Swimmer’s basic guide to understanding and avoiding hyperventilation and panic

The most common problem I find with novice and intermediate swimmers is anxiety about breathing. Whether this anxiety is a defining issue based on fear of the water, or a condition triggered by specific situations, the resulting hyperventilation can be a serious issue. In the moment, our brain and body get tricked into believing we need more air when we actually need to exhale more air.

What is Hyperventilation? The condition—a chemical imbalance between oxygen and carbon dioxide—results from having too much oxygen in our system and not enough carbon dioxide (which is a crucial vasodilator, or blood vessel dilator). When we over-inhale, we limit or prohibit transportation of O2 to the soft tissues, causing a sensation of severe restriction through our lungs and muscles. This is when we can misinterpret the distress signals: We feel like we need to breathe in as much oxygen as possible but, since exactly the opposite is true, that only exacerbates the problem. Our body is really telling us to calm down and exhale. This conundrum is even more exaggerated in the water, a medium that is foreign to our body’s preferred land/air environments. It creates anxiety which can give way to panic. Panic and swimming do not mix!

Swimmers who have not mastered breathing throughout their swim cycle (including: distance, sprints, turns and push-offs) are vulnerable to hyperventilation. The signals are pretty clear:

  • A sense of needing more air
  • A sense of tightness or constriction in the chest, shoulders, arms and legs
  • Colors darkening

Here’s what to do if you experience the type of breathing distress described above:

  • Force yourself to exhale slowly and easily (stop swimming if you need to)
  • Coach yourself to inhale in a light effortless manner (like a musician does when taking a breath before playing or singing the next phrase) and exhale at least two beats longer than your inhale.

Finally, here are some suggestions on how to avoid hyperventilation:

  • Make it a habit to always exhale through your nose in a controlled manner while inhaling quickly and effortlessly through the mouth.
  • Make it habit that your inhale/exhale ratio is at 1:2 or better.
  • While breathing for freestyle:
    • Focus on rotating your face out of the water from the chin rather than the forehead
    • Look slightly behind you to keep your neck aligned correctly.
    • Only allow yourself time to inhale while your face is out of the water, all exhaling should happen in the water.
    • Practice alternate breathing patterns (every third, fifth or seventh stroke)

If you think that you may need some help with breathing in the pool or just want someone to take a look at your breathing mechanics please contact Personal Fitness Trainer and Swim Coach Nathan Palmer.

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