Ending the Feeling of Breathlessness

One of the most common comments we get from our clients who know how to swim but just can’t turn it into a fitness activity is: “I get so out of breath! I can run a marathon, but I can’t do two lengths of the pool.” The swimming literature commonly points to your potentially bad form in the water, but we find that an equally if not more important factor is that you just aren’t breathing out enough into the water.

If you are getting that feeling of breathlessness, we suggest that you stop swimming, stand up, put your face in the water and do some good old fashioned bubble blowing. If you have a friend there with you, their ears will be an invaluable tool to help you debug the problem. Take a breath, put our face in the water, and leave your mouth open. Start breathing out right away and keep it going continuously. If you like breathing out the mouth, do so, but allow some air to come out of your nose if your body wants to. Don’t try to control it. Conversely, if you like breathing out of your nose, leave your mouth open so that air can come out of your mouth if it wants to. Again, don’t be rigid and controlling.

After about 4-5 seconds (about the most time you’ll ever take between freestyle breaths), turn your head to the side and breathe out the rest of the bubbles (mostly through your nose — if water goes up your nose, you’ll know that you weren’t). If you find that you are swallowing water, you can purse your lips as your face comes out.

Here’s the rub: if that last breath was loud, explosive, or misty, you didn’t breathe enough into the water. Try again and make the bubbles bigger. This is where having a friend there with you can help. As I tell my swimmers, if I blindfolded myself and grabbed a shotgun, could I aim for you just by listening to your last exhale. If you cannot get that noise down (and you fear that my aim might actually be good), try taking a smaller breath. Remember: we are only looking to breathe out for 4-5 seconds. You don’t need to pull in all the oxygen in the room for this activity.

Once you get it working with just the head, add some arms (still standing) and turn for air with your normal pattern (every 2-3-4 strokes). When you can feel comfortable there, start to swim. We’ve had swimmers go from 2 lengths to about 10-12 lengths before feeling tired just by making this change. At 10-12 lengths we are getting into the realm of aerobic fitness not just respiratory inefficiency.

As the AusSwim guide to teaching swimming says simply: “Breathe out of both your nose and mouth without trying to force it out or hold it back. Just be relaxed.” Truer words could not be found.

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