Effective Breathing Techniques for Aerobic Free Swimming by Karlyn Pipes-Nielsen (2005)


Introduction: Karlyn has a storied background, not just in Masters Swimming, but swimming in general. Recently she moved, with her husband Eric, to Hawaii where they formed their own company called Aquatic Edge. She is one of the winning clinicians around the United States.

Karlyn swam in college, took a break from it, and came back storming as a master swimmer. In 2004 she was named the World Masters Swimmer of the year by Swimming World. She has somewhere in the area of 46 world records. Karlyn is a tremendous motivational speaker, has been a coach for a number of years, actually starting about 1988, does a lot of private lessons, and is just a fun gal.

Coach Pipes-Nelsen: I really am excited to be here. I mean that honestly. I would first like to thank Scott for this wonderful opportunity to be here and it really is a thrill. Secondly, I would like to thank Mike Collins for having a baby because I took his spot, he is an integral part of why I am here. Two really major things did happen last year. My husband, my mom, and I relocated to Kailoa-Kona, Hawaii from San Diego. It was a hard transition, but we really are very happy there. We did start our business, Aquatic Edge, swim camps and clinics which we are doing pretty much all over the country and soon to be the world. What that has done has given me the opportunity to examine a lot more swimmers. You say, well, you are living out in the middle of an ocean, the most isolated island in the world, how can you be coming up with these ideas or thoughts or premises for this presentation? Well, the fact is that now that I am traveling around and seeing 30 and 40 swimmers over a period of quite a few different clinics – 28 so far to date this year. I am starting to recognize a pattern that was one of those huge aha’s for me. I started recognizing that basically this really isn’t so much about breathing in, it is how people are breathing out. It was a huge aha to find out that there are a lot of different ineffective ways that people are exhaling, which in turn probably leads to problems when they are inhaling.

When you are looking at your swimmer, or even when you are personally swimming, how many people here have actually thought about how they exhale? Was that something that a coach thought up? – I was trying to teach high school girls to breathe and I had to swim to see what I was doing.- Exactly. A lot of times coaches don’t think about it, kids don’t think about it, adult swimmers don’t think about it particularly. The problem is, that we can breathe deeply or not at all here on land, but when we put ourselves in the aquatic environment it is a whole other story. There are consequences and what are some of those consequences? We swallow the water. You go hypoxic. You have to shut down. On land, we can breathe deep, but in the water you must apply a different technique because the consequences are that you will swallow water and not have a very good experience.

What I am talking about today is basically aerobic freestyle swimming. We are not talking about anaerobic or threshold. We are not talking about high heart rate. We are talking about freestyle aerobic swimming. When I started thinking about how I breathe when I do freestyle, I started thinking about all my other strokes and realized that every single one of them actually has a different breathing technique or breathing pattern. Warm-up, open water swimming, cool down, basically the easy aerobic stuff that we are really trying to emphasize that they do not do it enough or they do not do it with air. What this does not apply to is, sprinting or anaerobic sets, threshold training, short distance racing and then fly, back and breast. On back stroke you can take nice deep breaths where there is not water in your face, probably deeper than any other stroke. Butterfly and breaststroke there is actually some serious timing issues involved otherwise you swallow water.

This is very, very accidental. In a nut shell, I didn’t really want to rent the pool so I started doing my private lessons out in the ocean, the water is 70 – 75 degrees in Kaneohe year round. I started swimming with my clients and noticed, as they would swim past me or I would swim underneath them, that there were no bubbles coming out. I was thinking, how can this be? I started watching for it in every swimmer that I worked with and then I started going to practice and looking at people under water. These people were actually not letting their air out or, if they did, they were letting it out at the wrong time. One thing that we recognize is that, if your swimmers are not breathing or exhaling effectively when they are on the easy stuff, they are out of breath. That is big, so I started looking out for what the reasons were, started investigating. Bottom line, many swimmers hold their breath. I am finding that 70-80% of either the clients that I work with or are at a swim clinic that I am putting on, and possibly in your program right now, are doing something a little bit askew. If you can zone in on that, you might be able to really help them improve their aerobic conditioning and their technique. As we will see later on, there are quite a few different things that you will be able to recognize and assist somebody with.

