3 Steps To Improve Your Breathing

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One of our favourite subjects on the Swim Smooth Blog (which we revisit every 6 months or so because it's so important and so often over-looked) is your exhalation technique into the water.

Many swimmers hold their breath as a natural reaction from having their face in the water. Others were told to deliberately hold onto their breath when they learnt to swim - and then exhale it at the last moment as they rotate to breathe. 

Holding your breath underwater might work OK for sprinters racing over 50 or 100m but for those swimming over longer distances it's a very bad idea because:

- It increases the buoyancy in your chest which lifts you up at the front and sinks your legs.

- It causes CO2 to build up in your system which makes you feel out of breath and anxious.

- Breathing out late inevitably reduces the time you have available to inhale.

Breath holding is incredibly common in swimming, in fact around 90% of swimmers who attend Swim Smooth clinics need to work on it!

With that in mind, here's a sequence of three simple exercises to try the next time you swim to improve your own exhalation and feel an immediate improvement:

Step 1. Practise Sink-Downs

A sink-down is a simple exercise which you normally perform at the deep end of your pool.

Start by treading water. Take a normal inhalation and then allow yourself to drop down underwater with your legs straight and arms held gently by your side. As you do so smoothly exhale through your mouth or nose (whatever works best for you):

You may find that you have trouble letting go of the air and need to consciously focus on relaxing and letting go. Don't force the air out but think about sighing into the water.

If you don't sink to the bottom of the pool this is a strong indication that you are holding on to your breath - there's probably a lot more air in there to get rid of than you think! Relax and just let it go...

Once you have sunk down, as soon as you feel low on air push up towards the surface again. Take 10 or 20 seconds to compose yourself and then repeat a few more times.

You can find out more about developing this key exercise in the Swim Smooth Coaching System here: app.swimsmooth.com/video/h5/sink-down-drill/

Step 2. The 3-5-7-3 Exercise

Once you've got the hang of sink-downs, swim normal freestyle exhaling bubbles constantly into the water. Run through this breathing pattern as you do so:

- Take your first breath after 3 strokes
- Then your second breath after 5 more strokes
- Then your third breath after 7 more strokes
- Then back to the beginning, take your fourth breath after 3 more strokes and keep rolling through the 3-5-7-3 pattern.

Swim 3-5-7-3 for around 100m at a time, all the time blowing smoothly out into the water. The idea of the exercise is to make you appreciate that you can continue exhaling for much longer than you think before running out of air - in fact afterwards breathing every 3 can feel too frequent!

If you find 3-5-7-3 stressful then try it using a pull-buoy between your legs or whilst wearing a pair of fins for support.

Try some more breathing exercises in the Swim Smooth Coaching System here: app.swimsmooth.com/video/xx/using-mantras/

Step 3. Contrast Exhaling With Holding

Now let's feel the difference your new improved exhalation technique is making.

Simply swim 6x 50m at steady pace with about 10 seconds rest between each 50m - deliberately hold your breath on swims 1, 3 and 5, and exhale smoothly on numbers 2, 4 and 6. How do they feel in comparison? You should feel much more relaxed whilst exhaling!

Swim Smooth!


Anonymous said...

I swim everyday, have swum the English Channel, and traveled the world to swim in exotic places. And every time I receive one of your blogs I stop and read it. You always have some little nugget of useful information, or some good reminder of something I know, but can forget in the day to day. I love the tone and attitude of Swim Smooth and love your videos and "Mr. Smooth". Keep up the good work!
And thank you!

Adam Young said...

Thanks anonymous - glad you're getting a lot out of Swim Smooth! Enjoy your swimming!


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Anonymous said...

The 3-5-7-3 exercise is very useful and we've used it in training before.
Its interesting how few people are aware of the Bohr effect (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bohr_effect) where maintaining a high CO2 level should inprove haemoglobin O2 transport efficacy - which initially can seem counter-intuitive! Whilst many are aware of the risks of hyperventilating, few are conscious of 'what is their correct breathing rate'. Can you advise, please? Does this apply both for training and competition? Might the rate depend on whether it's a sprint or a distance event?
Cheers DJM

Adam Young said...

Hi DJM, high CO2 *reduces* the hemoglobin's ability to carry oxygen not improves it as you said?

Wikipedia: ...a decrease in carbon dioxide provokes an increase in pH, which results in hemoglobin picking up more oxygen.

When you say 'the correct breathing rate' what do you mean? The frequency of breathing in terms of number of strokes?


Anonymous said...

Hi Adam
Perhaps you should look at
This article better describes the role of CO2 and the Bohr effect
Additionally try the book by Patrick McKeown at e.g.

Hyperventilating is not good; neither is over-breathing.

So, regarding breathing rate, I am interested in no of breaths per no of strokes and for different distances for both training and competition.

In competition things could well be different. For a 50m sprinter you do what’s demanded in such an explosive event? But for the 1500m swimmer even pacing and an optimum breathing rate would seem to be more critical……

Interested in your comments

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