Breathing right will put you on your way to swimming right
Breathing while swimming is a lot different than breathing while running, biking, or doing any other form of exercise.
Last week I heard from many readers who had trouble establishing a breathing pattern while in the water, so I thought I'd address this surprisingly common problem, which seems to affect triathletes and non-swimmers who take up the sport.
Swimming is the only sport I can think of during which there are moments you are unable to breathe even if you want to. By virtue of elementary stroke mechanics, you can only inhale when your face is not submerged underwater, and for most of you it should come as no surprise that the most efficient way to swim is, of course, when your face is in the water!
So when is it best to breathe and how best do you maximize your air intake without compromising your stroke? Some of you may even have a more rudimentary question than that: how do you swim a lap or two without gasping for air and feeling exhausted (when you used to think you were in great shape)?
The first thing you need to do is pay attention to your breathing when running, or biking, or doing any other form of exercise. Notice that once you are in your "groove" in the midst of activity, your breathing is steady, achieving a certain rhythm.
Now make sure that when you swim, you maintain a similar inhale-exhale pattern, keeping it steady and rhythmic. Many athletes who are unsure of themselves in the water tend to panic slightly (even if they do not realize it) and alter their breathing patterns, hyperventilating themselves into exhaustion.
Concentrate on calmly exhaling while your face is in the water, and inhaling when you turn your head to breathe. Some novices may not even realize that they are inhaling and exhaling all at once, while their face is out of the water, and while submerged they are holding their breath without bothering to exhale!
To maximize your air intake, make sure you exhale completely while your face is submerged, and when you turn your head to breathe take a big hearty dose of oxygen, filling up your lungs. Do not take little sips of air, as you will become fatigued quickly and start hyperventilating.
If you are a triathlete capable of running at least six miles or completing an Olympic-distance triathlon, there is no reason why swimming should be exhausting. Have your stroke checked by a swim coach or instructor to make sure you are not exerting too much energy in wrong ways, and then begin working on your breathing as mentioned above.
What is the ideal way to breathe during a race vs. during a workout? Believe it or not, there are several different breathing patterns you need to be aware of for different occasions to maximize your potential.
A 2:1 breathing ratio means that you take one breath for every two strokes. In other words, you take one breath on one side (your left or right) while taking a full stroke with your left arm and a full stroke with your right arm (total: two strokes for every one breath). This breathing pattern is ideal for long-distance races and distance training. It allows you to breathe as much as humanly possible and is a good way to establish a steady inhale/exhale rhythm.
The drawback to 2:1 breathing is that you only breathe on one side. This has the effect of potentially lop-siding your stroke to the breathing side you favor, thus causing you to swim crooked and strengthening one arm more than the other. Over long periods of time this can give you a slightly asymmetrical "hunch-back" of overdeveloped muscles.
I don't mean to induce panic or infer that you will turn into a Frankenstein monster if you don't practice proper breathing technique, but I bring this up as an extreme example of what can happen if you only breathe on one side.
Another drawback to 2:1 breathing is that during competition you will not be able to see half of your competitors, who will sneak up on your non-breathing side and put you at a disadvantage.
While training 2:1, pick a side of the pool (either the left or the right) and always breathe facing that side. This way, on your way up the lane you will be forced to breathe on your left, while on your way down the lane you will be forced to breathe on your right. This will get you accustomed to bilateral breathing and allow you to keep your stroke evenly balanced. Then, during a race, you can switch from left-side 2:1 breathing to right-side 2:1 breathing with ease, keeping an eye on your competitors and aligning your body to swim efficiently and in a straight line.
3:1 breathing is ideal for longer, easier swims. You may want to try this during a long pulling set or while swimming warm-up and recovery. Breathing every third stroke, you alternate breathing on opposite sides (thus keeping your stroke even and deformity at a minimum just kidding). It also forces you to exhale slower and more conservatively, preventing hyperventilation.
The problem, if any, with 3:1 breathing, is that you are breathing less often than the 2:1 pattern and you may feel oxygen depletion if you are exerting yourself. If so, simply switch to 2:1. I personally favor 2:1 during competition and 3:1 during training.
6:1 breathing is six strokes to every one breath. You may only want to try this during an anaerobic drill, or as a cardiovascular challenge. I practice this breathing during long pull sets wearing a buoy and paddles. It forces you to hold your breath and allows you to really even out your stroke.
Because you are breathing so infrequently (and thus rotating your head and body a lot less per lap), you can really notice your stroke mechanics and whether or not you are fishtailing, or bouncing, or swimming left to right instead of forwards.
This type of breathing pattern is only recommended when exerting minimum energy over long distances, or doing the complete opposite, short explosive sprints. Either way, it is a good drill to try while analyzing your stroke and getting a good workout.