I am going to tell you a funny story – I was at Mission Viejo with Mark Moore, 1500 freestyle, and I was talking to a top level 60+ year old woman who has had world records in the past, not in freestyle, but in backstroke. I was talking about the amazing discovery and the prevalence of these breathing issues. She was sitting there, listening, and was like wow, you are kidding. I then watched her swim the 1500 freestyle and as she went down the pool I could see a spray every time she turned her head. She breathed every stroke, rolled her head to the side and her arm came up. My goodness it was amazing to find. Here is a world record holder at 60+ years old that has been swimming forever holding her breath and she did it for the entire 1500.

When I started working with the clients, I went back and forth as to which aspect should I zero in to begin with. This has been a quandary. Do I start working on the stroke and then address the breathing or do I address the breathing and then start working on the stroke? I did it both ways for many sessions and then I realized that breathing has to be addressed first. You might only see a person one time or a couple of times. If you can give them that big aha right then and there they will keep coming back to your program, keep coming back to you and trust you. You are the one that has zeroed in on why they are not getting anywhere in their training. You have just figured out this wonderful thing that is so simple, but it is huge and it is life changing because once you get this down, swimmers will just take off. It is very amazing. Technique is great, swimming fast is great, but if you don’t have air, you die. It is the number one priority. If your swimmers are gasping for air they are going to stop. Their technique goes down the tubes. It is what everybody needs. It is what we have all been doing in this room for the last ten minutes, we have all been breathing. What happens if you don’t let that air out or have one of the issues that we will talk about – early fatigue, swallowing water, poor technique, tight and not relaxed?

I was speaking with a triathlon coach about swallowing water, and asked a bunch of swimmers, “how many people here at practice swallow water?” Six or seven people raised their hand, out of 20. That right there is a sure sign that something is going wrong with the way that they are either inhaling or exhaling or both. How this applies to multi-sport athletes. If you are putting a person in an open water race, which almost all triathlons are, and they take in water early on in the swim, what is going to happen to that water in their stomach? On the ride, it is going to turn to gas or dehydration and then the run is going to suffer. It is something really simple, but you do not want to have your athletes taking in water during the open water part of a triathlon because their performance will suffer as they go down the road.

Who is doing this? It could be your very best swimmer in the water. We did a clinic in New York and the very fastest swimmer, they are always the hardest sells to get to buy into what you are selling which is improving their stroke, came up to me at the end. He said, “I am 37 and I have been swimming since I was 7. I have been holding my breath for thirty years” When you can reach somebody that has had that kind of experience and he comes away from a clinic with a little bit of technique changes, but also with knowledge and awareness, it is huge. Multi-sport athletes, how about the guy or girl that could run a three hour marathon and they can’t get to the end of the pool? What is it? It is their breathing. They are used to being on land. High school kids coming into a high school program that have never had real formal training or conditioning, age group, recreation and summer leagues, a teenager, an older swimmer, it is not exclusive to adults. It is prevalent wherever you are.

What happens when you have somebody that is holding their breath or is not breathing effectively? They think they are not a good swimmer, they don’t have the tools, and they don’t have the cardiovascular system to do what the coach is asking of them. They are not comfortable in the water. A lot of people are not going to keep coming back because they don’t feel like they are making any progress. Their stroke might be getting better, their technique is getting better, but they still cannot go that interval that they think they should be. They cannot go the yardage that they think they could be. They basically shut down and have to stop.

What are they doing?
• suck, tuck and erupt
• inhale and exhale at the same time with entire face out of the water
• inhale too deeply
• exhale too fully
• exhale too forcefully
• breathing too frequently

My personal favorite, and I believe the most common, would be the suck, tuck, and erupt. Taking a big breath is hard, it takes energy to do that and breathing should not be something that takes a lot of energy from you. The suck, tuck and interrupt, I think by far, is the most common complication that you are going to have. Remember, we are still talking about basic aerobic conditioning, moderate to easy swimming. We are thinking it is just affecting their breathing, but the reality is that there are some huge technique consequences to this too. A lot of times we are looking at ways to help our swimmers improve their technique, sometimes all we need to do is zero in on the breathing. We always say, ‘talk to the fishies, listen to the fishies; talk to the fishies, listen to the fishies’ and in Kailoa-Kona there really are fish. It is amazing, you look at that really bad kick and talk about the kick, but if you address the breathing, the head turning issue, everything else falls into line. So you can fix one or many, many things with just fixing one little aspect.

