View Full Version : Breathing in open water

Nancy Graham
September 8th, 2003, 12:55 PM
I don't know why, but when swimming in the lake, I get this somewhat claustic feeling about not getting enough breath. I am a pretty strong swimmer, and have no doubt I can finish the .5 miles in the triathlons I am doing (my second one to happen this Sunday), but I stop stroking and do a slow breast stroke just to calm myself. This would be OK, but I seem to need to do it quite often. I wonder if this is a problem for others? Granted I have not swum in open water very ofen, and with winter on its way I will probably put that off until late Spring.

Another question: At the end of the swim, as I am standing up to exit the water, I most often have a dizzy feeling and that I am going to fall over. Is this just something to live with? Or is something else going on?

I appreciate this forum and all the advice and help I have gotten in the past. Especially the tips for doing my first triathlon in June. I used ALL the tips, and they helped a lot.


Tom Ellison
September 8th, 2003, 01:57 PM
I have swam in four or five COLD WATER open water events. You did not mention the temperature of the water in your posts, so I am taking a shot in the dark here. COLD water has a very profound and drastic effect on swimmers balance. Lack of balance after swimming in cold water without the use of ear plugs is nothing more then the inner ear's inability to deal with cold water. Use of silicone ear plugs is the answer to this problem.

I found that in open water swims I simply adjusted my stroke to coincide with the waves as best I could. In that I mean, I attempted to breathe when my stroke was in the correct position to breathe with respect to the waves. Obviously, this is not always possible. I also found that swimming with a higher then usual head position helped me inhale in rough water conditions and navigate at the same time.

The fist year I swam the Golden Gate Bridge Swim I arrived at mid-span on the bridge about two hundred yards in front of a huge cargo ship entering San Francisco Bay. The wake was HUGE and I literally had to swim up hill breast stroke to let this wake pass, other then that I never found it necessary to swim breast stroke in open water swims except to navigate in the fog on my 2nd Alcatraz Sharkfest Swim.

Keep your head position as high as possible and remember to EXHALE all of the spent air in your lungs on the exhale part of your breathing. This will keep your lungs full of good air on the intake part of your breathing. Thus you will not be pulling good air into your lungs that are still 1/4 to 1/2 full of spent air.

Good luck in your swim....
Kindest regards,
Tom Ellison:)

September 8th, 2003, 03:56 PM
Hi Nancy,

Just a couple of thoughts from my own experiences with triathlons and open water swim races. I did a triathlon several years ago at altitude (4 to 5,000 feet). After about 200 yards into th 1/2 mile swim I would best describe this as a panic attack (I started self doubting my ability to finish the swim and even the race - being at altitude and the adrenaline fogged my thinking - once I calmed down I was okay and finished the race okay, I ran this race several more times over the 3 years, each time it was easier to clear my thinking). The same thing happened a few years ago at a 3000 meter open water swim at elk lake near bend oregon (once again at altitude) once I calmed down (which was easier to do being able to recognize the onset of this and what I need to do). I think it is a combination of lack of oxygen from being at altitude plus the adrenaline rush of the race, so my advice would be work on keeping yourself calm - its a mental game, you know you can do the yardage just take one stroke at a time.
In regards to the light headiness, I would think it is something similiar to the headrush you can get if you are laying down and try to get up quickly. Since you are swimming in a prone (lying down position and you are suddenly forcing your body vertical it creates changes in your blood pressure/supply to your brain (hence the light headness) I would suggest taking a little more time transitioning out of the water from the swim, maybe try your walking a litttle earlier than you would normally. Hope this helps, good luck.


September 8th, 2003, 05:26 PM
Hi Nancy,

I was just thinking about you the other day -- wondering if you were still pursuing the triathlon dream!

As I mentioned before, open water is a very different swim experience than the pool. You could be reacting emotionally to the open water and making your breathing shallow. Tom's suggestion to make an effort to expel the air is a good one. Rather than think about taking more air in, think about pushing more air out. The increased intake will follow naturally.

Your beathing may also be the cause of your dizziness. I often felt a little lightheaded after the swim (I used to call trans 1 the "dizzy transition" and trans 2 the "wooden transition" -- built in excuses for why they were slow ;)) However, if you think there is any reason your dizziness could be medical -- check it out!

It's hard to swim in open water! There's a lot to think about: waves and other water conditions, other swimmers, sighting (the hardest thing, I think!) The more you do it, the more comfortable you will become. Remember the mantra: Relax, stay focused, keep pushing! (also: whatever works!! that means take those breaststrokes as needed!)

Good luck with your race!


September 8th, 2003, 07:17 PM
I don't have much to offer regarding feeling claustrophobic whilst swimming except to perhaps suggest that you focus on your breathing in an attempt to calm yourself- it seems to help with me. I sometimes feel slightly claustrophobic when I'm in practice and suddenly feel stressed because I know that I'm not going to make an interval. I usually make a conscious effort to relax, which seems to help. Oh yeah, I cut out all caffeine, which has also made a difference (I swim in the early A.M. and used to down a cup of espresso before practice, which would really wind me up).

