Breathing Battles Part 2 - Struggling to Swim

In case you missed it: Breathing Battles Part 1 - When Swimmers Struggle to Breathe

"Take a deep breath. Push off the wall. Take as many strokes as you can. Come up for a big gulp of air. Hold it. Take as many strokes as you can. Come back up for another gulp of air. Hold it. Take as many strokes as you can. Continue cycle until you eventually make it to the other wall. Gasp for air like you have been water-boarded for the last 25 yards. Repeat."

Sound familiar?

This is a subject I completely empathize with, primarily because, as a newbie I did every possible thing wrong. Not only did I not know how to breathe when swimming, I had a deeply ingrained fear of drowning. When I was 7 years old, I had blacked out and nearly drowned in a wave pool. Since then, I had always struggled with deep water. The combination of fear and lack of knowledge led to a very scary and frustrating entrance into triathlon.

Years ago, in my first triathlon, with no professional coaching, I was second to last out of the water. Sadly, I accepted my perceived inability to swim and just made up my mind to 'survive' the swim and work harder on the bike and run. Then one day, I found the value of coaching and learned that it just didn't have to be that hard.

Now, as a coach, I spend much of my time helping others overcome the same issues I battled. So, how exactly are you supposed to breathe in the water? Here are two simple observations and solutions I personally experienced and continue to address with new swimmers.

Holding Your Breath and Taking in Too Much Oxygen

Running and cycling are so completely different from swimming in that you don't need huge, continuous gulps of air. Yet, still I watch athletes bring their heads completely out of the water, taking in as much precious air as possible before holding it tightly in as they wrestle back into their stroke.

This will completely gas you out. This often feels like you're working your ass off and getting absolutely nowhere but close to death after 25 yards.

Holding in oxygen creates buoyancy in the upper body. Add that to craning your head out of the water and you'll find your back end sinking. When you go to take your strokes again, you're having to work that much harder to bring yourself back to a hydrodynamic position to propel yourself forward. This requires more oxygen, which forces the cycle to continue.

Instead of taking in as much air as you can, take small bites of air. Seriously.

This is where athletes struggle mentally. I know this because it was the hardest lesson for me to grasp. I like oxygen. Oxygen likes me. Why in the world would I deny myself this beautiful relationship in the one place I was certain I would die? Trust me. I fought it.

And trust me. You don't need that much air. You only need a sip and you don't need to hold it.

Once you turn your head for that small bite of air and return to neutral you should begin exhaling. Yup, exhaling. That was something I never really thought about either. I would try to hold my breath until it was time to come up, then attempt to exhale and inhale all in the same small window.

*A helpful tip: Avoid lifting your head towards the other end of the pool and instead remember to roll, as though looking to the side wall.

Not only does holding your breath make you feel like you need to breathe, but you actually build up CO2 in the lungs and bloodstream. Allow yourself to inhale and exhale and you'll find less tension and more efficiency in your form. It gets easier, I promise.

By continuing to practice this rhythm, you are training your brain and your body to trust that it will get oxygen and you're not trying to kill yourself. As your body begins to trust this process, your panic for oxygen will subside.

Holding Your Breath for Too Many Strokes

Another common issue I see new swimmers dealing with coexists with the holding of the breath.

“Hold breath, take as many strokes as possible.”

I have yet to run across a new swimmer who has the conditioning to make it 4 or 5 strokes in, keep good form and successfully make it to the other end of the pool.

However, new swimmers, including my former self, will try to get as far as possible before breathing again. This is counterproductive and not necessary. Allow yourself the natural process of conditioning. It will come faster if you do it the right way, guaranteed.

It's recommended to try and breathe every 3rd stroke. This helps balance out your rhythm and surprisingly, it often balances out form issues. However, not all athletes can do this and that's okay.

Most of us have a 'preferred' side of breathing. For me, it's my right side. When I get tired, instead of every 3 strokes, I revert back to right sided breathing.

*Helpful tip: training for every 3rd stroke and learning to 'roll' instead of 'lift' can be complimented by rolling to your back once you tire out. Proceed to backstroke until you have recovered, then roll back into your freestyle stroke and breathing pattern. This will help you continue to move forward by encouraging good swim form.

If you feel you get too gassed attempting every 3rd stroke, then try to breathe every right or left stroke. As your conditioning increases, you may find that you can tolerate 25y or 50y of bilateral breathing before you need to return to single sided.

These are just two simple suggestions on breathing that I suggest new swimmers keep in mind. If you know you struggle with form or you still can't seem to figure out why you aren't making gains in the water, hiring a swim coach is one of the best investments you can make.

If you're looking for help with your swim, I recommend Jenny Brown. She is an iTRI365 Coach, Certified Masters Swim instructor, additionally certified in adult learn to swim instruction. She will be offering open water swim clinics this summer in addition to personal swim lessons. She can be reached at for questions!

She will also be teaching beginners' swim in preparation for triathlon at our Beginner's Triathlon Training Clinic from July 20-23, 2016. You can find more information and register HERE.

#justkeepswimming #breathe

Cori Moore
iTRI365 Coach

*Helpful tips courtesy of Coach Jenny Brown.

**As a triathlon coach, it's my job to condition athletes to compete in all three disciplines, however, swim instructors are specially educated to address swimming and I will always recommend to my athletes to attend clinics, get lessons or stoke analysis by our swim coaches for in depth training needs.