When the head rolls to the sky, what happens to the underarm? The hand comes up to the sky as the head rotates and the underarm crosses over, the pull is initiated under the body. The hips shift sidewise, and they do the hokey pokey. The kick splays to prevent them from flipping over and the cycle repeats itself as the swimmer wiggles down the pool in search of air.

Watch a swimmer doing the over-extension of the head turn with the breathing. What you see is the head rotating almost completely toward the sky and the kick splay to balance. It is basically a whole balance act. The head turns skyward and the hand underneath crosses over. Looking at the angles from the head, it almost looks unnatural. Looking at the feet, the head goes out, rolls to the side, the hands try and counter balance. Have you ever wondered why? Put it together, it is not the feet, it is the head. As she comes back across she is making a complete X crossing over. Pretty amazing. That is a lot of work. We can probably surmise from that, that exhaling and inhaling too late would probably be the answer there.

Why is this an issue? I think this might be the first presentation on this subject because I don’t think anybody has really talked about it. It is almost like a little secret about breathing that nobody has really talked about. We teach kids to blow bubbles but we don’t really talk about it. Does anybody here use bobbing as a means for a drill? As kids get older we work on technique. Adults work on technique, times, progress and yardage, but we don’t really focus on breathing. We have been in the room for about 20 minutes, has anybody here held their breath? No, but yet we do it in the water all the time.

Something I have noticed is a difference in backstroke when a person’s face is out of the water. It doesn’t seem to bother them so much that there is water moving all over their face, but as soon as we turn and face down, there is a reaction. Many people recommend wearing goggles. Have you ever given anybody an explanation, other than the chlorine, why they should wear goggles? Another sense, how about when you wash your face with soap. When you soap up your face you close your eyes and hold your breath. So you have somebody with their face in the water, the chlorine is stinging their eyes, they close their eyes and close their mouth. Starting with beginner swimmers, always get them into goggles because if they can open their eyes they are not going to hold their breath. It is a really simple thing to do, hair out of the face and goggles on, you are going to eliminate some of the discomfort that goes with swimming.

I was speaking with a voice coach and he thought swimming and singing were very similar in that you measure out your air. Singers have to measure out their air so that you don’t hear them inhale. In swimming we need to do the same. I had the pleasure of training with Cal-Berkeley and Teri McKeever in Kailoa-Kona. She has everybody do some alligator breathing. What is alligator breathing? Take just a small sip of water, leave it in the bottom of your mouth and, leaving your mouth open, continue to breathe. You are not inhaling your water, you are not exhaling your water, and you are breathing into just the back of your throat. That is a perfect demonstration to show somebody the depth of their breath because what you don’t want to do is to be sucking in so much that the water comes in. It is a really simple, effective tool that you can teach somebody. It really does seem like you are not getting a whole lot of air in from the chest or even the back of the throat, but you do not want them drawing into a diaphragm. There are a lot of people doing Pilates and yoga and I have to retrain these people on how to breathe for swimming because it is very different. We are also getting a lot of people that cross train and do a lot of other things, so that really brings the point home that it is a shallow breath and not very full.

We are looking at passive shallow breathing from the back of the throat and the ability to vary the amount that is inhaled. So, what do I mean by that? Well, take a half breath, a full breath, a little bit deeper, mix it up. You don’t want to have the same thing going on all the time. If you are turning to get a breath and you still have some in reserve, and there is water coming at your face you can close your mouth and not take that breath. That is really what you are trying to achieve is the fact that you can say, I am going to take a breath before I really need it, but I am not going to have to take that breath if there is something in the way. It is going to be based on your level of exertion because the faster you go the more air you are going to need and it might shift a little bit. The other thing is, if you get somebody to breathe more effectively, they are not going to need to breathe every stroke. If they are breathing bilaterally or they are breathing just on one side every two strokes, when they swim in an open water race one mile and they are taking a thousand strokes or maybe two thousand strokes, half of those strokes are breath strokes. We know that we are more symmetrical when we swim with our head looking down, but if half of our strokes are always turning our head, then you are going to have a natural drift that is going to occur. If you can get them to breathe a little less frequently, you are going to have better strokes to work with because they are not going to be 50% breath strokes.

