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Why are you struggling to breathe while swimming?

This must be the number 1 question I get asked as a Swim Coach. If you are new to swimming there is a big chance you have issues with breathing while swimming. Some might say it feels like they're drowning, others get frustrated they can't swim 50 meters without stopping for a few extra breaths. Important to note is that nobody can breathe underwater, we're not fish! But luckily there are a few things you can do to improve this almighty beginner swimmer issue.

I'll share with you a few of the main reasons why people struggle to get enough air in and out while swimming and what to do to fix this. Without seeing you swim it's hard to say what the exact issue is for you specifically but hopefully there is something in this blog that you connect with and will help you become a better swimmer.

1. Body Position

A bad body position in the water is the main reason for swimmers to struggle with breathing. I probably touch on this issue in almost every blog post and if you've read most of them you either fully agree and understand or you've never experienced swimming with a good position and you don't know what you're missing out on.

A good body position for swimming is horizontal and high up in the water. Having your body and especially your legs high up in the water reduces drag and makes or breaks your stroke. For this blog I'll stay focussed on breathing, but just remember that a good body position can fix lots if not most swimmers issues.

If you are trying to breathe while your legs are hanging down you will automatically lift your head up to take a breath. This is exactly what you don't want to do as this pushes your legs down even further.

#1 rule in swimming: If you lift your head, your hips and legs will sink.

Create a good body position by looking almost straight down the bottom of the pool and leaning forward on your chest and head, while keeping your body up high in the water. Check out this blog for some good drills to practise this.

When you try to breathe to the side from this position it will be a lot easier to keep your head down, which will keep your hips and legs up. In the perfect world you will have one eye in the water and one eye above the water. To do this think about pushing the top of your head down and your mouth up.

2. Rotation and balance

In freestyle we breathe to the side, not the front. To make this happen without breaking your neck is to rotate your body to the side like you should be doing each stroke. When swimming freestyle you never lay flat in the water, you are either slightly rotated to the left or the right, all while keeping your head still in the middle looking down the black line underneath you.

Every breathing movement starts with rotating your body to the side you want to breathe followed by a slight turn of your head and voila, you can take a breath!

This might sound simple but if you are a beginner swimmer and haven't spend a lot of time in the water, rotating your body and holding this balance for a second to breath is not actually that easy. The body position drills shared in the point above will help you practice this, but be prepared to do these drills for a few weeks or months to really nail this. Don't give up as rotation and balance is crucial for a good freestyle!

3. Your leading arm for balance

If you feel like you are nailing the rotation part, but it just feels like you're falling down when you are trying to take a breath, you are probably dropping your leading arm too early. Your arm that's out the front when you start turning for your breath needs to stay there for a bit. Instead most swimmers drop this arm because they are trying to lift their head to take a breath.

If you have a good body position, rotate your body to initiate your breath and keep the top of your head down while breathing there is absolutely no reason to drop your leading arm. In fact keeping your leading arm out in front while breathing will help you balance in the water, keep your body up and give you more time to take your breath.

4. Breathe in and out

Your lungs tighten when you are tensed up and unfortunately when you're new to swimming and trying to do everything right without drowning, chances are you are pretty tense. Before you push off the wall take a few breaths in and out to start your lap as relaxed as possible. Think Zennnnn....

When you take a breath while swimming don't gasp for a super big breath in, instead just take a normal breath just enough to fill your lungs. You will take another breath in just a few seconds! Taking super deep breaths will tense you body and give you the feeling of drowning in your own breath. Try to breathe like you would normally do when doing a slow run or walk.

When your face is underwater you want to make sure you breathe out. The build up of carbon dioxide in your lungs needs to be released to make space for fresh oxygen. You can either breathe a slow steady line of bubbles through your mouth and/or nose, or a do big breath out on your last stroke before rotating for your next breath. Most of the books talk about option 1, but I have to admit I tend to hold my breath for a couple of strokes and breathe out just before taking my next breath. Whatever works for you, as long as you get rid of all your breath before taking your next breath in.

5. Slow down

When you are a beginner swimmer it is probably easier for you to swim fast than slow. Swimming slow and in control is actually quite hard as this requires great balance. The key to becoming a better swimmer and to get your breathing under control is to slow down.

Especially your kicking! Kicking takes the life out of you! If it's hard for you to swim with a slow kick, use a pull buoy to feel the difference. A pull buoy is a floating device that you place in between your legs, which means you don't have to kick at all to keep your legs up. Try swimming with this and feel the difference in your heart rate and breathing. There is a reason most long distance swimmers hardly kick!

By slowing your stroke down you also give yourself a bit more time to take a good breath. There is nothing worse than feeling like you're running out of breath and only have a split second the take a full breath.

If you've nailed your body position, breathe to the side, keep your leading arm out for balance, got rid of all your air under water and you're going at an easy pace, YOU WILL NAIL THIS BREATHING THING.

As I mentioned at the start of this blog, it's hard for me to say exactly what you have to do to get this breathing thing under control, but try a few of my tips above and I'm sure there will be something that will help you.

If you keep struggling feel free to shoot me a message and I'll be happy to help you out!


Coach Irene



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