I want to start a conversation with you about breathing problems and their possible causes.

Feeling ‘out of breath’ (when I don’t think I should be) is one of the most common complaints I hear from swimmers and it has come up recently with some members in the Dojo. In this post I want to map out many of the possible causes for this.

First, it is likely that the problem of being ‘out of breath’ is caused by several factors affecting you together.

Second, some of these factors are things you can improve with know-how and training once you identify what they are. Others are things you may compensate for with changes to your technique.

Third, some of the problems could be with your technique (wasted effort), some with your conditioning (improvable conditions or unimprovable conditions), and some of it could be a matter of perception – you may need to change the way you interpret uncomfortable sensations that come with higher exertion.

I don’t know what is affecting you. But as you read through this list (and there could be many more that I have not listed) you may suspect certain ones are related to your situation.

Here is a list of possible causes that come to mind….


In Body & Stroke

These are factors that will either make it harder to get to breath (to inhale) or just make more work for the body which increases demand for air exchange.

  • Faults in body position which create excess drag – you have to work harder and require more air exchange than necessary.
  • Faults in the stroke pattern which increase drag or reduce power transfer – you work harder but accomplish less.


In Breathing Technique

These are factors that will either make it harder to get to breath (to inhale) or just make more work for the body which increases demand for air exchange.

  • You drop the lead arm (or ‘break the ice’ as some of you have learned from me) before it’s time to switch the arms.
  • You breathe too late in the window of opportunity.
  • You hold your breath underwater.
  • You try to make massive air exchanges – nearly emptying the lungs on each exhale, feeling desperate to fill the lungs on each inhale.
  • Your turn to air and return to ‘face-down’ position is so disruptive to balance and streamline that it breaks your momentum on each breathe requiring two or three strokes to restore these.


In Breathing Pattern

This is actually a complicated situation – when training you in breathing patterns we hope you will naturally fall into suitable patterns without thinking about it too much. But the fact is, your brain is having to sort through these variables to find the best sustainable arrangement to let you swim the speed and distance you want.

I will list these one-by-one but realize that they are interdependent, affecting each other…

  • Your stroke tempo is inappropriate (too fast or too slow)
  • Your breathing pattern is too infrequent for your intensity level
  • The volume of air exchange is too much or too little (often too much)
  • The amount of effort per stroke is too high


In Conditioning

The longer you have been swimming and the younger you started, the larger ‘bank account’ of fitness you have to draw from when you get older, and the higher the potential you could possibly return to if you fall away for a while. These factors listed below could be from either a small ‘bank account’ or one that has been neglected for too long.

  • You are older.
  • You do not have a long and strong history in systematic swim training.
  • You lack experience with high-aerobic athletics.
  • You have been ill recently.
  • You have been training frequently for less than 6 months.
  • You swim (on average) less than 3 times per week.
  • You rarely include any high-intensity (80% to 100% effort) work in your training.
  • You rarely swim continuously for duration longer than 5 minutes at a time.

Frankly, those who have experienced high performance when younger have the most to lose, and can be most discouraged. If they have neglected their fitness for a long time it will be hard to get close to the potential at this age they could have if they had kept it up. While those who have not had a strong endurance athletic background, chances are they are not even close yet to swimming at the potential they could with more appropriate fitness-building training – any progress will feel better than they have had before.

But good news for all of you – you can build up a good ‘bank account’ of fitness again. As you get older you just have to be extremely dedicated to building it and maintaining it. 


In Your Head (consciously or subconsciously)

Note: all of these listed below assume your body is functioning in a healthy way and the uncomfortable signals in your body are what is normal and appropriate for that effort level – these are sensations that you need to change your relationship with because they will always be present in healthy high-effort athletics.

  • You feel uncomfortable with high heart rate.
  • You feel uncomfortable with prolonged, deep respiration. 
  • You feel uncomfortable when lactic acid builds in your muscles.
  • You hold your breath without realizing it.
  • You hold excess tension in parts of your body (which don’t need it) without realizing it.
  • You feel uncomfortable with the buildup of carbon dioxide in your system between breaths and during turns.

These final factors all relate to your perception – you are working hard, breathing hard, heart rate pumping harder, and that is normal and healthy and sustainable if you will accept these sensations as OK. Sometimes inexperienced endurance athletes misinterpret healthy discomfort as danger signals that things are going to break down, when in fact, the body is ready to keep going for an hour or two.

We can discuss solutions to each of these sections in the next blog.


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