I thought it was just timing when you are exhaling, but it turns out that there is actually way more than this. There is timing, there is velocity and there is volume. As soon as you turn your head, you take some off the top immediately. As soon as I turn my head and put my face back in the water I immediately exhale some, not all, but some. If I am pushing off to go out to the flags, automatically my face goes in the water and I let some air out. I don’t even think about it. The velocity is really key. If you have this velocity, and too much of it, what is the opposite action if you push out hard? Inhale deeply, we do not want it forced, we want it relaxed, nice and comfortable, and then volume. This is the clincher here, you do not want to fully exhale, don’t get rid of your full tank. You always leave some in reserve. It might be a half tank, it might be a quarter tank, but you are leaving some in. You are taking in a little bit and letting out a little bit, but not hyperventilating or deep breathing in the water. Timing, velocity and volume, most people have one of those three, two out of three, or all of the three.

(Q) Will the breathing change based on the intensity of the swimming?

Yes, because your older swimmers are not necessarily going to be able to, they might probably just use a little bit less or a little bit more. It is just going to change a little bit.

(Q)They are not forcing it – for example – a couple of breaststrokers. You have to force and use explosive breathing, right?

No, this is not explosive breathing, this is aerobic freestyle. Remember, we are talking about low levels, easy swimming, warm up. We are not talking about threshold anaerobic sprinting because there are techniques for those as well.

(Q) In your experience have you ever done scuba diving? Because my experience has been that long time scuba divers do not have these breathing problems.

I hear that all the time. It is just like scuba because you have to learn to breathe in and out. One of the things I ask tri-athletes, “do you hold your breath when you are running or riding your bike?” And they answer, of course not. “Then why do it in the water?” Why do they? Maybe it is just a natural instinct.

The most primal fear in human existence is suffocation. If you don’t believe that, hold your hand over someone’s mouth and nose, but be ready to defend yourself because they are going to start hitting you because they want to breathe.

Exactly, that is it, we are adding that to the clinic. Suffocation, fear of suffocation, you have just hit the nail on the head. I have never really put a word to what the fear is, but that is it. So many of us that have been effective breathers are so at home in the water environment that breathing is not an issue. I know where to go and get it, how to get it. I know how to let it go, but for other people that environment is so foreign that everything is like learning to walk all over again. We can tackle the technique issues to help them get faster, better or improved, but this breathing is just one little simple thing.

I like swimming with a snorkel for a couple of reasons. The body position is better, and you get access to air. The only thing is, I worry that if you give that to somebody that doesn’t measure out their air, they will breathe too deep. I think the snorkel is a wonderful, wonderful tool, although I was working with a client and she was using a regular snorkel and she almost drowned right in front of me. She aspirated some water and we got rid of the snorkel. So not until I get people really comfortable will I ever suggest that they use the snorkel. You want to get them comfortable on how they should breathe and then translate it into something that can help their body and head position. Three things: timing, velocity and volume.

I am a Red Cross instructor and they love acronyms. If anybody is taking the life guard class you have certain little acronyms. This one is the ‘RISC’ factor. What are they risking? Sub-power performances, bad training, swallowing water. Recognize, Identify, Suggest, and Correct, pretty simple stuff. We will go right into recognize. You do not have to be in the water to see some of the symptoms. You can be on deck, however, you will be amazed what you see if you spent half of a practice one day swimming under your swimmers. You will be amazed, because there is so much going on that it is hard to really pick this up if you are not in the water. The first one is out of breath on easy swims. That is the #1 give away. The plume or eruption, head turning towards the sky, breathing every stroke or, and this is also my favorite, not breathing. You need to breathe, breathe, breathe. They will take two breaths in a 25 and then they will be stopping at the 50. Those are the basics.

We found a guy swimming laps in the pool, as he turns his head, big huge push and there goes all of his air. His explanation was “If I don’t hold my breath and let it go at the end I will sink.” He is breathing every stroke and there is a big push of air and water as he is turning his head. If I was to swim underneath him I would probably see him completely closeded mouth as his face hits the water. Plume, big plume, big eruption, that is what I would call explosive breathing. I did a little bit of research with his swimming even faster and his fastest swimming. I think it is a little bit out-dated, this explosive breathing, to try and empty your lungs completely before you take in your next breath, because we know there are problems with that.

(Q)Was he willing to make a change when you told him?

Well, we really didn’t have a whole lot of time to talk about it, but what I would have done with him is have him do some breathing exercises on the wall and see if it was a little bit easier.

