So you think you can become a better swimmer, do you ?

Well, don’t hold your breath!

One of the wonderful things about the human body is that most of the time it gets on with the job of keeping you alive without requiring the slightest intervention from the conscious mind. Can you imagine how busy we’d be if we had to remember to blink the eyes, digest our food or beat the heart ? ! By and large the conscious mind can let the body just to get on with these things – and that includes breathing.

So, let’s try a couple of experiments and introduce a little crisis into the system to learn something about how it works…

Just where you are, take a deep breath in and hold it for as long as you can. Time yourself if possible. Observe carefully what happens.

Have you done that ? Good. Now, this won’t be true for everyone but I am expecting that many of you began to feel a little light-headed during that, and far from comfortable. A little strain in the chest maybe and a build-up of pressure in the ears ? And, although you were completely in control of the situation, even a slight panic towards the end ? Then finally a big expulsion of air and….. then what ? Did you have to tell your body to start breathing again ? Or did it do it all by itself ?

There are lots of observations to make!

Before we go any further, let’s do it again. Only this time try moving your arms up and down, fairly vigourously. Notice what’s the same and what is different.

OK. So I would have thought there were two significant outcomes from that. The first being that you felt all the same things but this time slightly more intensely. You may have been unable to hold your breath for quite as long.

So what does all this tell us ? It tells us that that the body is quite capable of breathing all by itself without us having to worry about it and that even a little exercise tends to intensify the ramifications of being unable to breathe.

Photo by Stefano Zocca on Unsplash

So why do so many swimmers hold their breath while going along, or even just fail to breathe in the most efficient manner they possibly could? When we are running or cycling we wouldn’t do that; we would be taking deep breaths in an out constantly. So why do so many hold breath when swimming ?

The answer is ‘natural’. When untrained human’s face is submerged in water alarm bells will begin to ring. The brain knows that we are not naturally aquatic beings and that if we remain face down in the water very long we will drown. It is understandable then, that in order to protect its life and not accidentally breath in water, it believes the most prudent course of action is to shut everything down. So the breathing cycle stops and the breath is held. Even experienced swimmers can be found to hold their breath more than they should. The resulting discomfort and distraction (let alone the panic that some people feel)  from breath holding will no doubt be detrimental to the overall efficiency of the stroke.

To overcome this, the body needs to have the skills for breathing in this submerged swimming position and the brain needs to be convinced that it this will work and all will be OK, so it can turn off the alarms and quit trying to keep itself alive so aggressively. It can take a long while – weeks and months – to build this skill and to calm the vigilant brain and its survival instinct. Consciously breathing out is the first important step to training the brain that all will be OK. The more that the brain feels all will be OK with breathing, the more space opens up for it to give attention to other things.

Thus, it is vital to practice – and keep practicing – the air exchange cycle, including that conscious exhale. The deep belly breath in, the slow release of air out, and the final blast to clear the airways as the face breaks the surface – these build confidence that the re-filling of the lungs will take happen more easily, even automatically. The more you practice, the smoother you get at this, and the more space you have to concentrate on the rest of the stroke.

Time spent practicing the air exchange is never wasted.

Happy swimming!


…Hmm, what ?

Are you still waiting for the second significant outcome from your exercise earlier ?

Oh, I thought that would be obvious eventually… You can’t hold your breath for long!



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