View Full Version : Novice need help with breathing

July 18th, 2002, 02:08 AM
Hello, this is my first post in this forum. I am a 35 year old male with limited swimming experience and I am writing regarding a problem that has always been present in my swimming.
I have always been a very active person and I am in very good physical shape. I am a runner as well as a cyclist. I have a very good aerobic ability and I usually run 5 miles each time, at least three times a week. I have a fat percentage of approximately 8%.
When I was 19 years old I decided to start swimming. I joined a local public pool and tried to learn how to swim. The pool was 50 meters and I found it impossible to swim across it. The problem was only present when I swum the crowl style. In the backstroke or breast stroke I had no problem laping the pool back and forth. The reason i could not swim across in the crowl was that I could not figure out how to breathe without swallowing water. Therefore I tried to avoid taking many breaths and obviously I soon run out of breath. I was trying hard to find where my mistake was and I took advice from experienced swimmers but the problem still persisted. After about 3 months of trying I felt very discouraged and quit.
Well, a couple of years ago, I was living in an apartment complex and we had a very small pool. I decided to give swimming a second try and I bought a book that explained how to swim correctly. This book became my bible, I litterally had memorized it and I was practicing at least five times a week for an hour or so every time. The breathing problem still persisted. I kept swallowing quarts of water every time and despite my determination, I again got discouraged with my inability to make progress in my breathing and after about five months of trying I again gave up.
Finally a few months ago, I was introduced to an older fellow who is about 75 years old and is still an active swimmer. I soon learned that he had been swimming for more than 50 years many of them professionaly and has won countless competitions. He has also worked a s a swimming coach and in 1957 he had written and published a book on the technique of swimming.
I explained my problem to him and he offered to help me out. I started practicing and the first thing that he pointed out to me was that I was very tense when I was swimming. He tried to persuade me that I need to relax. He said I was as stiff as a rock. Well, I did make progress in this field and now I am more relaxed although he still claims that I need to relax more. He said to me repeatedly that the reason my legs are not floating is because I am so stiff. Well, I try as hard as I can to relax my legs completely but the more I relax them the more they sink. I asked him wether the fact that my legs are so muscular as a result of my extensive cycling training as well as my very low body fat make them sink and he said that this has nothing to do with it and that it is only due to my stiffmess. Anyway, after the two nonths I have been training with him, I still have exactly the same breathing problem. I still drink quarts of water every time I swim. We use a 25 yard pool and I can barely make it across. I am very discouraged again, and have tried every possible position for breathing. I still can not figure it out. I feel ready to quit again, and he is trying hard to encourage me but I just feel that I am wasting my time. I would love to make swimming a part of my life but I can not keep my spirit high enough if I do not see any progress in my breathing. The problem is still as bad as when I first entered a pool.

I know my posting is a bit long but only because I wanted to give you a thorough description of the problem.

I assume that most people in this forum are more experienced swimmers than me and I would really benefit from your thoughts and suggestions on my problem.

Thank you for any response.

Tom Ellison
July 18th, 2002, 02:33 AM
Years ago in Fla. I watched a man try to learn how to swim that had your exact problem. Our coach never gave up teaching this older man to swim. As a LAST ditch effort the coach told the guy to go out and buy a mask and snorkel that went directly over the top of his head. The man swam laps with a snorkel for a year of two...and ultimately became a relaxed freestyle swimmer. He actually got very good and had a nice stroke. THEN the coach weaned him from the snorkel and made him incorporate his relaxed stroke to accommodate his breathing (one month or two). The man became a good swimmer who learned how to breathe air rather then water.

July 18th, 2002, 04:57 AM
i'd agree with your coach and say that until you relax your breathing is never gonig to be right. try doing lots of floating and drills like catchup - anything that makes you really stretch and relax and glide in your stroke. then you'll be more relaxed and will breath easier.

July 18th, 2002, 11:38 AM
I would guess that in the swimming world you are trying to run before you can walk so to speak. And perhaps running and your other sporting activities are the reason why you are not where you want to be in swimming right now.

