“I took a deep breath and listened to the old bray of my heart. I am. I am. I am.

Sylvia Plath

We cannot function as human beings without breathing, it is the start of a vital chemical reaction that gives us life and allows us to be.

We cannot function as swimmers without breathing, it is the start of a vital chemical reaction that gives us life and allows us to swim.

For the purpose of this article I am referring to freestyle technique as it is the most efficient stroke in the open water. It has been my experience that people find breathing the single most difficult skill to attain, especially for those of us who take up the sport of swimming later in life. There is a multitude of skills to attain in swimming as well as breathing….stroke technique, legs, body position and although its difficult to concentrate on all at once do we sometimes neglect breathing technique?

Of course all skills are intertwined with each other and if we concentrate on one in particular it is usually at the expense of others but neglect good breathing technique at your peril. I’m not saying that people purposely forget about breathing but marginal gains can be made in other areas and sometimes breathing gets left behind. The following tips can be built into every session you are doing in the pool in preparation for the open water:

Exhale under water – I know this sounds simple but it is amazing the number of people who try and exhale and intake whilst the head is out of the water. By exhaling under water you are minimising the time the head is turned and maximising the intake of breath. Be conscientious of this the next time you are in the pool, ideally you should be exhaling through your nose continually in a controlled manner in-between breaths

Head position – Whilst your head is in the water it should be in a neutral position. By neutral I mean not forcibly pushing your chin to chest nor your head being too far up. Generally the issue for most of us is the head being too far up as people want to see where they are going!!! As a guide your eyes should be looking downwards just slightly ahead of you. This has a number of affects including a more streamlined position in the water (less frontal resistance), hips are lifted if head is down (legs are lifted) and from a breathing point of view it minimises rotation of the head for an intake of air. Also your lips should be pursed on the intake of breath (think popeye!!!) to minimise head roll.

Practice bi-lateral breathing – For open water swimmers bi-lateral breathing is vital. Yes you will get through an open water swim breathing on just one side but the benefits of bilateral breathing are extensive. Firstly, you are much more likely to swim in a straight line if your breath bi laterally as opposed to breathing to only one side, secondly it aids good sighting technique (a whole other article) and thirdly in rough conditions it means you can breath to the “leeward” or sheltered side of your body as opposed to getting a mouthful of water each time you take a breath on the “windward” side. So it is time to take the plunge and breath to the side you normally don’t breath too, including the following in every session may help:

  • Swim 100m as 50m breath left, 50m breath right maintaining the stroke you are used to for this ie if you breath every 2 strokes/4 strokes. Increase reps (ie 5 x 100m) gradually but include in session.
  • Too bi-laterally breath effectively you need to breath every 3 strokes. Once you are more comfortable breathing on your “weak” side, change your stroke rate to 3 strokes. Again this should be introduced gradually into your session until you are swimming your entire session as a bi-lateral breather.

The above may be difficult at first but with perseverance and patience the benefits will be great.

Enjoy Training……

Máirtín Coffey

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