So, you are finding breathing difficult when you are swimming...

I get most enquiries about 1-2-1 coaching in order to help swimmers improve their breathing. The email or chat often starts with 'I can swim in the pool but in the lake it goes to pot and I feel tight-chested, panicky, out if breath and can't breathe.' The swimmer is absolutely certain that it's all about the lake but 9 times out of 10, when we do that first session in the lake it becomes clear that it's not necessarily the environment which is causing the issue but that the correct breathing technique is not in place at all. I show and instruct the swimmer in the correct breathing technique and we enforce it during the session and see an immediate change in not only the swimmer's ability to breathe and feel relaxed but an improvement in the swimming stroke. There is a light-bulb moment in the swimmer and a realisation that actually the pool swimming hasn't been right. The conversation then goes something like this - 'that makes sense and explains why I'm struggling to do more than a few lengths in one go in the pool' - a clear sign that breathing technique wasn't correct in the pool.

Most adults come to triathlon or open water swimming without any instruction. Most of us probably last had input from a teacher or coach when we were at school and if you're like me, it would have been a school swimming lesson for half an hour, once a week for a couple of months each year. Most of the lesson would have been spent feeling really uncomfortable in your swim costume and avoiding the splashy noisy kids - most of my memories of school swimming aren't overly positive. At most you walked away from your school swimming career with a 100m swim certificate and badge. I was fortunate that my mum was a very good swimmer and also taught us to swim and I enjoyed it but many didn't have that input and sometimes had terrible teaching and no thought or care given to those with a fear of water.  Thankfully things have changed greatly and so have coaching and teaching techniques.

How should you breathe?  

  • You need to keep your breathing relaxed - think of swimming as being like yoga. You need to concentrate on the breath out and keep it as a constant trickle out (preferably through the nose) when your face is in the water - try not to explode it out. If you can get the air out, you will be able to get the air in but if you don't manage to clear your lungs sufficiently, you will struggle to get the breath in at the right time.

  • Use a mantra like ‘bubble bubble breathe’ or hum the breath out through your nose.

  • Make sure you are not taking long breaks at the lane ends. It's amazing how many endurance swimmers train in the pool and every 25m they are taking big pauses at the turns - that's not a great grounding for doing, say, a 750m continuous swim. 

  • Build up your swim distances slowly - don't expect to swim 1000m non-stop on your first swim. If you can only swim 1 length at a time, try to get to 2, then to 4, then to 6 & 8. Once you can manage 16 lengths non-stop you should be able to build your distance quite rapidly.

Moving forward
If you are struggling, then do sign up for 1-2-1 sessions and an adult group class at your local pool. A few sessions with a good teacher will help sort your breathing issues and you'll feel much better going forward and start the process with a base of good technique swimming.

Alice Barnes