Now, we're not going to get into a debate about the benefits of bilateral breathing over unilateral breathing or whether you should be breathing every 2, 3, 4, or 5+ strokes (but if you want to read-up more on this you can at http://www.swimsmooth.com/freearticles.htm#BREATHING ), but I do want to pose a simple question, the answer to which can be quite enlightening for the potential of your swimming:
Q: Are you AWARE that you are exhaling when your face is in the water?
There are 3 possible answers obviously (yes, no, not sure). What is your answer?
I would say that ~80% of the people that I have coached over the years (including many elite swimmers and triathletes) cannot give me a definitive answer to this question. Either this is because instinctively they DO exhale under the water, or that they simply aren't consciously aware either way. Under-water video analysis or asking a friend to watch you from under the water soon provides the answer.
Whatever your response, you stand to gain some benefits from listening up to this simple piece of advice and trying this little drill set (as silly as it seems) to help develop this aspect of your stroke. After all, if this part of your stroke is not great, nothing else will matter you'll simply be turning what should be a very aerobic activity (with oxygen) into an "anaerobic" one (without oxygen). Anyone who has done anaerobic sprint training knows there's only so long you can keep going with this!
I guarantee that if you're struggling to complete continuous laps of freestyle, THIS is your main problem.
On dry land, inhalation and exhalation are both subconscious exercises you do them automatically. When was the last time you went for a hard run and held your breath at any point? You didn't. You either breathe in, or you breathe out. This helps to keep the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide (CO2) in your lungs regular and prevent the feeling of hypoxia occurring. Your body needs the oxygen for your muscles to function properly, but if you hold onto the CO2 the brain picks up on this and starts to raise the alarm bells by quickening your heart rate and initializing a "gasp response". However, I guarantee that if you are not aware of whether you are freely exhaling under the water, that it's quite likely you ARE holding your breath. Some people hold onto it until they are just about to take the next breath in and let it go explosively. In doing so, they are probably still exhaling when they have the small window of opportunity to actually breathe in. Some don't breathe out at all. Both methods are very ineffective.
One swimmer told me last week that he purposefully holds his breath because he was instructed that doing so would increase his buoyancy. Think about it though where are your lungs? In your chest obviously. Why was this guy being told that he needed more buoyancy? Because his legs sank. What will increasing the buoyancy in your chest do to the rest of your body from stomach down? That's right exacerbate a low-leg condition! You simply must NOT hold onto your breath! It's bad for your relaxation in the water and it's also bad for your technique!
TASK # 1:
So, if we know that your lungs are like balloons in that the fuller they are, the better they'll float, a quick exercise in how well you can SINK will determine just how freely and comfortable you feel with exhaling in the water. We'll then transfer this skill into your swim stroke in Task # 2.
With a friend or a coach and under correct life-guard supervision, take yourself down to the deep-end of the pool. I'd recommend being in water of ~1.8 to 2.0m deep and within easy reach of the wall. Holding onto the wall take a big breath in and then start blowing out almost like you're humming a song as you pop your face under water. Initially, you'll be fighting to keep your head under as your buoyancy is so great, but as you start to run low on air, you'll start to sink. DON'T PANIC! Drop down and come straight back up. Do this a few times until you feel confident in your ability. You'll find that the easiest position to be in to sink is standing straight up and down like a pencil. A strong, forceful exhale will see you sink much quicker than a little trickle.
AT THIS POINT, DON'T GET FRUSTRATED AND SAY YOU CAN'T DO THIS, YOU CAN IT MIGHT TAKE A LITTLE TIME, BUT YOU CAN DO THIS!
Assuming you have familiarised yourself with that and you and your partner are ready to move on, now move 1 foot away from the wall (still within easy reach) so that you are treading water. Now take a big breath in and then start to exhale. If you are comfortable with this 'simple' task you'll sink straight down, if not you'll drop momentarily and then bob back up to the surface worrying that if you keep blowing out you will going to sink and won't be able to get back up! The trick here (and whole purpose of this exercise) is to get over this "hump" or "panic threshold" and keep exhaling if you do so, you WILL sink. DON'T PANIC! Touch the floor and come straight back up. Getting over this hurdle is such a key point for your swimming and learning to "play around" in the water and control your breathing in this manner will have some massive knock-on effects for your swimming.
TASK # 2:
Make sure you have repeated the second part of TASK # 1 several times and have experimented with exhaling through your mouth and/or through your nose (there is no right or wrong, do whatever works best for you!). Extend yourself each time by trying to sit on the bottom of the pool and then lie, or going from a mushroom float (i.e. knee tucked up) rather than a vertical "pencil". Listen to your humming as you exhale and take time to enjoy this underwater environment. The more you enjoy it, the better you will swim. Now simply push-off for a lap or two of steady freestyle focusing entirely on exhaling freely in the water just as you have been doing. It doesn't need to be a forced thing, just keep on HUMMING! Notice how you start to feel more relaxed, breathing in happens automatically rather than gasping for air, and your legs start to sit up higher too! Bonus!
Simple stuff, done well.
Most of you hold onto your breath for fear of running out, we're going to turn this around and say that unless you have exhaled in the water, you're never really going to get a full breath IN. If you continue holding, you will always panic in the water, will never be fully relaxed and will always be swimming "anaerobically". Think less about breathing IN and more about breathing OUT! It'll make a BIG difference to your relaxation and to your technique.
Lastly, what's the first thing you do when your face hits cold water or you are worried about 500 other triathletes swimming all over you? Yup, you hold your breath. That's why you panic and that's why you hate mass-start races. Work on these exhalation drills and you'll be better in the open water too!
So lets heare your thoughts - are you a sinker or are you a floater?