Why does swimming make me nauseated?
July 27, 2013 5:11 PM   Subscribe

After not swimming for a very, very long time (swam for a neighborhood swim team as a kid, swam a lot through high school but after that, nothing beyond splashing around) I'm trying to get back into it as an exercise regime. Only problem is, after only a few laps, I'm nauseated. What should I do?

This is the second time within five years or so that I've started going to a gym equipped with a pool. The first time I got back in and started to swim laps, I became profoundly, profoundly barfy and in fact had to sprint out of the pool and back into the locker room to throw up. I persisted and after weeks and weeks, the sensation faded slightly, but never really left. I tried to narrow it down - just eaten? Not eaten yet? Chlorine smell? Allergies? I wasn't able to pinpoint anything specific. I ended up leaving that gym and going to one that didn't have a pool, but after a few years I've just joined a gym that has a pool and tromped on in today to swim a few laps and see what would happen.

Bleah. I soldiered through, and it's not as bad - no sprinting for the nearest sink - but my old friend the swimming nausea is back. The facts are these:

I try to make sure I'm hydrated and that I haven't eaten too recently.
I have allergies for which I take multiple medications - think of keeping a brushfire beaten back to embers. They're always ready to spring back into full blaze. So I'm always, please excuse the mental image, on the phlegmy side.
The smell of chlorine definitely bugs me. This new gym pool has much less of that overwhelming stinky reek than the former gym pool did.
I didn't have goggles this time and kept my eyes closed most of the way, except for little peeks to try and make sure I wasn't lurching around in the lane. At the old gym I always swam with goggles and plan to do so after today.
I don't seem to have too many difficulties with dizziness/nausea on land.
I'm not a complete couch potato, but my endurance for things that require bursts is definitely not great. I can trot along on the treadmill or elliptical at an even pace (maybe with some bursts of speed in there) and go for a long, long time, but things like burpees and jumping rope have me panting and tired quickly. Today I swam four laps of freestyle and checked my pulse, and it was in the 70% range, but I was too nauseated to keep going at that pace to try and keep it up for the recommended half hour. So I pooted around a little bit more - swam some slow breaststroke, side crawl, that sort of thing. Total time spent in the water was about 30 minutes. Then I went and walked around in the aqua track, more playing around than anything else. The feeling of barfyness finally left completely on the drive home.

Swimming would be a valuable addition to my gym life, especially since it would be easier on my knees - I study a martial art that's kind of rough on them, so it's a great option for me. Any suggestions to help with the big thing that makes it unpleasant?
posted by PussKillian to Health & Fitness (25 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: One small correction - I said I swam four laps, but meant four lengths. Big difference.
posted by PussKillian at 5:14 PM on July 27, 2013

Best answer: Does the barfyness come on only when swimming freestyle? Although your body is moving in a straight line, your body may be rocking side to side as you draw up your arm for each stroke. I could see that bringing on a motion-sickness kind of feeling.
posted by variella at 5:27 PM on July 27, 2013

Best answer: I think it's the chlorine, indoor pools and gym pools with the really strong chlorine smell do this to me too. Outdoor ones don't seem to have the same effect - is it an indoor pool?
posted by celtalitha at 5:30 PM on July 27, 2013

Nausea can be a sign of heart distress. Go see a doctor. You might have some issue that manifests only during exertion like a partial blockage.
posted by srboisvert at 5:34 PM on July 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

and the reason it doesn't show up on land is you are exerting yourself more in the water because you are not trained up while you are in land so you are not getting your heart rate into your nausea zone.
posted by srboisvert at 5:35 PM on July 27, 2013

Response by poster: It does generally happen when I'm swimming freestyle, which is also my "best" stroke.