When we identify that there is a problem, maybe the first thing is that your swimmer is going to think about it for the very first time in their life. Approach the swimmer and say, ‘you know, you seem like you are out of breath or I see that you are breathing every stroke or have you ever thought about when you are letting your air out or how much you are letting out?’ You will find that more people do it than they realize. Case in point, my 60 year old, world record holder swimmer.

Suggest: We suggest that they, A, think about it, but B, we do a lot of contrast drills in our clinics at Aquatic Edge. We find that it is a great idea to let them be bad and then let them be good. You know everybody likes to be bad so it is always kind of fun. We find it effective if you do this just holding onto the wall, bobbing your head. Dropping below the surface of the water, do the suck, tuck, interrupt. Get the air, go under, hold it for just a second or two, come up, push it out, and get another breath. Do that three times. Then do the same thing, inhale fully, exhale fully. I was reading some stuff on breathing. If you ever look online, there is very, very, little about the subject, but I did find an interesting online posting from a girl who was talking about some swimmers in Great Britain and hypoxic work. She said that when you hold your breath and you feel like you need to breathe, it is not that you need air, it is your air. Your brain is telling you to let go of the carbon dioxide that is building up in your system and that is what is telling you to take a breath. not that you need more air.

So, inhale/exhale fully twice on the wall and then effectively we hum our bubbles. I have people blow bubbles, same thing, hold onto the wall, go down, let the nose and mouth release the air, come up and get a breath. Don’t tell them how deep or how fully and then do the half breath. The half breath is when everybody kind of goes wow and you can see their mouth partially open. It is a much smaller target. Whenever you see pictures of tri-athletes and they are gasping for air with this big open mouth, you know that that is not relaxed breathing. These are the ways, they are really simple, but effective drills that can help get people thinking about it, aware.

1. Bobbing with relaxed shallow breathing.
2. Alligator breathing.
3. Swim, turn your head to the side but do not take a breath.

Number three is also a great one for tri-athletes. I also teach people how to sight without taking their whole head out of the water for open water. Keeping their mouth in the water, turning and getting their breath, lift up, mouth in the water, turn and get a breath. Sight three times and if you can’t see it by then, keep going. I don’t know where I am going, I am just heading in that way.

4. Kick board: turn the head, blow bubbles once again.
5. Hold onto wall: turn head and blow bubbles

Really simple stuff. Anybody use bobbing as a way of doing broken swims? Teri McKeever had us do a set where we were doing 150‘s. On the odds we could break it twice, anywhere we wanted to, and the evens you could break three times, anywhere you wanted to. When we were sitting on the wall, it was bobbing five times and it relaxed you. You got your air, you pushed out that extra CO2 and time wasn’t a factor. It didn’t matter what your time was, it was the time on the wall getting that air out, using the bobbing at the start of a set or in between repeats.

When you are talking with beginner swimmers, that is the first thing we do because sometimes in our clinics we actually get people that we are teaching to swim as well as teaching them technique and getting those air issues and getting them comfortable. You have got to keep saying, ‘hey Johnny, you are still holding your breath. Susie, you are breathing every stroke. I know you are probably not really getting effective breathing, you are breathing too much and too hard.’ Knowing how to exhale sets them off on the right path. That would be the C of risc – Recognize, Identify, Suggest and Correct. Any of those would work.

(Q) Are techniques any different for teaching the other two face-in-the- water strokes – breaststroke and butterfly?

Absolutely. Once I started looking at the applications for the freestyle I started thinking about the other strokes and comparing. I found that there was no way that I can ever talk on all of those subjects at one time or address all the issues. That is probably a whole other year of exploration, that is a whole different animal. This is basic freestyle aerobic and now that you are going to be aware of this kind of stuff, you are going to be able to get back into the water and start thinking about all the different strokes.

I try and keep my mouth relaxed when I turn and get my breath. I exhale before I turn my head, and I exhale in the beginning part of the stroke. My nose and mouth trickle out a little bit of air at the top. I believe that I let a little bit of air out as I am turning my head and that is probably to prevent water from coming right in. I am not talking about timing of breathing or breathing patterns, we are talking about the exhalation process and the inhalation process. Remember we are aerobic on this. This is not when I am swimming with a 170 heart rate where I am really pushing it out a lot harder and taking it in a lot harder. It is a continuous relaxed boom and it is funny, it looks like it is explosive, but yet it is really very passive.

(Q)To get your novice swimmers into the habit of breathing this way would you recommend telling them to breathe every three or four?