Regarding the dizziness: I, too, used to feel woozy when getting out of the pool after a practice, or swimming by myself. It has pretty much stopped, though, and I think that it may have been a blood pressure thing, as my pressure tends to be low anyway, and exercise will lower it even more. Having said that, though, do you re-hydrate yourself during swims? Most of the dizziness went away after I made a real effort to stay hydrated during practice (dehydration can mess with blood pressure, too)...


Phil Arcuni
September 8th, 2003, 09:09 PM
More like agoraphobic - I did this open water swim in a very deep and very clear lake. As I swam I saw the shafts of sunlight disappear below me, and imagined myself as a small, 6' person floating on several thousand feet of crystal clear water, which, like air, is a fluid . . . freaky.

That same race I ran out of the water onto the shore. I had an extended period of dizziness - perhaps 5 minutes that I had to lean on a teammate's shoulder. It was very strange, as I have never had that problem in any sort of pool race or pool workout. I attributed it to the sudden transition between active swimming and active running.

Rob Copeland
September 9th, 2003, 08:35 AM
Nancy the previous posters hit most of the issues that I have seen in people with breathing problems in open water. A couple of other things to look at are:
1) Were you wearing a wetsuit in the open water swim? A wetsuit that is tight fitting through the chest can reduce inhalation volume, causing shortness of breath.
2) Do you do flip turns in the pool? I work with some triathletes who can swim long distances in a pool, with open turns, and then run short of breath in open water. That little extra rest and breath at the end of each length may not seem like much, but it is a recovery that does not occur in open water.

September 9th, 2003, 10:35 PM
I have found that when I stand up to run into the cattle shoot at the end of open water swims my legs feel very unstable and my whole body feels "funny" for a few minutes. At a USMS open water clinic, I was told this is not uncommon and is because of the change of position from horizontal to vertical and something to do with blood flow. It effects me on swims lasting longer than one hour. I don't just feel like I will fall over - I have went down - SPLAT - right in front of the finish line at a national open water championship. What a memorable finish that was!

Nancy Graham
September 9th, 2003, 11:00 PM
WOW! What a group! Thanks to each of you for responding -- I feel that I have a bundle a information to work with, and more importantly, relieved that I am not an anomaly.

I am probably nervous about the open water swim (not really very cold water at this time of year) which causes stress and and I will work at your suggestions of calming myself mentally. I will definitely try to expel all the old air -- I think that may be a very good tip for me -- and keep my breathing rhythm similar to my pool swims. I think I may be trying to breath too soon and not in synch with my stroke. And of course will be working at swimming more often in open water. I do not do flip turns, so get the benefit from those mini rests that make a big difference in comfort level.

The dizzy thing -- I actually don't think I drink much water before my swims and will see if hydrating more will help. (and hope I don't fall splat at the finish line!!):eek:

Thanks for the thoughts again Kim -- I like the "whatever works thing" and will tuck that under my cap each swim. And indeed, I have become hooked on triathlons and am sorry that there are no more in my area after this weekend.

Thanks again to each and all of you. I'm glad you are there;)


September 10th, 2003, 02:14 AM
Whenever I get out of the ocean (whether I've been swimming, bodysurfing, just relaxing, or skindiving), I am off balance for about a minute. It is the same thing that happens when I get off a boat. I have to plant my feet on the ground and not move for about 20 seconds to get my equalibrium back totally. If I try to walk or lift a foot or bend over to take off a fin before then, my balance is very off. Since it happens when I get off a boat, too, I don't think my balance problem is caused by breathing or going from horizontal to vertical too fast, but has more to do with the inner ear reacting to the movement of the water. I never have this problem when I get out of a pool. (I swim 3-4 days a week in a pool and several hours each week in the ocean... can often lie in bed at night and feel the rhythm of the water...) I am not sure you would have the same effect from swimming in a lake, but the water may have more natural movement than a pool, and that might be a factor in your dizziness.

September 14th, 2003, 12:27 AM
A dizzy feeling may also have something to do with a drop in blood pressure ws we get out of the water, especially if one had been sprinting at the end of the race.
You may want to watch and see if you're getting lightheaded in addition to dizzy.
And of course, just like others have pointed out, your inner ear had been in motion for a while, you brain had adjusted to the back and forth of rotating while swimming, and the rythm of the waves, and then as jou jump out of the water, it suddenly stops.
Our brains need a minute to adjust.

If you still need to run through the finish line while this is happeming, try to tune out yiour equilibrium, and try going by sight alone. With little practice, you'll be able to walk right through the dizziness.
Ever seen ice skaters do a number of pirouettes, and then skate off like nothing happened... well, in part, they learned to tune out the equilibtium for a while, in addition to learning to minimize the effect of turning fast.

When I was learning flip-turns, I used to get dizzy. That went away after a month or so.