Breathing while swimming is not just about inhaling and exhaling air above the water. It’s more complicated than that. Breathing affects muscular performance and lung function. Proper breathing, therefore, is essential technique swimmers need to learn.
In this guide, we’ll help swimmers master proper breathing techniques and patterns in the controlled environment of a swimming pool or the challenging venue of open water. Improve your swimming skills and bring them to professional platforms with our tips, recommendations, and insights.
What Happens to Your Bodily Functions When Swimming
Humans are not built to breathe underwater. Nevertheless, swimmers adapt diving reflexes to conserve oxygen while diving and swimming. Proper breathing is vital as the respiratory system struggles when the whole body is submerged in water.
Various parts of the body, particularly the respiratory system, functions differently when underwater. When you swim, your lungs tighten up, and your muscles contract because you accumulate Carbon Dioxide (CO2) and utilize oxygen. This process forces you to combat water resistance, pressure, and temperature. Water temperature itself has a profound effect on the respiratory system. It was proved by Dr. Peter Karpovich, a widely-renowned doctor with contributions in fields of exercise physiology, sports medicine, and other related scientific aspects of physical education.
According to Karpovich, hot water causes greater respiration, while cold water causes a temporary arrest in respiration. Both pose various challenges to professional swimmers as water temperature forces their bodies to adapt and survive. Water resistance and pressure, meanwhile, change the muscle movements and flexibility of swimmers. They need to fight against the movements of the water to move and breathe correctly.
Why Proper Breathing While Swimming is Important
Proper breathing while swimming is not only beneficial to swimmers—it’s also a life-saver. That’s why proper breathing techniques are the most crucial lessons novice swimmers face before they master the sports.
Proper breathing can decrease tension and panic, helping swimmers execute more fluid movements and control CO2 buildup in the body. Proper breathing also improves posture, allowing swimmers to expand the capacity of their lungs and lessen muscle contractions. When these benefits are on the table, swimmers can become more active, resistant, and flexible—critical factors to a good performance.
Improper breathing while swimming causes poor oxygenation, causing swimmers to experience fatigue and panic. When your body isn’t getting adequate oxygen, you experience hypoxia—a condition where there’s an imbalance between the requirements and supply of oxygen in the body’s tissues. Hypoxia affects the whole or a portion of the body, leading to cramps and inflammation. So, it can put swimmers in danger by limiting muscle strength.
The various dangers of improper breathing and the benefits of proper breathing have been discussed by many researchers and scientists for years now. They have proved that proper breathing techniques can save lives and improve performance.
“Limiting breath frequency during swimming further stresses the respiratory system through hypercapnia and mechanical loading and may lead to appreciable improvements in respiratory muscle strength,” said one study in the 25th volume of the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports.
Stressing the benefits of proper breathing in performances, another study by sports sciences researchers in Norway urged coaches to realize the importance of breathing control in improving swimming performances. “Coaches should stress breath control both in training and competitions and also teach effective breathing techniques to avoid velocity reductions due to breathing actions,” said the researchers.
Tips On How To Improve Your Breathing While Swimming
Swimmers compete against water pressure, resistance, temperature, as well as other swimming competitors. But aside from these outside forces, another enemy lives within themselves. Their own breathing technique while swimming can affect their performance and survival.
Proper breathing offers numerous benefits to a swimmer’s bodily functions and overall performance. Here’s a list of tips to improve your breathing while swimming, regardless of your swimming strokes and the type of water environment.
Test Your Lung Capacity
Swimming in itself can already challenge your lung capacity. But if you’re a novice swimmer, you can test and ultimately improve your lung capacity by performing short exercises in shallow water. You can simply crouch down and put your head underwater, then stand up after a few seconds.
Start with shallow and brief immersion to test your lung capacity without stressing your respiratory system. After these brief immersion exercises, work your way to more prolonged and deeper immersion. Encourage your body and mind to stay underwater longer than usual.
Focus on becoming comfortable with staying underwater for long periods without panicking. This step will prepare you for the pressure of professional swimming competitions and further improve your lung capacity.
Practice Calm Breathing Through Blowing Bubbles
Blowing bubbles while underwater is the extension of our first tip—testing your lung capacity through brief and deep immersions. A quick way to master calm abdominal breathing is to do some bubble blowing, an important early swimming skill for children and novice swimmers.
Typically, you exhale through your mouth or nose when underwater. This process can cause tension if not done properly. To control your breathing, you can blow a steady stream of bubbles through your nose and mouth. Eventually, you’ll learn slow and controlled exhalation underwater.
Blowing bubbles is a proven technique to help child swimmers practice calm breathing. Still, it helps adult swimmers with anxiety—those who panic easily during competitions and stressful swimming exercises.
Master the Art of Exhalation
Exhalation is the flow of breath exiting your body. It’s easy to inhale oxygen, but the proper release of air is a challenge for many novice swimmers. And in fact, many intermediate swimmers don’t pay much attention to exhalation as long as they’re breathing properly.
Little do these novice and intermediate swimmers know that exhaling is one of the key secrets to swimming farther and faster. U.S Masters Swimmer Terry “Speed” Heggy proved it in his report for U.S. Masters Swimming (USMS), a non-profit organization that functions as the national governing body for masters adult swimming.
