The first step to breathing better in the water? Breathing better out of the water.
Q | I want to get better at controlling my breath while swimming. Any tips?
A | How you breathe during exercise is critical to how well you perform, regardless of the activity. For new and seasoned athletes alike, maintaining an efficient rhythm can be a significant challenge.
With swimming, specifically, you don’t always have the option to breathe because so much time is spent with your face in the water. The limited opportunities to take a deep breath can lead to anxiety and a fear of drowning for many swimmers, which makes it hard to progress.
“If someone is constantly thinking about where their next breath is going to come from, they’re not going to hear the tips I offer to help them improve,” says USA Triathlon coach Thomas Alcivar.
The first step to breathing better while swimming is to breathe better out of the water, says Alcivar. He offers the following exercise: Close your eyes, and breathe in and out, focusing on filling up your lungs down to your belly, into your sides, and across your back. Start with two seconds in, two seconds out. Then, three seconds in, three seconds out. Work up to breathing in for eight seconds, holding for eight seconds, breathing out for eight seconds, and holding that for eight seconds. (This practice — known as box breathing — is also useful for building breath efficiency in running and cycling.)
This is important for swimming because shallow breaths on land often lead to shallow breaths in the water. This, in turn, can lower your oxygen intake and harm your performance, while also triggering unnecessary panic.
“Anything that makes people more mindful of their breathing can help them going into the water,” Alcivar says.
For drills to practice your breathing rhythm in the water, see below.
Breathing Drills for Swimmers
If you struggle with your breathing rhythm, try these pool drills provided by Minnesota-based USA Triathlon coach Thomas Alcivar:
- Shallow squats. Find an area of the pool where you can stand with your feet flat. Hold on to the wall and squat down until your face is underwater, then pop back up. Continue bobbing up and down, increasing your speed as you become more comfortable. Be sure to breathe out forcefully while your head is underwater.
- Wall-ups. Once the shallow squats are no longer challenging, move to the deep end of the pool. Hold on to a gutter and let yourself hang straight down so your head is underwater. Pull your head and torso out of the water and then drop back down to repeat. This version requires more exertion, so you can practice a breathing rhythm under greater oxygen demand. Be sure to breathe out forcefully while your head is underwater.