Breathing and Swimming
February 21, 2015 10:00 AM   Subscribe

I'm trying to get back into swimming for my own personal fitness, and it's tougher than I thought it'd be to pick it back up. I took a TON of swimming lessons as a kid/teenager, and so I'm finding it fairly easy to remember how to do the strokes themselves, but not easy at all to remember how to breathe and not hyperventilate while I'm doing front crawl, breaststroke, etc. Any tips from MeFi swimmers?

So, yeah, as a kid/teenager I took swimming lessons through the YMCA and progressed through their levels until I was a pretty good amateur swimmer. I remember being able to do the butterfly stroke, flip turns, stuff that was past just the basics, and I really enjoyed it. Now it's 10+ years later and I'm an adult who hasn't used a pool for fitness or lap swimming since those lessons. My university's pool has fairly accessible hours, and is free for me to use while I'm still a grad student, so I'd like to take advantage of that while I'm here and get in better shape doing something I know I can enjoy. I've gone in a couple times in the past few weeks and while I remember how to do the movements for front crawl, backstroke, and breaststroke fairly well, I'm still having trouble with the breathing aspect, especially for front crawl.

I have kind of a panicked feeling while my face is underwater, and when I take a breath it feels like there's just not enough time to get a breath as deep as I need. I've asked a couple of former swimmer friends for advice, and gotten some useful tips about practicing with a kick board and pull buoy, and I have started to feel slightly more comfortable since the very first time back in the pool. I've also looked online for tips for returning adult swimmers, but almost everything I can find is targeted to triathletes needing to improve their swimming, not to totally out-of-shape people who are having trouble with the basics.

Do any swimming MeFites have tips for improving breathing techniques or just building general confidence around breathing with swimming? If this is just a normal part of the learning curve of swimming, and I'm forgetting how hard it was to learn breathing in the first place because I was six years old, I'm happy to hear that too! My university does offer private lessons, which I'm also willing to look into if the best way to get through this is to work with someone in person. Mostly, I'd just like to be able to feel comfortable doing more than just backstroke, and to have fun getting back into swimming. Thanks!
posted by augustimagination to Health & Fitness (22 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
If you feel like there isn't enough time to breath when you are doing front crawl, two things come to mind: first, make sure you are breathing out as much as you can underwater, so that you don't have to do that in the limited time your face is above water. Second, slow down your strokes and make sure you are rotating your body enough. Lots of people try to swim the front crawl keeping their shoulders in line with the water, but swimming front crawl you should really be turning your body almost 180 degrees between your left stroke and right stroke, so that your right hip and then left hip are basically vertical each time your bottom arm is extended past your head and your top arm is extended past your hip.

Maybe try getting some fins (that fit well!) because they will give you enough propulsion to keep your body flat on the surface, and then practicing a 5-second pause on each side with your face looking straight up at the ceiling past the shoulder that is out of the water.

Hope that helps. I haven't swam in years so I might be completely misremembering everything.
posted by ropeladder at 10:28 AM on February 21, 2015 [4 favorites]

The breathing tip I found most helpful is constant exhalation.
posted by Emera Gratia at 10:29 AM on February 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

Like Emera Gratia's link says, making sure you breath out constantly while under water is what works... For me I find that I can breath out for four strokes, in for one, at first, but then need to adjust as I get winded... so I end up breathing out for three, in for one, and then later on to one in, one out for a bit until I feel like I Have the air I need. The "not enough time for a breath" feeling comes when I don't adjust the rhythm to how I am doing with the exercise ... and this changes each time I go depending on how tired or energetic I am.

Another thing I do, and I think this is just mental, is that I tip my head to the side, and watch the arm arc over when breathing in. Somehow, that allows me to time the stroke to the length of my breath... I probably slow down on this stroke when needed, but somehow watching my arm come over helps with feeling in synch.

I also leave a kick board at the end, and if I start to get that panicky feeling that I don't want my face underwater, I take it as a sign I need to slow down and I continue with kick board laps, until I calm down and can feel like I am not too winded to return to regular swimming OR I might switch to backstroke or side stroke for one lap for the same effect.