“Distance runners and cyclists would never dream of holding their breath during a competition, yet our instincts [as swimmers] are to clamp up and stop breathing when our faces are in the water. To become an effective swimmer, we must fight this instinct,” said Heggy in his report.
Master, elite, and other types of professional swimmers can master exhalation through their noses. For novice and intermediate swimmers who haven’t mastered the art yet, it’s best to focus on exhaling completely to inhale air properly during breathing intervals.
Try Various Breathing Techniques
Breathing techniques can improve your breathing versatility and resistance. It can also help you find the proper breathing approach to different strokes and styles, such as freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke, and butterfly. Here are some of the best breathing techniques for standard swimming strokes used in competitions:
Freestyle or front crawl is a swimming style mainly used for professional competitions because it can easily determine the swimmer’s speed. The best breathing technique for freestyle is bilateral breathing, which requires the swimmer to breathe on the left and right sides of the body. The best way to make consistent bilateral breathing is to breathe every three strokes.
Backstroke is the only swimming style done entirely on the back, allowing swimmers to breathe anytime their face is above water. However, proper breathing techniques in this position can also improve performance. The best way to breathe while doing backstrokes is to correlate your inhale-and-exhale patterns with your arm strokes.
Butterfly may be one of the basic swimming patterns used in competitions, but it’s difficult to master as it requires solid strength and consistent rhythm. For this reason, breathing techniques for butterfly strokes can be complicated. The best technique is to correlate your inhale-and-exhale breathing patterns to your dive and kicks. You can inhale above water from your second dolphin kick every 2 to 3 strokes and exhale as soon as you dive back underwater.
Breastroke is one of the most complex swimming styles to master because it requires more deliberate slow movements than other styles. However, it offers open venues for proper breathing techniques. Your natural body lift during breaststroke offers an ideal breathing point above water. For this stroke, place your inhalation phase at the end of your insweep. Give your mouth enough surface to inhale, then exhale when you stretch your arms forward before diving back underwater.
Utilize Breathing Patterns
Use comfortable breathing patterns during your pull sets. Leg and hand movements in swimming burn out a lot of oxygen and energy, so you need to strategically use and conserve your oxygen supply. The best way to do this is to follow consistent breathing patterns that you feel comfortable with.
Aside from giving you more resistance, breathing patterns can also contribute to your rhythm and pace. It’s easier to keep your hand and leg movements in sync when you’re breathing consistently.
Your optimal breathing pattern will depend on several external and internal factors, such as distance, strokes, and personal capabilities. Follow a breathing pattern based on these factors every 2 to 3 or 5 to 6 strokes.
Acclimate Your Body to Cold Water
Most of the time, professional swimming organizations conduct competitions in pools and open water with low temperatures. External and internal factors affect water temperature, so swimmers must get used to cold water as early as possible. Failure to do so can cause adverse effects on your physiological functions that go beyond simple breathing.
A study conducted by researchers in the U.S. for Extreme Physiology & Medicine, a peer-reviewed open-access journal dedicated to studies in integrative human physiology, proved that poor tolerance to cold water could affect the performance of swimmers.
“These changes in physiological function as a result of cooling can result in early swim failure across the spectrum of novice to elite swimmers, with novice swimmers suffering the biggest decrements, probably due to a lack of acclimatization and having a less entrained motor program for swimming and therefore more vulnerable technique,” said researchers Michael Tipton and Carl Bradford.
The secret to helping your body get used to and breathe properly in cold water is just to swim in it. Have your regular swimming exercises and exposure in cold water. Gradually extend your time underwater at least once a week.
Try Using a Respiratory Training Device
Respiratory training devices can help you swim longer and faster by increasing your lung capacity and overall rate recovery. These are hand-held portable devices used to complement dryland breathing exercises. They are manufactured as little plastic tubes, usually 6-7 inches in length, with a mouthpiece and two dials. At a glance, they look like regular inhalers.
To use these respiratory training devices, you need to challenge yourself against air resistance. You inhale and exhale against the resistance produced by the device, a situation similar to diving underwater. When you do this, you voluntarily activate your diaphragm and intercostals muscles.
Practice in Open Water As Much As You Can
Open water is the most challenging venue for swimming competitions as it presents various dangers and risks. For one, it can seriously challenge your breathing techniques and patterns. Swimmers can easily design breathing patterns based on distances in swimming pools, but they can’t do this in open water.
To improve your mental and physical tolerance as a swimmer, practice your breathing techniques and patterns in open water as much as you can. Aim to transfer your skills and training in swimming pools to actual race venues.
Avoiding and Surviving Hyperventilation
Rapid or too much deep breathing caused by hyperventilation affects many swimmers, even professional ones. Proper breathing techniques and patterns won’t help if the swimmer is emotionally and mentally suffering during a competition. To avoid and overcome this, execute full-body breathing, alternate nostril breathing, and apply mind and body exercises. It’s best to condition your mind and body before swimming.
Mastering proper breathing techniques and effective breathing patterns isn’t a walk in the park, especially if you plan to apply them to open-water competitions. Building your tolerance and resistance takes time. Aside from our tips and reminders, master the art of patience and apply it in your swimming training and competitions.