As the end of the triathlon season creeps ever closer, I’ve been doing an increasing amount of 1-2-1 coaching sessions with a number of triathletes as they look to improve their technique ahead of settling down for a solid winter of training. We all have our own challenges when it comes to swimming technique but by far one of the most common complaints, not necessarily just amongst newer swimmers, is the feeling of breathlessness that can so quickly set in. If you learned to swim as an adult you’ll undoubtedly know what I mean! As that feeling of breathlessness sets in, the concentration turns to just getting a breath rather than good technique, so things can quickly fall apart. Look around the pool though and there’s always some other swimmers happily gliding up and down the pool breathing quite happily, so how do they manage it?
Whilst there are a multitude of reasons that things might be going wrong with your stroke, making it harder to swim and demanding more oxygen, one of the simplest explanations for this is that triathletes, as opposed to swimmers, generally just don’t breathe enough. Simple as that. If you’re running out of breath, you need to breathe more!
Whilst learning to swim there are of course lots of good arguments to be made for being able to keep your head down in the water, allowing you to concentrate on your stroke, as well as being able to breathe to both sides. This is all too often translated directly into breathing every 3rd stroke however, which may work for some but certainly does not work for all. Consider that triathletes in general tend to have a slower arm turnover than pure swimmers, meaning that the time between breaths is longer for you’re average triathlete and they’ll generally be working a little bit harder on every stroke than a swimmer too due to comparatively poorer technique. This all works against the athlete resulting in that looooong breath that so many triathletes are guilty of, rolling over, checking out those ceiling rafters, slowing the whole body down and keeping the stroke rate low. You can see how it all stacks up against you!
Unless you’re doing a short sprint, swimming should be just like running or cycling in that it remains an aerobic activity if you want to keep going. Next time you’re out running, count the number of breaths you take in a minute, it’s likely to be around 50-60. Now imagine yourself in the pool. Triathletes will often have a lower stroke rate of around 60 strokes per minute, so if you’re breathing every 3rd stroke, that’s only 20 breaths per minute, no wonder you’re struggling for air!
Take a look at some of the elite endurance swimmers next time you see them on the tv. Once they really get going you’ll notice that many of them will breathe every 2nd stroke and they’ll likely be swimming at closer to 90 strokes per minute, allowing them 45 breaths per minute making things much easier for them. If you watch closely, Sun-Yang, the 1500m World-Record holder from China, can be seen here taking three consecutive breaths (one on every stroke) as he goes in/out of turns. All the oxygen you need for a tight flip-turn and long streamline! If it’s good enough for a world-record holder, then surely it’s good enough for us?? We need that precious oxygen to keep us going, so get as much of it as you need. Remember bilateral breathing doesn’t mean that you have to breathe every 3rd stroke – you can breathe twice to the left, twice to the right or any other combination you like, whatever works for you and allows you to get the oxygen you need. The triathlon world series finals in Chicago are now only a week or so away so that’ll be a great chance to watch some of the pro triathletes racing. See how fast their arm turnover is and how often they breathe, it’s no coincidence that they’re likely breathing more often than you if you’re struggling for breath.
My one over-riding piece of advice to many of those struggling in the pool is to think more like a swimmer. By that I don’t actually mean that we should all go and train like elite swimmers, far from it, but we could benefit from embracing the mindset and actions of swimmers a bit more to help us improve in the pool.
Think like a swimmer – practice your flip turns & streamlining. It’ll make you faster in the pool, increasing your swimming confidence, teach you about reducing frontal drag and provide valuable hypoxic and core training.
Act like a swimmer – swim more. 2 or 3 sessions in the pool per week is not enough to make the gains most of us are looking for, so get in the pool more often and allow yourself time to dedicate to technique, to endurance and to speed. You’ll become a faster swimmer.
But most importantly, do remember to breathe!