In recent weeks, since opening our swim studio in New Paltz, NY, I've spent many hours teaching in an Endless Pool, where proximity to my students has allowed me to observe how essential breathing comfort is to their progress and success.
This has convinced me that, until breathing becomes routine, effective focus on other aspects of the stroke is impossible. But once they master breathing, other skills follow much more rapidly.
This article will be in three parts:
1. How to eliminate discomfort
2. How to exchanging old air for new
3. The mechanics of fitting each breath easily into your freestyle stroke.
Securing your airways
The number one source of tension and inhibition for new swimmers is the very real fear that water will go up your nose or down your air passages.
I see this fear manifest while trying to teach balance positions -- which are the non-negotiable first step to good technique. Keeping most of the head submerged while swimming is essential to good balance, but this brings the water perilously close to nose and mouth.
When someone rotates from a nose-down balance position to a nose-up position -- the first step in learning the efficient breathing mechanics I'll discuss in the next installment -- they have difficulty completing the movement because they're afraid they'll inhale water instead of air. People respond to both fears the same: lifting their head abruptly so the nose and mouth will be at a "safer" distance from the surface. And the instant they do, precious balance and smoothness are lost.
Here are some simple steps, which include the Gruneberg Method, that you can take to feel more secure about getting all the air you need, while minimizing your chances of inhaling water:
1. Practice breathing in a good-sized mixing bowl -- at least twice the circumference of your face -- filled with warm water. If you have a mirror that can fit into the bottom of the bowl, put that in too. Then try the following:
2. Repeat the final exercise in shallow water at the pool. (Precede it with the other exercises if you wish.) Crouching with hands resting on knees or the pool gutter, dip your face for a sustained bubbling exhale (four to five one-thousands), then lift it to inhale with minimal clearance. Repeat until this feels effortless and meditative. Its calming effect will help you resume swimming with much more sense of command in breathing and everything else.
3. After a few minutes of the above, progress to bobbing. Start with shallow and brief immersion -- just dipping to your hairline -- and work your way to longer, deeper immersion, focusing on sustained steady bubbling. Bob up, beginning to inhale as soon as your mouth clears the water. This time don't worry about keeping your nose at the surface, but focus on becoming comfortable getting air even as water cascades down from your head across your face. Then without pause, bob back down again.
4. Swim some easy 25-yard repeats. On these 25s, let your need for air entirely dictate the speed and rhythm of your stroke. If it helps, count off your exhales and inhales by one-thousands, as you did in the bowl. For your rest interval between 25s, take several deep, slow cleansing breaths. When you can repeat 25s, with a sufficient sense of ease that you need only three cleansing breaths before starting the next, you can progress to 50-yard repeats.
In our next installment of this article series on breathing, we'll take a look at the specific oxygen needs of swimming and how they are met.
Terry Laughlin is Head Coach of Total Immersion Swimming, which has just opened its first Swim Studio in New Paltz, New York. For more information, visit www.totalimmersion.net/swimcenter.html.