Firstly, you say you are in good shape and are a good runner/cyclist, but whilst you have excelled in these you may believe that you should be a good swimmer automatically since it is another sport and you are in shape, right? No, and this assumption often down-heartens those who become frustrated with swimming because it seems unfairly, very hard - even to swim just 50m without feeling absolutely exhausted.

Secondly, the advice someone gave about relaxing is very true - but perhaps this is ahead of what you need to think about which is developing:
1. Balance
2. Flexibility
3. Correct Stroke Technique

Which is all developed by (I'm afraid to say) Boring Laps of various Drills.

If you really want to be a swimmer than your motivation will get you there(see the thread about motivation !!) but it will all TAKE TIME.

Good Luck and Don't Give Up.

Matt S
July 18th, 2002, 06:24 PM

The symptoms you are describing sound like you are trying to pull your head up out of the water to get your mouth well clear of it. Bad move. The easiest way to swim free is to put your head down, until most of it is in the water and you are looking straight down at the bottom of the pool, and lean on you chest. When you need to breath, roll to the side, still keeping most of your head under water, until just enough of your mouth (but not all of it) is clear so you can inhale, then roll back.

Why does your head need to be down? Because your body in the water is like a boat or any other floating object. If you artificially pull the front end up out of the water, the back end (your legs) will sink. The fact that you have low body fat, probably means that you don't float as well as those of us who are "hydrodynamically enhanced" making this more difficult for you. To understand why this is, you can read some excellent articles posted on this very web site. At the USMS homepage, click on the link "Technique" right under "Articles" in the toolbar on the left. Then Click on the article "Air & Gravity" by Emmett Hines. I also recommend his article "Front Quadrant Swimming."

Why did the mask and snorkle work for that one swimmer? I'd bet that it allowed him to get comfortable with his head looking down and mostly underwater. His body balanced, his legs and hips floated on their own, and he was able to breath easily. Voila, he could focus on learning to swim without stressing out about how he was going to breath.

I'm not entirely sure why you are inhaling so much water. It could be you are breathing by pulling your head up while looking forward, instead of rolling to the side. If that is the case, your mouth is like a big scoop right at the front end of your vessel, and you can see what happens next. If you are not doing that, you could still be trying to pull your head up, even a little, as you turn it to the side to get your mouth well clear of the water. The funny thing about doing that is that it intuitively seems like it would help, but in fact it has the opposite effect. If you pull your head up even a litte, it tends to make the rest of the body sink, and you mouth may actually sink deeper than if you had just rolled to the side. When I do drill that focus on proper rolling, I know that I have my head out of position, and usually pulled up, when my mouth sinks below the surface just as I roll to the side. In that way, the harder you try not to inhale water, the worse it will get.

Please let us know how you do. I can give you some more materials to look over if you are interested.


July 19th, 2002, 12:33 AM
Wow, you guys are all incredible. I am so glad that I asked for your advise.
Tom, I am going to give your suggestion a try, but let me give it another shot if I can do it without the snorkel first.
"Unfit" I will follow your advise on doing some drills on relaxation, that is actually what my coach is trying to make me do.
"Boeing" you hit the nail. Yes I was quite cocky when I started swimming. I thought that things will work in swimming the same as in all other sports, and given my good shape I took a lot of things for granted. I learned my lesson though, swimming is a whole different beast. As you correctly said, that is exactly why I got discouraged. It was because I was expecting it to be easy :( Now that you mentioned that I need to work first on my balance, flexibility and correct stroke technique, I started realizing what my coach means every time he tells me that breathing will develop normally by itself. He also kind of "ignores" me when i tell him that I have trouble with the breathing and just gives me drills on my balance and stroke technique (both of which are actually improving). I never figured out why he kept "ignoring" me but now I know why.
Matt, you are also right on the spot. Yes, I try to breath by lifting my head out of the water and to the side. I do that because i am afraid that if I don't then I will breath water. I will try to do as you are saying, (it sounds scary but I am not arguing with your guys experience). I am going off to read the articles that you suggested now, and please if you have any more suggestions I would love to hear them.