Finally, going in the right speed lane (so you aren't trying to keep up with other swimmers or going to fast for the lane) makes all the difference for pacing. This can be hard in a full pool.
posted by chapps at 10:43 AM on February 21, 2015 [3 favorites]

I started swimming again this year and I booked a few one-to-one lessons first. I found it really helpful because the other person can see what you're doing wrong and point it out in a way you can't visualise yourself. So she would say things like "you're not tilting your head enough, your ear should be parallel to the bottom" or "focus on that point on the wall as you lift your head" or "you're doing it better on the right side but keep your chin tucked in more when you're turning on the left side" etc. So I'd personally recommend taking advantage of the private lessons if that's an option.
posted by billiebee at 10:54 AM on February 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

I got back into swimming a couple of years ago after a loooong absence. I had a little trouble remembering the breathing rhythm. Back in college, I swam pretty regularly and I remember that I finally started alternating sides when breathing. Now, I am in way worse shape than college (and for some reason can't coordinate the breathing on the left) and I am swimming quite a bit slower so every other time on my right side works. Are you trying to breathe every stroke? Every other stroke? Experiment with different rhythms.

And seconding ropeladder: make sure you are exhaling completely. I also had that issue. I wasn't blowing out all the way so the next breath was tiny and my brain yelled "Oh crap! Can't breathe! Drowning!"

Don't be afraid to slow down until you get your rhythm back. I really felt like I was really just flailing around until I consciously slowed everything down so I could coordinate all the movements/breathing. Is there anyway for some of your swimmer-friends to watch you swim? They might be able to pinpoint problem areas. But I'm guessing that the longer you do it, the easier it will become. Good luck and good for you for taking care of yourself!
posted by Beti at 10:59 AM on February 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

There have been a couple times when I've started swimming regularly after a long hiatus, and I always started out with backstroke. It helps to get used to the swimming motions without worrying about breathing. I'd then alternate crawl with backstroke in whatever combination was comfortable, phasing out the backstroke laps as the controlled breathing got easier for me.

It's a very normal thing, even for people who swam regularly in the past.
posted by Metroid Baby at 11:22 AM on February 21, 2015

A few things come to mind...

1) Try taking a single one-hour, one-on-one lesson with a swim trainer. That person will be able to give you clear advice, even after watching you swim only one lap. My impression is that most swim instructors will be thrilled when they hear you're interested in swimming and not some triathelete trying to improve. (Generally swim instructors are pretty friendly and chill people!)

2) One way to practice breathing and kicking is by holding on to the side of the pool, with your face in the water, kicking. You can turn your face to the side to breathe. This can be done in the shallow area so that you can stand up if something uncomfortable happens.

3) Others on this thread have given good advice -- breathe out continously while you're underwater. My college coach suggested that when you bring your face out of the water to breathe, expel a little bit of air before you breathe in. It will feel like... um... "pppppfpffffffffth" (breathing out underwater) follwed by "PPPPPaaaah!" as you push out a little air while your face is above water, then a huge sucking in of air as you take your breath. This prevents you from accidentally getting water in your mouth as you take the breath, which can be frightening.

Keep with it! :)
posted by amy27 at 11:31 AM on February 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've just started swimming again after a 15 year hiatus and all I can really say is, it gets better. It takes time but as you get fitter and used to the breathing again, it will get much better.

The first session I kinda felt like I was going to drown, every breath was a gasp and I had to take long breaks or just scull on my back for a couple of lengths to get my breath back. I tried to do crawl and I nearly did drown! It was so much harder than I remembered. A month later (1 45 minute session a week) and I'm getting back into the stride of things, not really braved a length of crawl yet (next week I swear!) but I can now swim breast-stroke without gasping and barely needing to bring my head out of the water.

My advice is to stop worrying about it, stick with breaststroke and backstroke until you've got them nailed before moving on to crawl. Relax and enjoy it, it will all come back to you
posted by missmagenta at 11:32 AM on February 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

I went through this, mostly just getting out of breath far too quickly and having to stop and breathe at the end of the laps. One of the lifeguards at the college pool where I swim was chatting with me about this--he coaches kids swim teams and he told me I was going too fast and kicking too hard. Slowing down made all the difference in the world, in particular kicking a lot less than I thought I had to. It turns out your large leg muscles blast through oxygen. I now go slow, kick just enough to maintain my body position, breathe every 6 strokes and feel great.

