This is a practice I designed for a swimmer who is doing very well with technique but is having some challenges with training his exhale from nose and inhale from mouth, keeping the airways clear of water. In order to not let the breathing troubles restrict his fitness development we use a combination of snorkel and no-snorkel swimming, to start with no breathing challenge and gradually add complexity over the course of the practice.
4x 50 warm up with gentle movements
Swim 3 rounds of 4 cycles of (2x 25 and 1x 50) with short rest between repeats
Each cycle use a different focal point:
- Neutral head, consistent depth breaking the surface
- Fully extend into skate
- Hip drives extension
- Hip pulls catch
Each round increase the complexity:
- R1 snorkel plus tempo at 1.50
- R2 snorkel plus tempo at 1.40
- R3 rhythmic breathing with tempo at 1.40
Have you viewed the Video Tutorials page yet?
Because freestyle is by far the most popular stroke to study, our videos there tend to focus on that stroke.
We have some new additions:
We have hundreds of text and diagram articles in the Dojo on so many aspects of swimming. But some things are better explained verbally and with video. So we are glad to produce these as we see a need. And, if you have a question about the stroke or swimming in general, that may be better answered in video, please send us your question and request for a video answer.
Do you feel you’ve got a decent stroke and are practicing the main breathing skills but still unusually out of breath after short distances?
This appears to be a more significant problem and solution for some swimmers than I realized previously. So I am adding some more guidance for you on breathing deep from the belly while swimming, what is technically known as diaphragmatic breathing.
You can read more about this in Instructions For Diaphragmatic Breathing.
As I study The Oxygen Advantage book I will share some insights and exercises with you from it.
From Chapter 2, some explanation of why you may be experiencing heavy breathing during what should be moderate exercise.
When your breathing receptors have a strong response to carbon dioxide and reduced pressure of oxygen in the blood, your breathing will be intense and heavy. Your body will have to work much harder to maintain this increased breathing volume, but because over-breathing causes carbon dioxide levels to drop, less oxygen will be delivered to working muscles.
Conversely, having a greater tolerance to carbon dioxide not only reduces breathlessness but also allows for much more effective delivery of oxygen to your working muscles during exercise. When breathing receptors are less sensitive to carbon dioxide levels, you will experience a reduction in breathlessness as your body is able to work harder with far less effort; breathing will be lighter during both rest and physical exercise. p.33
It appears that for breathless athletes, our problem is not about getting more oxygen (more frequent and bigger inhalations during swimming) but to train the body to handle higher levels of CO2 and lower levels of O2 in the blood. Through certain kinds of training we can lower our sensitivity to this, which not only lowers the discomfort, it actually lowers our body’s response to that condition, so we just don’t feel the need to breathe as heavy.
It has been said that one of the main differences between endurance athletes and non-athletes is their response to low pressures of oxygen (hypoxia) and higher levels of carbon dioxide (hypercapnia). In other words, endurance athletes are able to tolerate a greater concentration of carbon dioxide and lower concentration of oxygen in the blood during exercise.
In order to attain outstanding performance during sports, it is essential that your breathing does not react too strongly to increased concentrations of carbon dioxide and decreased concentrations of oxygen. p.34
So, how bad is you situation really?
It would be disingenuous to expect breathing to be efficient during sport if breathing during times of rest is inefficient. p.36
Here is the main test that gives us the measurement that all subsequent choices for breath training are based on.
The Body Oxygen Level Test (BOLT)
As far back as 1975, researchers noted that they length of time of a comfortable breath hold served as a simple test to determine relative breathing volume during rest and breathlessness during physical exercise. The Body Oxygen Level Test (BOLT) is a very useful and accurate tool for determining this relative breathing volume. BOLT is simple, safe, involves no sophisticated equipment, and can be applied at any time. p.37
- You will hold breath for a length of time until the first definite natural desire to breathe (air hunger).
- You are measuring how soon the first sensations of breathlessness appear.
- Measuring maximum breath hold is not objective because that time can be influenced by willpower and mental override.