July 26th, 2002, 05:50 PM
You are not alone. I have been swimming for 30 years and am still trying to break myself from raising my head too much out of the water to get enouh of a breath. Mine comes from teaching myself to swim with breast stroke first and then moving to freestyle. Unfortunately, I kept the breathing from breast stroke. Little by little I am getting better and lots of swimmers are encouraging me with different things to try. So don't give up, I am not going to give up, until I fix it. I too will try some of the suggestions given to you.

July 27th, 2002, 06:36 AM
One trick I've found is to try to keep one eye under water as you roll to breathe (note: I said ROLL to breathe, not TURN to breathe). If your mouth were in your forehead, lifting your head would make sense, but it's not. Lifting your head actually puts your mouth lower in the water than keeping your head horiztonal. Also make sure you've exhaled before you try to inhale. Focusing on exhaling can also help relax you--think of yoga and the martial arts. Learning to balance (horizontally) will help you stay relaxed. We live most of our lives in a vertical position and our bodies are designed to help us maintain that. We naturally have a low center of gravity--some more than others. When you want to get horizontal you have to learn how to balance that way by pressing the more buoyant upper part of our body into the water to make the heavier end rise up. Think of a see-saw. Good luck.

July 30th, 2002, 08:29 PM
I am just now getting back into the water and I have found that if I look straight down while swimming, almost tucking my chin as I go, and then when I need some air I think about touching my chin to my shoulder as I "cycle" my arm around. This keeps me from lifting my head out of the water. I have also found that if I ROLL instead of turning my head to breathe, things work better and I get less tired. Learning to relax and roll has made a world of difference. Hope this helps.


August 1st, 2002, 05:31 PM
One of my coaches used to have us do a freestyle drill called "One Eyed Jack". The purpose of this drill is to focus on rolling to your side to breathe, and make sure you only let one eye come above the surface of the water. This sounds alot like what Annb48 was recommending. You may also want to consider reading a copy of Total Immersion. Terry Laughlin gives lots of good suggestions and drills that might help you out.

August 1st, 2002, 07:21 PM
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August 3rd, 2002, 01:08 AM
Well, I have wonderful news! I have been working on your suggestions and YES, I am finally improving. I am very glad to say that during my later swiiming sessions I seem to have conquered the problem. I think I am over it !!
I want to thank all of you folks that helped me out on this, i know it is probably a very trivial and basic issue but for a beginner like myself it was a very important issue.
One thing that i am trying to work on now that i am start figuring out the correct breathing pattern, is that I am exhausted after one single lap of 25 yard length. Is this normal because I am still in the beginning and will it go away with time. I mean have you people experienced this when you started or maybe I am doing something wrong?
Thanks again.

August 3rd, 2002, 05:47 AM
As you start out swimming, make sure on the first length you're not kicking and are breathing. Many swimmers don't breathe for 3/4 of the first 25 and then wonder why they're winded! They also kick quite hard and have no idea they are doing it. The mantra I give them is, "Breathe, don't kick." I'm glad someone recommend Total Immersion and Terry Laughlin. I've coached with Terry for over 10 years and highly recommend his approach to learning to swim or to changing your stroke technique. His book Swimming Made Easy is excellent. Good luck!

August 3rd, 2002, 11:40 AM

Don't worry about it too much. Endurance will come with practice. Each swim you'll notice improvement over time. Even when I have taken just a few days off from swimming, next time in the pool I notice a marked difference in my own endurance.

Also, as you continue to work on your breathing and proper stroke, your endurance will increase. Watch your kicking too. Some people starting swimming or getting back into swimming seem to kick like mad. That can easily tire you out quickly.

Good luck with your continued swimming!