Ruth Kazez has become one of my gurus for thinking about swimming for fitness (not swimming to win ribbons, like I did as a kid). Here is her advice for starting from scratch. Her assumption is that you are out of breath not because your technique is bad but because you just have to build up your cardiovascular fitness, and here's how to do that. If you like that and you get going well, Here is her zero to 1 mile workout. There is also a Zero to 1 Mile Facebook group, which is very supportive and frequently answers questions exactly like this.
posted by hydropsyche at 11:49 AM on February 21, 2015 [8 favorites]

Yes, I love the Zero to 1 Mile Facebook group! It is indeed a very encouraging and friendly group with lots of information to share.
posted by jgirl at 11:56 AM on February 21, 2015

I'll (re)start regular swim regimens every once in a while to let a running injury heal. I find my breathing cadence is the first thing to go and the last to return. Swimming's a lot like golf: anything more than easy, relaxed effort usually just works against you. What works for me is to do 1 length of freestyle followed by 1-2 of easy breaststroke. Breast is nice because you can keep your head out of the water through the whole stroke and catch your breath without concern for cadence. Day by day, shift the balance of strokes to freestyle. It'll come, but it takes a while.
posted by klarck at 12:05 PM on February 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

almost everything I can find is targeted to triathletes needing to improve their swimming, not to totally out-of-shape people who are having trouble with the basics.

I am both those categories and so are a lot of people! A few years ago I did a triathlon and returned to swimming with about as much experience as you have. After my first one I worked on swimming more with the Total Immersion book and workouts and then with an 8-week YMCA class. And now I love swimming for a workout.

Some things that have helped me - I know many have been mentioned by others, so nthing those:

-Work on rotation. You should feel you have plenty of time on your side for a deep breath. THe crawl isn't swimming face down - it's alternately swimming on your sides.

-figure out if you're a "dumper" or a "dribbler." What that means is that there are two ways to get rid of air when your face is in the water: letting it out in one big blow ("dumping") and then holding your breath until you surface, or letting it out in a controlled stream in which you breathe out pretty much the whole time your face is in the water ("dribbling", aka constant exhalation.). I'm a dribbler. Whenever I try the "dumping" method I feel like I don't get enough air either while I'm in or out of the water. Whichever way you do it, commit to it. Get rid of all your air before your face comes out of the water again - and as you develop this personal rhythm, then your body can better predict when and how it's going to get its breath in.

-Don't swim too fast. If you're swimming faster than you're ready to go you will have a hard time keeping up your breath.

-Work on your streamlining and efficiency. If you're working too hard flailing in the water you lose your breath faster.

-like klarck, I alternate with another stroke- for me backstroke when I am retraining, because you can breathe naturally the whole time.

-make sure your kick is strong. Your kick is propelling you while you breathe so you don't start to sink and feel you have to rush back under to keep swimming.

And finally, I agree with others that nothing will help you improve your technique faster than an observer. You could do a lesson with a coach, or a group class, but you can make a lot of progress even if you have a friend who has some swim training (like former swim team or stroke teacher) and willing to advise.
posted by Miko at 12:49 PM on February 21, 2015

Miko makes a wonderful point about dumper versus dribbler. Many many people seem to be dribblers and find dumping miserable and suffocating. Their best advice is to exhale slowly and continuously. I am a dumper. Dribbling makes me miserable and forces me to breathe much more often. Dumping on the 5th stroke and breathing on the 6th is what works for me. I suggest trying both and figuring out what works for you.
posted by hydropsyche at 1:04 PM on February 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

I had this problem when I started swimming laps again as an adult, and what helped me the most was swimming backstroke laps for a few weeks or so. It helped me get used to the feel of being in the water again and helped me streamline myself better. Once all of that felt more comfortable, I did about a week of backstroke laps, breathing in rhythm with my strokes (which is easier when your head is always above water!). Once I felt comfortable with all of that, I put my head in the water and started doing the crawl, and it was really easy and smooth again.
posted by colfax at 1:18 PM on February 21, 2015