That is fine. I strongly encourage bilateral breathing. The challenges are that this takes a long time to get. You cannot get this right away. We will talk about in our clinics, the first thing we do is the breathing. We work on head and body position, but if you have been swimming looking at the other end of the pool for 25 years, you are not going to get that right away. It is going to take a lot of adjustment. We put the head and the breathing together and we tell people we have made you aware of it, now you need to start working on it. I suggest in warm-up, be very cerebral and think about how you are exhaling. Put the head looking down and the breathing together. Then we table that because otherwise we are going to be putting too much on the swimmer for such a short period of time and they are not going to get anything. Allow time, it might take five, six, seven months. It takes time and practice.’

Most adult swimmers swim their easy too fast and their fast too slow and that is because they never properly warm-up. I cannot emphasize enough how important warm-up is before the workout. When I get into a workout I always say the warm-up is the most important part of the workout. Then I will get to the main set and I will say the main set is the most important part of the work-out. Then when I get to my cool-down, what do I say? The most important part of the work-out. Each of those segments is very important. You cannot get to a really good, nice, relaxing cool-down if you didn’t do the work and if you didn’t warm up properly to get the work done. We have a theory, we call it red lining. We find a lot of multi-sports athletes do it, they work their warm up hard. They are working their warm up set hard and by the time it comes to when you actually want them to do something, there is nothing there. So if they slow down and focus on their breathing, that might be the trick to less fatigue and better aerobic conditioning. If we teach our swimmers to swim comfortably slow, they are going to have that fifth gear. You do not want to have three speeds in your repertoire. You want to have a very easy, a medium easy, fast and so on and so forth. I find that if you can get your swimmers to know easy, they will know very fast, but if they don’t know easy, they are never going to be able to find that speed.

(Q)Do you think that this whole breathing thing could have something to do with panic?

Absolutely, the breathing. That could also be cold water and the fact that they are getting kicked in the face and they are surrounded by a thousand of their closest friends. But breathing definitely is the first thing that I recommend when I work with people that do iron-man. Really try, in the first warm up phase, to just focus on their breathing and try so as not to get distracted by everything else. I always suggest that they start with a perceived effort of a 3 if they can. I also suggest they start off to the side to do that so they don’t get kicked.

(Q)When you are teaching them blowing bubbles and stuff, do you explain to them about blowing out of their nose in conjunction with that?

Yes, nose and mouth. I get a lot of people that just breathe out of their nose or just breathe out of the mouth. I think you get less water up your nose too, if you have some air coming out of your nose.

(Q)I have a very small number of novice swimmers and there are some people who cannot blow out of their nose – they just physically can’t and I will but a mirror in front of their face and say watch the bubbles come out and it still does not come out and they always get water up their nose, so I told them to use nose plugs.

You do not want chlorine going up your passages and having postnasal drip all day long so if that works for them I think that is a good idea. The mirror sounds great, that is a great trick.

(Q) With the humming, do you think they are pushing out too much air?

Singing is great. Humming and singing, same thing, it is not a forceful hum it is just a relaxed hum, but people can understand hum from the back of their throat because they get that vibration and so remember, we are trying to go easy and shallow.

(Q)Doesn’t the humming with their mouth closed, for someone that can’t breathe out of their nose, force the air out?

It forces the air out, yes, that is a great benefit. The ability to focus on technique and not having to worry about struggling to breathe. You are going to be able to work on your technique and of course if you know how to swim easier you are going to be able to swim faster and with better technique.

One thing that we forget to think about is that you don’t have to stick with the breathing pattern. That doesn’t mean 3,5,3 per length, that could be 3, 5, 3 in a 25 or 2, 4, 2. I tell people, ‘if you are breathing every stroke, occasionally skip a breath and then they are going to get it. It is going to depend upon your oxygen needs and it is going to change with each breath a little bit, but it is not static. The amount that you exhale can vary during one single length. The breathing pattern which you use can vary each length. They can mix it up based on the conditions, based on what is happening with their heart rate and the perceived effort. Basically, it is going to change and allow them to change with it rather than getting stuck or focus on one little thing. If they are stuck on that five breathing pattern and it is sending them into oxygen debt because they are holding their breath for so long, suggest a 3, 5, 3 or a 2, 4, 2. Awareness is the key. I think that the one big thing is to bring this to a top of mind subject with your athletes so that when they start working harder or concentrating, they are not holding their breath. If you have many years of experience, just think about your more novice or recreation or multi-sport athletes. They are going to also be doing the same thing that you do.