- The lower the BOLT score = the greater the breathing volume (which is a bad thing); the greater the breathing volume = the more breathlessness you will experience in exercise.
The most accurate BOLT score is taken first thing after waking. p. 47
Instructions for taking the BOLT Test
- Rest for 10 minutes before measuring.
- When ready, take a normal breath in through your nose.
- Then allow a normal breath out through your nose.
- Pinch the nostrils to prevent air coming into lungs.
- Count seconds until first natural urges to breathe – sensations include need to swallow, constriction of airway, involuntary contraction of breathing muscles (in abdomen or throat).
- Release the nose and inhale through the nose.
- Inhalation should be calm – if you need to take a big breath at the end then you held too long.
- Then resume normal breathing.
What do the numbers mean?
… a problem arises when a BOLT score is less than 20 seconds, as excessive breathing will eliminate more carbon dioxide than the amount that is produced through exercise, leading to a net loss of CO2, reduced oxygen delivery, and constriction of blood vessels and airways.
The lower the BOLT score, the poorer the match between breathing volume and metabolic activity, hence the need to control breathing during rest and physical exercise. The closer the BOLT score is to 40 seconds, the better the match between breathing volume and metabolic requirements. p.44
… the vast majority of individuals, including athletes, have a comfortable breath-hold time of about 20 seconds, often less. p.40
The ideal BOLT score for a healthy individual is 40 seconds, and according to the book, this is a reasonable goal for most people, when following The Oxygen Advantage program. During the TOA training, in every 5-second increase in your BOLT score you should experience noticeable improvements in how you feel resting and in exercise.
BOLT score of 10 or less
- This person will often experience a hunger for air even when at rest.
BOLT score of 20
- This person’s breathing may be regular but heavy. There may be a natural pause of 1 to 2 seconds between breaths.
BOLT score of 30
- This person’s breathing is calm, gentle, soft, effortless, and quiet. The natural pause between breaths is longer.
BOLT score of 40
- This person’s breathing is calm, gentle, soft, effortless, quiet and minimal. The natural pause between breaths may be 4 to 5 seconds. The number of breaths during rest may be 6 to 10 per minute.
To improve your capabilities and comfort with breathing, here are a few more encouragements and ideas for you…
Make sure you emphasize the exhale in your non-breathing moments of the stroke. Contrary to instincts, this urgency and ‘breathlessness’ you feel while swimming is likely not a hunger for more O2. What your body is desperate for is the removal of CO2 from the blood stream.
If you are holding your breath, you are going to suffer. It is stressful for the body. Practice releasing a small, steady stream of bubbles from your nose the entire time your face is underwater.
Less CO2, Not More O2
I learned this from breath-holding activities – when you inhale then hold breath underwater, when you start to feel the urge to come to the surface to breathe, just start softly exhaling. The release of carbon dioxide (CO2) will calm those alarms and buy you more time before you actually need to take in more oxygen (O2).
In conjunction with this emphasis on the exhale, practice a ‘quick sip of air’ on the inhale. Common instinct is to take an equally long and drawn-out inhale to match the long steady exhale, but we don’t need to. In easy to moderate exertion, we don’t need more O2, we just need to get rid of more CO2.
Here is what I am coming to understand about respiration: the blood, even at moderate to high exertion, has more than enough O2 in it for our needs. We only use a part of it and actually expel quite a bit on each exhale along with CO2.
Fun Fact: rescue breathing works on this principle – normal air contains about 20% oxygen. The air you exhale contains about 14% oxygen. This is the reason CPR works – you have excess O2 coming out of your blood, out of your lungs and it is enough to keep another person alive. That means you have more than enough O2 in your blood to keep you going for quite a while without having to replenish it 100% on every breath.
So, what our breathlessness likely indicates is that we need to expel CO2 more aggressively, not take in O2 more aggressively. When we rid the blood of CO2 this triggers the muscles to pull more O2 from the blood. Common breathlessness in swimming is not a problem of too little O2 but too much CO2 in the blood.