I suffered from a feeling of never having enough air before, too!
On the advice of somebody here, I tried that total immersion video, and I took away two main things:
-Go super slow and figure out what part of your body is doing what [I was fighting myself a bit]
-Just kind of hang out in the water getting comfortable [how much of my face needs to be out of the water? Not my whole head! It's way easier to just kind of roll over a bit than to jerk my whole head out of the water!] before trying to swim quickly. I spent the first few minutes of each session doing that, and my breathing went from being a struggle to being much more relaxed.

I was never a good swimmer, and I never will be, but now I feel that I can slowly get wherever if I am patient, instead of having about 10 minutes of desperate thrashing in me before I get exhausted and just let the sharks come for me.
posted by Acari at 3:30 PM on February 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

I recently started back at swimming after a 15+ year hiatus. I rotate strokes and take a break when I get really winded. I've progressed from only being able to swim 25 meters at time to be able to do 6 laps in a row, over the course of a few months.
posted by mchorn at 5:43 PM on February 21, 2015

I did competitive swim team as a kid, and I still went through this.
posted by salvia at 8:09 PM on February 21, 2015

As others have said this may be due to not being in good shape at least to some extent. A few, ok, by now more than a few, years ago I was a grad student with acces to a free swimming pool on campus, located between my hall of residence and the library and I decided to get back into swimming for general exercise. Initially, I was quite out of shape and was only able to do one lap at a time before having to stop to catch my breath. I think the first time I swam like 20 laps in total and my legs felt like jelly when I got out. This was in May, early June. At the end of the summer I had a break to catch my breath every 15-20 laps and I swam 100+ laps at a time. The main constraint was how much time I could spend at the pool, not my endurance. Even growing up I wasn't a very fast swimmer but could keep going a really long time, so I was swimming a moderate pace I guess, definitely overtaking the slow swimmers but being overtaken by fast swimmers. My overall fitness increased a lot in a very short time. I swam daily. Unfortunately I've never been able to find another pool so convenient both in terms of location and opening hrs so I wasn't able to keep that up.
posted by koahiatamadl at 3:57 AM on February 22, 2015

I'd second hydropsyche and check that you're not kicking too fast or hard. I had this problem when I was learning to swim a few years ago. I float easily, so I tried swimming without kicking my legs at all, but you can also try swimming with a pull buoy to keep your legs floating. Suddenly I wasn't struggling to make it to the other end of the pool.

Here's a Swim Smooth article about kicking. They advise you to kick enough to keep your legs afloat, but that most of your propulsion should come from your arms.
posted by loop at 5:22 PM on February 22, 2015

Thanks to everyone who answered! Since I asked this question, I've been going to the pool around 3 times a week, and the breathing is feeling a ton more natural. I think part of it was just time, and the suggestions about exhaling were helpful too. I have been practicing using a kickboard and counting out my breathing, which seems to have gone a long way towards feeling comfortable doing it while using arms and legs all at the same time.

Thanks also for the links! The Swim Smooth stuff is great, and I love the visualizations since I don't really have anyone right now to watch and comment on strokes/kicking. I also love the 0 to 1650 stuff - I'm working on getting up to the Week One workout, and I'm really excited to use it as a way to organize swimming workouts as I keep going. It really helps me to have a strong structure/plan whenever I'm doing physical stuff, because otherwise I can easily fall into giving up because I don't feel like I know what I'm doing. I've looked into the lessons, but there is a waiting list, so it will probably be a few more weeks until I actually hear back from the gym office with any progress on that.

Thanks again to everyone who commented here - it was super helpful to hear that this is normal, and your tips have been great in helping me push forward!
posted by augustimagination at 9:57 AM on March 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

An update for anyone who's wondering how their advice worked: today I swam A MILE!!! It took me about an hour, but I just kept plugging away and I did it. Thanks again to everyone who posted here!
posted by augustimagination at 5:38 PM on April 9, 2015 [8 favorites]

That is so awesome. Congratulations!
posted by Miko at 11:26 AM on April 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

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