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  Learning How to Let Go

Article originally published in...

By Karlyn Pipes-Neilsen
Friday, October 13, 2006

As the honored guest writer for today's column, I am writing about a subject I know a great deal about: swimming!

People always ask me ... Karlyn, how can I become a better swimmer? I recommend: improve your technique, work on good body position, teach yourself to swim easy and finally ... learn how to breathe.

What do I mean, 'Learn how to breathe?' Well, have YOU ever thought about HOW you breathe when you swim (besides a breathing pattern such as bilateral both-side breathing)? I have found that most swimmers and multi-sport athletes have never given it much thought.

Why is this a big deal? Since most people like air, getting enough of it will always be the No. 1 priority. If you run out of air or become too "winded," usually you have to stop. Getting air during a land-based sport does not take much thought or effort (except in yoga). With swimming, a different set of rules apply. If you breathe too deeply or time a breath wrong, the consequences can be a lung full of water. Not fun.

Other challenges associated with ineffectively breathing are: tiring easily, poor technique, lack of confidence in your ability to swim (since you always have to stop and rest) or a a tight and not relaxed stroke.

So, what are most people doing with their air? Some breathe too often, not often enough, too deeply, exhale too forcefully or try to exhale too fully (empty the tank). While others hold their breath and wait until the face is turned skyward before quickly exhaling/inhaling at the same time. I can tell you that the air is NOT better up there.

My personal favorite is what I call the "suck, tuck and erupt." This is where a breath is sucked in, clenched tightly and held until right before it's time to get the next breath. The air then "erupts" from the lungs, a large plume bursts near the surface, and the swimmer quickly sucks in the next breath before repeating the process (usually quite frequently). I get tired just writing about it.

The problem is that swimmers expend a great deal of effort to get a breath, leaving very little energy for swimming.

After careful examination of hundreds of swimmers, I have come to the conclusion that there are at least four components to effective breathing. They are relaxation, timing, velocity and volume. Here are a few suggestions that may help you breathe more effectively when you swim.

  • Relax: Air will always be available, but not if you fight for it. Let the water support you & enjoy. Bob & blow bubbles like a kid.
  • Timing: Exhale some air almost as soon as the face enters the water. Taking a "little off the top" will minimizes the CO2 reflex that falsely triggers your need for more air. You just took a breath, silly.
  • Velocity: Try to "hum" or trickle your air out without a lot of force. Forcing your air out uses extra energy and does nothing to help you swim across the pool or bay.
  • Volume: As you hum/trickle your air out, always leave a little in reserve. If you completely empty your lungs, you have no other alternative than to take the next "breath" and that breath may be all water.

There are many benefits to becoming a more effective breather. They are:

Swimming faster with less effort
Ability to focus on technique (because you are less tired and can concentrate more)
You may realize that you are a better swimmer than you thought
You will have a greater range of swimming speeds

I hope by now you are asking yourself, "I wonder what do I do with my air when I swim?" Great! You have just taken the first step to becoming a more self-aware swimmer. Self-awareness is the key to making lasting, positive changes to your swimming and to just about every aspect of your life.

So, the next time you go for a swim, examine your current breathing technique and see if you can apply a few of the suggestions I have provided. For many, this will be a huge "Ah-hah!" Just think about your breathing, relax, and then let it go.

Karlyn Pipes-Neilsen is the 2004 World Masters Swimmer of the Year and an open-water champion.
Karlyn and her husband, Eric, host Aquatic Edge Swim Technique clinics and camps worldwide.
www.aquaticedge.org or email fasterfreestyle@gmail.com (808) 331-1766