive to breathe is not dictated as much by lack of oxygen as it is a build-up of carbon dioxide. So it means that, as you become short of breath in most circumstances, the solution is not to gasp for more air, but in fact to more completely blow carbon dioxide out. Try hyperventilating briefly—e.g., take 5-10 full excursions of air, focusing on blowing air out completely with each breath—and then stay still, and feel what that does to your breathing rate.  You will notice that you will have little urgency to breathe. So while it would seem that swimming 25m of a pool should not cause shortness of breath after less than a minute of exercise, the reason it does so is because of the progressive carbon dioxide retention in the lungs and body, as a result of repeated, incomplete emptying of your lungs.  Learning to breathe out (and not so much in) well is the first key principle to keeping the drive to breathe under control. Developing a comfortable and flexible rhythm of inspirations and expirations while swimming is equally important.

When doing a freestyle stroke, the need to breathe out completely with every breath has to become automatic, with every stroke. For some, it can help to hum nasally and continuously as soon as your face enters the water, so as to prevent CO2 retention, to prevent water going up your nose, and so as not to breath-hold; and it helps to give one last surge of expiratory effort just before turning to breathe, again through the nose, for complete emptying. When turning the head, take a breath in with your mouth, which is much more efficient for inspiration than breathing in through your nose. Learn a pattern of prioritizing nasal breathing with expiration, and exclusively oral breathing with inspiration. As you work harder, the expiration can become a combination of both oral and nasal breathing, but it always needs to be complete. If this pattern of breathing continues to be difficult, try simple slow breast stroke, with your head mostly out of the water as you breathe in, and blowing out slowly but completely as your face dips into the water as you extend your arms forward. Practice this as a breathing drill, not a swimming drill, until you can do it all day without becoming short of breath. If practicing in the open water, we suggest an open water swim buoy so you can be seen. This safety swim buoy is towed behind you with no drag but is highly visible.

Photo Credit: KristianVJ via Compfight cc

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