I have recently seen a dr who knows about and encourages my exercise plans and has checked me over.
posted by PussKillian at 5:56 PM on July 27, 2013

Are you swallowing a lot of water? I sometimes swallow so much water swimming laps that I can feel a little nauseous. I also feel super weird and out-of-body swimming without goggles, so maybe that was it?
posted by ablazingsaddle at 6:00 PM on July 27, 2013

Is it really hot in there? The heat/humidity combo is hard for me even if I'm in the water.
posted by something something at 6:03 PM on July 27, 2013

I think it's a combo of physical exertion and unconsciously inhaling/swallowing the water. Try consciously coming up for air a lot and building up your strength, it will get better over time as you get used to it. The freestyle/motion sickness also makes sense, as someone els noted. Try a different stroke for a bit as well just to see if that's it.
posted by hejrat at 6:03 PM on July 27, 2013

I find that sometimes I feel nauseated when I swim a lot of laps of freestyle breathing every stroke -- moving my head back and forth so much makes me barfy. If I switch to breathing every 3rd or 4th stroke it goes away. You also might try swimming breastroke/backstroke only for a session and see if that helps.
posted by apparently at 6:04 PM on July 27, 2013

Best answer: The nausea could be occurring because you're over-exerting yourself: swimming a few hundred lengths of fast front crawl is pretty strenuous compared to most exercise, combined with the fact that the regulated breathing makes you respire anaerobically more than usual. You could try alternating one length crawl, one back/breast stroke to build up more slowly and see if that helps.
posted by Ned G at 6:08 PM on July 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Could the multiple allergies or the medications you take be messing with your inner ears/equilibrium? The motion and the water in the ears might be exacerbating any congestion that's mucking things up. Try ear plugs? See an ENT?
posted by thinkpiece at 6:53 PM on July 27, 2013

Best answer: I have this exact problem! For me it is a motion sickness thing. Turning my head and body to breathe when swimming freestyle makes me motion sick. The solution is to 1) swim with a snorkel and 2) use earplugs. There are snorkels made for lap swimming that allow you to swim without turning your head. Makes a huge difference. Like you I have allergies and am often stuffy, and it seems that getting water in my ears made the motion sickness worse. These aqua sphere earplugs work best for me.

One practical note, I found it took a while to get used to breathing hard through a snorkel without freaking out. It works, but it's hard for your brain to believe you can get enough air through a little tube.

Before I would get nauseated as quickly as you describe, now I can swim laps indefinitely without feeling sick.
posted by medusa at 6:55 PM on July 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'd see your doctor, it sounds like an inner ear issue to me, probably exacerbated by lane turns.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:11 PM on July 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Is the nausea a full-body feeling or more of a gagging feeling that leads you to feel barfy? Any chance it's reflux being brought on by the increased water pressure combined with the position you're in while swimming?
posted by VioletU at 7:12 PM on July 27, 2013

Are you flip turning? I tried to learn how to flip turn a couple of months ago and got so so motion sick.
posted by outfielder at 8:07 PM on July 27, 2013

Best answer: Motion sickness here too. It went away after a couple of weeks. Occasionally looking up and straight ahead helped a little.
posted by drwelby at 8:39 PM on July 27, 2013

I was an avid cyclist when I was younger, and then didn't ride for a while. The first time I got back on my bike (after YEARS), I took off like I had never stopped. It was tons of fun. Then I stopped at my destination, and when I tried to dismount, I nearly collapsed. My legs had turned to rubber. My point being, perhaps you are swimming at an old pace from pure muscle memory, and your cardio system is just unable to keep up. (Not so much your lungs and heart, but the veins and arteries in your swimming muscles aren't used to it.)

Another possibility is that they are using some other disinfection system in the swimming pool than what you are used to.
posted by gjc at 9:30 PM on July 27, 2013

I swim a lot and frequently have trouble with reflux, much worse while swimming than on land. I'm fairly sure in my case that it isn't motion sickness as I have a low susceptibility to that. I think it's the combination of exercise while effectively lying down and the slight increase in external pressure on the abdomen from the water. I've always had this to an extent (worse now I am an adult) and assumed for years that everyone did and this was why people said you shouldn't swim after eating.