Training To Be Comfortable With Discomfort
This idea needs to be joined with another – when under athletic exertion you will feel signals of discomfort because the cardio-vascular system is working in a different energy-processing mode. When that discomfort start to grow initially, it may compel you to stop at the wall soon – you experience this as a high heart rate and breathlessness. Why are you stopping? Likely because some part of your brain is afraid that this discomfort is going to get worse and worse until you pass out.
Actually, you may be surprised to find that the discomfort rises only to a moderate level and then it doesn’t get any worse. You may find that, though it is initially unfamiliar and therefore uncomfortable, you could actually keep swimming in that discomfort and go much further than you imagine. Your body would be OK. In fact, after some time (like 5 to 15 minutes) your body would adapt to it and the discomfort would go down, if only you would train in that zone a little while longer. After some weeks of training this way, you may find that those alarms no longer go off and you have much less negative association with those sensations – they are no longer labeled as ‘uncomfortable’; they are just normal now. Practice this longer and you may even look forward to it! The sensations would then be associated with the flow and fitness you gain in each practice.
A Dry-Land Exercise
Here is something you can do any time any where. I especially like to do this as a self-calming exercise.
Any time you think of it, simply make a steady and complete exhale and then hold your breath for a while with the lungs nearly empty. It could be just a couple seconds or many more. Just wait there for a moment – you may pay attention to the soft beating of your own heart in some parts of the body. Observe the sensations in your lungs when they are quite empty. Observe the changes in sensations in your body and breathing muscles as the second tick by. Get familiar with this sequence of changes and sensations. See what happens when you hold just a little longer past that initial discomfort. What were before alarms that made your feel desperation can become mere sensory information that you handle mindfully. These no longer need to be labeled as ‘uncomfortable’.
When you take your first inhale try to make it soft as normal – resist the urge to compensate for the extra time holding your breath. Breath softly and normally after each breath hold.
This little exercise is one way you can encourage your body’s tolerance and comfort when respiration is limited by those extra breath holds you take during a flip turn, and for breathing within the constraints of your stroke cycle.
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I should address this concern I have heard from several lately when working on breathing skills…
You start investing your practice time on breathing skills and you notice other skills (like kick, recovery, and catch) that still require your focus seem to degrade. You know you can’t focus on everything at once, but it is frustrating to watch those other things fall apart while you turn your attention this way. So how do you work on breathing but not lose ground in those other areas?
First, fixing breathing is priority because poor breathing causes so many problems with energy waste, stress, and takes up mental/emotional space. If you have problematic breathing, it is lowering your ability to work on any other area. Get this breathing puzzle solved (or at least greatly improved) and you free up so many more resources to use when you go back to work on the other skills.
Second, easier breathing is totally dependent on your most fundamental freestyle skills – you must pay attention and work on the most important features of your body position and movement patterns in order to make breathing better – all those fundamental skills we work on in Superman, Skate and Recovery drills. So, the most essential pieces of your body control are going to be protected and improved when you do thorough work on breathing.
This then puts those ‘other’ skills that you are worried about into a different category – other skills like kick, recovery, and catch are advanced skills that are also dependent on that same foundation. You may not be able to focus on the kick or the catch while working on breathing, and you may feel that those suffer because of it. But you are keeping the foundation for everything tuned, and likely any improvements on the foundation which benefit breathing will also directly benefit the other advanced skills as well. It’s a win-win.
Bottom line – you’ve felt motivated to work on breathing right now by some high price you’ve paid for having inferior breathing. There is a good reason you are focusing on this right now and not something else. You’ve just got to focus on this at this moment and set aside concern for any other advanced skills – you can work on those next, once you acquire improvement in this breathing section first. And that work on other advanced skills will be easier because you can breathe easier.
First things first.
One thing at a time, in sequence of priority.
