Swimming – Breathing

In my previous epistle I said we would look at some of the actual causes which can contribute to the symptom of sinking and crossing legs, so without further procrastination let’s get started.

However before we do let me make a couple of points. 

I am in no way saying that these are the sole reasons in all occasions for sinking legs, for example I have and do work with Para athletes and they have entirely different reasons for sinking legs, so yes, there may be other causes for some people.

Athletes often think that kicking harder is a solution and I try to explain that this is not often the case.  Open water swimmers are using their legs in the main for balance and body position and very little propulsion is coming from the kick itself.  This does not however mean that the kick in not important.

With that is out of the way, let’s move on to discussing how breathing and head position can affect our swim.

Holding your breath

For many newcomers it seems counter intuitive to breathe out while the face is in the water, it seems more sensible to hold onto that valuable oxygen. But the reality is if you hold onto your breath it is costing you in a couple of ways.

  • Holding the air in is adding additional buoyancy to your upper body. Now this may seem like a good idea, but let me ask you what part of a wetsuit has the most buoyancy? That’s right, the legs.  So by increasing the buoyancy in our chest area we are making our legs relatively denser.  What is the consequence of that?  Your legs more prone to sink.


  • When our intrepid swimmer turns to breath there is a limited amount of time in which to do so. If in that small window off opportunity we attempt to fully exhale and inhale we hit a problem.  It is not enough time! The consequence of this is one of the following:
    1. The swimmer full exhales but does not manage to get maximum amount of air back in, leaving them with the choice of slowing down or going into O2 debt.
    2. The swimmer does not manage to fully exhale which again limits their ability to take on O2 with the same consequences as above.
  • The swimmer tries to buy themselves more time by turning the head further than recommended. (It is suggested that swimmers should breathe into the bow wave created by their head and which is approximately equivalent to having your face half in and half out of the water with the water bisecting the goggles.) The effect of looking up is that the supporting lead arm tends to drop and go wide and the swimmer gets thrown of balance and as a result the opposite leg throws out to counter balance.



So simply by holding your breath while your face is in the water we are risking increasing our drag in both the vertical and horizontal plane and leaving us more out of breath than we need to be!

While on the subject of breathing allow me to bring up another point for discussion. Bilateral breathing.  Again Triathletes will have been told that they have to be able to breathe to both sides for reasons as diverse as avoiding breathing into oncoming waves, to avoid the glare from the rising sun and for purposes of drafting.  Sure all of these points are true but lets discuss a bit further.

Most of us will be more comfortable breathing to one side over another.  In a race situation it is likely that you will be swimming at a pace that requires you to breathe every 2nd stroke, (I tell my guys that their pace in a race even a 3.8km swim should require a conscious effort so that they are comfortably uncomfortable.) So why do we need to work on bilateral breathing?  Reasons below in reverse order:

  • Sun – not really a biggie but there may be at some races at some of the time a case of the sun being a bit of an inconvenience.
  • Waves – sure no one likes inhaling a lung full of water but again it is not a major issue most of the time.
  • Drafting – now if you are drafting feet the need to bilateral breath is a non issue, but if you are drafting on a hip (in my opinion a far better option) then you want t be able to rotate in towards the other swimmer to breathe and given that it is not always in your control as to which side you are on it is useful to be able to breathe to both sides.

Right now some of you may be scratching your heads and thinking what does swimming straight have to do with breathing?  But remember the point we reviewed in the previous rant about symptoms and causes!  So many people make claims like “I need to sight better, I always go off course, and the swim course was long my watch said 4.3km!” Often they are right in that they are swimming longer than they need to. 

I often have Triathletes and Coaches try and swim blindfolded in a pool lane.  They will start dead centre in a pool lane and swim until they hit a lane rope.  Few get past half way (25m pool) very very few make it to the end.  So in a pool lane 2.13m wide over 12,5m they are swimming almost .75m sideways!!

This has nothing to do with sighting and in fact has more to do with breathing.  Let me clarify.  When we rotate to breathe our lead arm will drop. The better you are the less but there will be some drop. This means the power on this side is less or pulling in a less than optimal direction when compared to the other arm.  If the swimmer is constantly only breathing to the one side then they are going to swim off course.  In a pool with a black line to focus on the swimmer will make micro corrections so it is not apparent in open water without the visual cue it becomes much more obvious.  Don’t believe me? Adam Young of Swim Smooth has a very amusing video on his sight where they track swimmers coming in to the beach over the last few hundred meters and so many of the swimmers are zig sagging back and forward going far further than they need to.

The fix for this is to swim bilaterally in training for the purpose of making your stroke more symmetrical and even, nothing to do with Sun, waves, or feet.

Watch out for next weeks rant where I will look at some other discursive issues in Swimming.


Swim Analysis