I get the kind of reflux where it comes all the way back up (delightful) although I've never vomited. I find the best solution for me is to be cautious about what I eat before and take a Zantac before I swim.
posted by *becca* at 2:28 AM on July 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Are you resting appropriately in between laps?

Hopefully the pool as a training timer on the deck that you would use to time yourself 10 or 20 seconds between laps, especially if you're not yet up to par with swimming. You can't just hop in a pool an do ten laps non-stop if you haven't been swimming for awhile. Make sure you give yourself a 10 to 20 second rest in between every couple of laps before you start off again.

And if the gym has a swim trainer, have the person take a look at your strokes. I'm betting you're turning your entire side when you're lifting up to breathe instead of just your neck. When you come up to breath during freestyle, you want your arm to be in the air about to go down. You time your breath so your arm is at its highest point out of the water, and you don't turn more than you neck to take that breath. If any more of your body is turning, your using too much energy and not giving yourself a straight line.
posted by zizzle at 6:03 AM on July 28, 2013

Are there any pools near you with saltwater instead of chlorine? Modern saltwater pools are amazing! No icky chlorine smell, no burning eyes, etc. I'd try swimming in one of those and see if it bothers you, then you can rule in/out the chlorine.
posted by radioamy at 9:51 AM on July 28, 2013

It does generally happen when I'm swimming freestyle, which is also my "best" stroke.

Best as in fastest? You aren't in a race, if you have been overexerting yourself to the point of nausea use something you can do in a slower manner like backstroke.
posted by yohko at 1:54 PM on July 28, 2013

Best answer: This happened to me when I started swimming in November for the first time in 23 years. Usually, it happened when I went to the pool right after work, having not eaten anything in 7 hours. I also needed to work on my stroke and understand how to get oxygen reliably. I fixed these issues with a two-fold approach:
  1. I watched video tutorials from Total Immersion Swimming (you can find some TI videos on YouTube).
  2. I ate a gel just before getting in the pool to do 500 yards (10 times across the pool and back). The gels I'm talking about are the carb/energy gels cyclists and runners eat while they're riding or running. You can get them at any bicycling store or REI.
Don't try to flip turn and keep going. Usually, I swim across the pool, stop, swim back across the pool and keep doing that for 40 minutes or so. Depending on how in shape you are, you'll get used to the pool after some time, but I've found the gels especially helpful. Sometimes, I'll have a little snack at work about two hours before I go to the pool.

Good luck!
posted by phoebus at 7:38 PM on July 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Has your doctor really checked your heart? Or has he just run some basic blood work, listened to your chest and taken your vital signs? My friend does water aerobics and has for several years, twice a week. Recently she noticed that she was slightly nauseous and very fatigued when she finished her class and, under duress, pressured her doctor for a heart workup. She had a heart cath and an echocardiogram which showed no blockages of significance, but an enlarged right ventricle and some valve disease, but the doctor said she has some dysrhythmia - uneven rhythm - which is probably what's making her feel badly when exercising. She may be needing a pacemaker in the near future, after some more studies, and has been asked to curtail her exercise until they've figured it all out.

Your situation just sounds too familiar - please consider a cardiac workup.
posted by aryma at 8:20 PM on July 28, 2013

Response by poster: Went to the pool yesterday and really slowed myself down, paying attention to my breathing and trying to be observant about whether or not I was rolling during freestyle. I also tried to alternate strokes, including some backstroke (although you guys, I'm TERRIBLE at backstroke). I haven't been bothering to flip turn, so no need to stop that. Result: about a half-hour of relatively consistent swimming (with plenty of rest breaks) and no nausea at all. There were a lot of good answers and some suggestions I may try in the future.

My guess right now is that the cause was rooted in three things: overexertion, motion sickness and, underneath it all, the smell of chlorine. I'll keep plugging away very slowly and see what happens, and if it reoccurs I'm coming right back to this thread to look at my options.
posted by PussKillian at 7:06 AM on July 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

« Older Advice on how to grill on an electric grill?   |   Wet watercolor artist. Can't remember his name. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.