Once again let me remind you, this was for aerobic freestyle swimming. I would not necessarily suggest this for any other stroke, but if you can take this back to your program, put your suit on and swim with your swimmers, looking at what they are doing and getting them to be aware of it. I think you are going to see some amazing results and you are going to have some people just say, aha. Thanks.

Selected PowerPoint Slides
• We don’t think about it
• Breathing on land is entirely different than in an aquatic environment
• On land you can breath deep
• In the water you must apply different techniques because there are consequences

What this presentation applies to…
• Aerobic Freestyle Swimming
• Basic aerobic conditioning ( EN 1)
• Heart rate 140 or below
• Warm-up
• Open water swimming
• Cool down

What it does not apply to…
• Sprinting or Anaerobic sets
• Threshold training
• Short distance racing
• Other strokes
• Fly
• Back
• Breast

My discovery
• Accidental
• Began swimming with clients in the ocean
• Why were my clients so out of breath?
• Began looking for reasons

Many swimmers hold their breath!

Technique or breathing
• What do I address first?
• Tried both methods
• Must address air issues first before changes in swim technique are emphasized.
• Why is this important?
• Air is the #1 priority
• Not getting air can lead to…
Early fatigue
Swallowing water
Poor technique
Tight and not relaxed

Who is doing this?
It could be ANY swimmer in your program, from novice to elite:
Masters / Adults
Triathlete / Multi-sport athlete
High school
Age group
Recreation / Summer league

They are not aware!
They think they are:
not fit
‘poor swimmer’
Many struggle and are not comfortable in the water
Give up since they do not feel successful at the sport
What are they doing?
Suck, tuck and erupt
Inhale and exhale at the same time with entire face out of the water
Inhale too deeply
Exhale too fully
Exhale too forcefully
Breathing too frequently

Technique also suffers
Head turns skyward
Arm crosses over centerline
Pull initiated under body
Hips shift sideways
Kick splays to balance body
Cycle repeats…
Video Clip
How can this be?
We teach kids to blow bubbles
Learn to swim
No more mention of topic later
As we get older, the focus is placed more on
Stroke technique
Times / Progress
Now it is your turn!

Suck and tuck
Inhale exhale deeply
½ breaths
Alligator breathing (Teri McKeever)
What are we trying
to achieve?
Passive shallow breathing from back of throat
Ability to vary amount inhaled and exhaled based on conditions and need.
Level of exertion
Water in face
Not needing to breath every stroke
Components of
effective exhalation
Some air exhaled immediately
Not forced!
Relaxed: exhalation and inhalation
Full exhalation leaves swimmer on empty and desperate
Only exhale half to two-thirds of air
Leave a little in reserve

R. I. S. C.
R= Recognize
I= Identify
S= Suggest
C= Correct
Don’t need to be in the water
Signs and symptoms
Out of breath on easy swims/warm up
Plume or eruption
Head turning toward sky
Breathing every stroke
Not taking a breath for 6-8 strokes

Video Clip
Ask swimmer to think about current breathing pattern
Most have never thought about it!
Coach identifies the swimmers breathing style makes a suggestion by saying “I think you are…”
Suggest drills to allow swimmer compare ineffective and effective techniques
Hold breath /exhale fast/inhale fast x 3
Exhale/ inhale full breath x 3
Hum bubbles x 3
Half-breaths x 3

Bobbing with relaxed shallow breathing
Alligator breathing
Swim, turn head to breath but don’t inhale
With kickboard, turn head and blow bubbles
Hold onto wall, turn head and blow bubbles
Simple but effective drills
Correct as often as needed
Remind swimmers to be aware of exhale
Use bobbling on the wall drill
Before start of set
In between repeats

Video Clip
Some swimmers and coaches are impatient….
Takes time (months)
Takes practice!
Takes reminding!
Swimmers must slow down and focus
Less fatigue
Better aerobic conditioning
Less stopping (failure)
Ability to have successful EN1 conditioning
Greater range of speed available in both
training and racing
Ability to focus on technique
Swim faster

Variation in breathing pattern is OK
Bilateral mixed (example 3/5/3)
One side mixed (example 2/4/2)
Will depend upon oxygen needs and conditions
Volume can also vary with each breath
Breathing is not static!

Awareness is the key!

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