Breathing Basics: Getting Comfortable

Practicing your breathing in a mixing bowl is a unique way to perfect your breathing skills.

Among the major differences between swimming and all land-based sports is that breathing in the water is a skill, and a fairly advanced one at that.

In weeks following the opening of our swim studio in New Paltz, New York, I spent many hours teaching in an Endless Pool, where proximity to my students 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.

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 efficient breathing mechanics—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:

  • Dip your chin into the water and leave it there while you breathe in through your mouth and out through mouth and nose. Observe how your breath ruffles the surface. Continue for 30 seconds or more until this feels almost meditative.

  • Next, lightly touch your nose and lips to the surface and practice inhaling through the small space at the corners of your mouth. In the mirror, notice the "blotting" created where your nose and lips touch the water. Play at this with a spirit of curiosity for about a minute or until you feel almost "bored" with it.

  • With goggles on, lower your face into the water, keeping your mouth open but without exhaling (see right). Notice how natural air pressure keeps water from entering your nostrils or mouth. As you lift your face, notice how you can inhale easily, even with water dripping around your mouth and nose. In this and subsequent exercises, try to inhale with the tip of your nose still touching the water.

  • Repeat as above, but this time bubble gently from your nose. Watch in the mirror, trying to keep your bubbles small and quiet. The smaller and quieter they are, the longer you'll be able to sustain one exhale, before lifting to inhale again. Repeat this but bubbling only from your mouth.

  • When you can do each of the above in a calm and contained manner, advance to "rhythmic breathing." Lower your face and bubble out for a count of four or five-one-thousand. Lift and inhale for a count of one-one-thousand. Lower and repeat. For an interesting challenge, alternate between mouth bubbles on one exhale and nose bubbles on the next. Your goal is to inhale with the tip of your nose—and perhaps even your nostrils—still in the water and your mouth barely clearing it. Repeat until you develop a relaxed and seamless rhythm.

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.

Terry Laughlin is head coach of Total Immersion. Read similar articles at

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