Learning to swim, as an adult can be a terrifying proposition. After years of avoiding the water, all sorts of fears can settle into our psyches. And when we finally work up the courage to take the plunge, pent-up anxieties often manifest in a range of stress responses, including restricted breathing.
Recently, a client I had been working with for several months was beginning to steadily gain her confidence in the water as her skills were improving at a consistent pace. Then, as is of the case, some of the old anxieties suddenly started to creep back into her workouts, disrupting her breathing and causing her stroke to fall apart. She was losing confidence and nearly in tears!
Up to this point I had been coaching her, and several of my other beginning students, to only inhale enough air to get to the next breath. Many swimmers inhale too deeply, as if each gulp of air has to be big enough to get them to the end of the pool. I had been coaching my students to only take in enough air to get them to the next breath.
As I continued to work with my client, I saw that, although she was swimming better when she inhaled less, she was still showing signs of stress. Taking smaller, quicker breaths was helpful, but didn’t address the underlying problem. I suddenly realized that her focus was in the wrong place: it was out of the water instead of in the water. She was still taking in too much air, which exacerbated her underlying anxiety. But the reason she was inhaling too much air was because that’s where her focus was: on the inhale, not the exhale. So I suggested she start focusing on getting to the next exhale and not worrying about the inhale at all. And it worked! Her breathing became smoother and more relaxed therefore her entire stroke lengthened out and became efficient again.
The point is not to worry about the inhale at all. Breathing in is an autonomic response that happens naturally. While swimming we physically set our head and mouth into position to take the breath; however, we don’t try or force the inhale: we simply allow it to happen. So the emphasis should not be on getting to the next inhale, but to the next exhale.
As a trainer and coach, I see too many swimmers just trying to get to the other end of the pool. They give the impression that they are just trying to be done instead of trying to get a challenging — and enjoyable — workout! This is sad and it is, more often than not, due to forced or labored breathing. Try it out for yourself! In your next few workouts shift your breathing focus to your exhale; the inhale will take care of itself.