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Let’s continue the discussion on how to solve breathing problems…
Solution: Improve Technique
Among those reading this post it may be readily understood how improving your body control and your breathing technique will make breathing easier – investing time and effort into those will:
- Increase economy through technical control – you simply won’t require as much air exchange to do the same amount of work.
- It is easier to get to air and get sufficient exchange.
That takes care of a great deal of the complaints swimmers have with breathing.
Solution: Improve Timing
It gets a bit more complicated when we try to think about the math behind this, but you can adjust these variables to find a better breathing pattern:
- increase stroke tempo – the frequency at which breathing windows come along
- change your breathing pattern so that there is less average time between breaths over a full length
- use smaller exhales, smaller inhales
- reduce the amount of pressure or effort per stroke
Like using a smaller gear (faster cadence) on a bicycle, you can speed up the tempo while reducing the pressure per stroke, then insert a breath every 3 strokes. You may find this easier than using a slow tempo, keeping as much pressure per stroke and inserting a breath every 2 strokes. Once you add up the amount of effort and the frequency of breaths over the length you may find that a shorter stroke at higher tempo, with more frequent-but-smaller breaths are more comfortable to maintain.
With those four variables you have a lot of room to experiment in finding a more sustainable stroke+breathing pattern for each event.
Solution: Higher Intensity Training
There is no way around it – we can work on perfecting technique forever but at some point we’ve got to increase effort and add power in order to go farther and go faster. (I spent a good portion of Smooth Strokes blog space over the last year explaining this).
Let’s say you and your TI Coach feel you’re stroke is quite economical at short distances, yet you start to feel breathless at around 150 meters. What’s going on? You may have reached the end of ‘Easy Speed’ benefits your early TI training provided you.
You will only increase your comfort for swimming beyond 150 meters by swimming into the discomfort past 150 meters and training there. Like the burn of good stretching in order to lengthen those tissues, you have to swim into that burn of breathlessness and muscle fatigue in order for your body to be provoked to adapt to it. There is just no other way to adapt your metabolism and muscles to longer distances.
As a matter of fact, the science of fitness behind aging is pointing us to the reality that increasing and then maintaining fitness longer in life is directly dependent on our dosage of high intensity training ( high intensity = uncomfortable in terms of breathing and heart rate and muscle burn).
So, to expand your comfortable swimming distance and speed – no matter how fine your technical control is – you have to swim into the uncomfortable zone to do it. And further more, the more you avoid discomfort (of this kind), the faster your comfort zone will shrink with age. That’s the hard word I am hearing from the experts on aging and fitness these days.
Solution: Become Comfortable With Discomfort
There is eu-stress (positive stress on the body) and dis-stress (negative stress on the body).
One one hand we are training to listen carefully to the body in order to remove unnecessary stress and strain, to make things flow better, make things feel better.
One the other hand, there are many strong sensations that are unavoidably present when you work your body at higher intensity or over longer distances. They are normal and they are healthy. Rather than label these as ‘unpleasant’ it is possible to retrain your brain so that they are regarded as positive sensations rather than negative, so that you associate them with good things rather than danger.
For those who are unaccustomed to high/long intensity efforts, in the early stages of a swim – especially when you have started out too hard – when these uncomfortable sensations are building up, this can trigger some anxiety or fear. The brain mistakenly worries that if those sensations keep building and building like that, surely the body is going to explode! But in fact, those sensations may just rise to a certain level and, if you keep the same effort level, those won’t actually increase. And, if you concentrate on focal points which restore your economy, after 300 or so meters it will start to feel easier again.
Essentially, this is the intended effect of a good warm up and the reason we emphasize doing it with quality every practice, every swim.
Just be aware that some amount of the breathlessness is appropriate – it’s the normal state you’ll be in when working at higher speeds or longer duration, and you can not only get used to it, but come to like it.
It will be good to invest in all four solutions:
- Lower your demand for air exchange with better technical control
- Use a pattern which provides smaller-but-more-frequent breaths
- Insert higher intensity training into your weekly plan
- Reinterpret the sensations that come with healthy higher intensity work
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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
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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