There’s no doubt that when it comes to swimming, breathing and breathing technique play a massive role in your performance when trying to clear times for laps. Learning and finding effective breathing techniques and strategies is an ongoing pursuit in the swimming game and trying to find the right way forward can sometimes end up being a struggle without some guidance.

So how do we go about finding good breathing techniques for when you’re in the water? I emailed and had a chat with prolific swimming coach, Shev Gul, and we spoke about a swimming breathing technique referred to as Diaphragmatic Breathing Technique. According to him, using these breathing exercises in swimming practice could help a swimmer perform better both in training sessions and obviously on race days, as well as help you improve your recovery time from training and races.

 

Can Practicing Our Breathing Really Be All That Important?

Yes!!! Coach Shev explained that there are four integral parts of the mind-body system in sports performance and that these four facets share an inextricably strong link between each other. They are:

  • Effective Breathing-Technique
  • Physiology
  • Internal State
  • High Performance

“Proper or correct breathing technique is central to the ancient practices of Yoga, Qigong, Ayurveda, and other meditation disciplines. Diaphragmatic deep breathing awareness and practice is an important part of training for martial artists, musicians, vocalists, public speakers, dancers, and athletes!” (1).

In swimming, regardless of the style or stroke, the main work should be done during the exhalation phase of the breathing process. In order for the stroke to be utilised to its maximum capacity, the breathing execution must be performed extremely well. Both the inhalation and exhalation portions of our breathing are critical components in making sure that the appropriate levels of oxygen needed for the required movements are maintained and that your carbon dioxide levels remain stable and level for our body’s to be able to perform at their best. 

However, shallow chest breathing seems to be the norm in not only the swimming community but the realm of other sports as well. Unfortunately, many coaches take the aspect of breathing too lightly and figure that it will sort itself out. As a result, many athletes are trained atop of the unstable foundation of poor shallow chest breathing. But the good news is that poor and ineffective breathing habits can be reversed.

If you use infants as an example, you’ll see that correct breathing comes naturally to them. Babies will take full breaths using their bellies and you’ll notice this in the rise and fall of their stomachs as they breathe. However, as we grow older, we’re taught the old adage of “stomach in, chest out” in an attempt to make us look slimmer. This continuously practiced state of unnatural breathing causes restrictions to optimal breathing and it spills over into sports and athletic performances as well.

Shallow chest breathing invites problems by delivering less air per breath into the lungs. Less air per breath leads to a higher number of breaths, putting in motion a series of physiological changes that constrict blood vessels. An imbalance between the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the lungs delivers less oxygen to the brain, the heart and the rest of the body. As a result, many athletes experience early fatigue in their performances and negative impacts on their rhythm and their timing which in swimmers inevitably leads to the falling apart of their stroke technique and subsequent speed as well.

By using the Diaphragmatic Breathing Technique, an athlete learns how to control the inhalation and the exhalation process of the breathing action. Correct breathing leads to: 

  • More energy for the body
  • More energy for the working muscles
  • Better metabolic action at the cellular level

Coach Shev says that by using the Diaphragmatic Breathing Technique, our brain is supplied with the much-required levels of oxygen necessary for optimal function. “A brain with plenty of oxygen can operate and control the physiological functions of the body more efficiently. This can result in the formation of a positive internal state, a relaxed state which, in turn, can enable a superior performance to be achieved.”

 

Strategies To Practice Diaphragmatic Breathing Technique

The key to a Diaphragmatic Breathing Technique is:

On Inhalation: Quick and large volume of the air be taken in. The amount of air being inhaled is always a function of the amount of air being exhaled.

On Exhalation: A prolonged and evenly discharge of the air is maintained throughout the cycle of the motion being executed. A puffing action at the end of the exhalation phase will enable the athlete to completely empty his/her lungs.

 

It is important to note that DB technique must be learned and developed on land first, while the breathing process is a naturally occurring, automatic, and seamless action. With that being said, let’s have a look at some of Coach Shev’s land-based DBT exercises you could use to help automise DBT in preparation for laps in the pool:

Practice When Walking

Learning the DB technique first through walking action is the best way to familiarise the mind and body system with the timing and the rhythm aspect of the Diaphragmatic Breathing Technique-process.

Practice Unilaterally

Breathing in on every second step-stride using both the left-hand side and the right-hand side. Just before the back foot is about to be lifted off the ground, a quick and large amount of air is taken in via the mouth. As the same foot moves forward and is about to touch the ground, a long, continuous and even exhalation action via the mouth, with a puff at the end, is executed. Repeat 10 x 6 step-stride cycle.

Breath In On Every Fourth Step-Stride

Again, using both LHS and RHS as well as bilateral practices. Doing the same as the above recommended exercise but breathing in on every 3rd, and 5th step-stride.

Practice On The Treadmill

The next phase of progressive dry land practices can be effectively achieved on a treadmill in the gym. Starting on 3-4 km/hr treadmill speed, and then progressing on to 5, 6, 7 and up to 8 km/hr speeds, the DB technique is practiced and consolidated further.

"Swim On Land"

Finally, whilst still on land, one can move to using their arms in swimming-specific fashion. By simulating or choreographing arm action corresponding to all four strokes used in swimming, one can further consolidate the learning of Diaphragmatic Breathing Technique.

 

After mastering the aforementioned practicing techniques, these progressive pool exercises can be used to further establish DB Technique into your swimming:

Hold On The Rail With One Arm

The swimmer`s body on its side, extended arm/hand on the rail, face down, the upper arm resting on top hip, legs kicking to maintain flotation. Repeat: 6 times on LHS and RHS each.

Push and Glide

The swimmer pushes and glides from the wall, in Body Long Vessel (BLV) position. DB control action is practiced with one arm action, over a distance of 9 or 10 metres. Repeat: 6 times practicing on RHS and LHS each.

Super Slow Swimming

The next phase of DBT drills are performed while swimming in an extremely slow fashion until he/she becomes fully competent with the technique.

Normal and High Pace Swimming

Finally, the swimmer starts incorporating his/her newly learned DB technique skills in fast swimming modes until it becomes a reflex action.

 

By adding DBT to your swimming training or coaching arsenal, you will definitely see a concrete difference in training and in performance improvements in the pool. Remember, "relaxation at high speeds is the most important factor in winning the workouts, races and Olympic gold medals" (JW, GT - Popov).

 

Author: Callaghn Soligram


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References:

Ghul, S. 2019. Diaphragmatic Breathing Exercises for Improved Swimming Performance. 15th March. Liveaboutdotcom. [Online]. [21 January 2020]. Available from: https://www.liveabout.com/swimming-breathing-technique-3170055

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