Matt S
August 5th, 2002, 06:25 PM

Another tip: as you swim try to let go of every muscle you are not using to move your body. Sometimes when we try to swim with precise mechanics, we tense up every muscle and fight our own body trying to make sure we do the motion EXACTLY the way we intended. This is a big waste of energy in swimming. Let you lower arm just hang there from your elbow (like you are a marionette) as you recover your arm. Let your head just float, rather than tensing up your neck muscles trying to hold it in place. If you use a 2-beat kick (one kick for each arm stroke), let your leg just hang there until you are ready to kick again. Literally, hang loose baby.

Please let the record reflect that not one, but two people said the T-words (Total Immersion) before I did. I heartily endorse their methods from my own experience. One quick question for Ann, does "Swimming Made Easy" include all four strokes? I have the first book "Total Immersion" and Emmett Hines excellent book "Fitness Swimming." As good as they both are, they only talk about freestyle. I'd like to see some sample TI-oriented work-outs for the other strokes.


August 6th, 2002, 05:42 AM
Yes, Swimming Made Easy does cover all four strokes and includes drills and pictures of them to help you learn them. Everyone I know who's read the book has learned a lot from it and recommended it to others. Good luck.


August 6th, 2002, 06:12 AM

SME covers all four strokes. Its his earlier book, Total Immersion (yellow cover) that is all freestyle. But you're right about it not providing any practice structures.

August 6th, 2002, 09:12 AM
Swimming Made Easy includes four strokes. For once I found butterly easier to understand from the book rather than the short axis video.

October 7th, 2002, 04:01 PM
I just wanted to thank everyone for this thread--and ask another question. I had my first swimming lesson in about 20 years yesterday (I'm 26 now), thinking that I just needed to work on stroke mechanics and the like. After a lap, the instructor pointed out that my breathing was my biggest liability. Like the original poster, I'm lifting my head up unnaturally to take a breath. The instructor also noticed that I tend to exhale everything pretty quickly, leaving me with no choice but to come back up for air.

I made some modest improvemends during the group lesson, and I'm hoping to get in a private lesson sometime soon, but in the meantime, can any of you suggest a drill or two whose primary goal is to focus on breathing? Just hours before running across this site (and seeing the recommendations), I bought "Total Immersion." It appears to have some great drills on stroke mechanics, etc., but I didn't see anything specifically dealing with getting the air in and proper exhalation. (Of course, I haven't had a chance to read the book yet, so I might have overlooked something.) Basically, I'm feeling a little overwhelmed by all of the things I know I should be doing (rolling, keeping a straight line, moving my arms, yadda yadda), and I'd like to find something that, as much as possible, isloates the breathing so that I can lay a nice foundation for the rest of the form.

Any ideas? Thanks so much!!

October 7th, 2002, 04:23 PM
I also bought a tape which was made by the Stanford couches that has drills in, like on your side with the kickboard. Not only am I improving my breathing with the drills, but I was able to breathe on my right side for the first time in my life. It just helped for me to see the visual of the drills.

October 7th, 2002, 04:45 PM
Originally posted by kellyray
The instructor also noticed that I tend to exhale everything pretty quickly, leaving me with no choice but to come back up for air.

....in the meantime, can any of you suggest a drill or two whose primary goal is to focus on breathing?

Two (amateur) suggestions:
1) Learn to play a wind instrument (like the trombone). :) Seriously, I think it is one of the few things that simulate the breathing pattern during swimming: a quick full intake of air, followed by several seconds of controlled, pressured breathing out.
2) A relaxation technique (done on land) that might help is to breathe in for 4 seconds (or so), hold it for 4, and breathe out for 4 seconds.

In the water, you might want to take a big breath, then hold it for a stroke or two, then breathe out slowly over the next several strokes. If you are breathing out too fast, purse your lips to try to increase the air pressure in your mouth/lungs as you breathe out.

October 7th, 2002, 05:16 PM
Breathing in swimming is pretty much opposite what one does in life. You have to learn to breathe in fully, quickly to the bottom of the lungs then a controlled release. Breathing to the bottom of the lungs is called diaphragmatic breathing. Those who play wind instruments and those who sing typically use this method of breathing. There are several ways to teach this. One I do with kids primarily (because it looks silly and they like silly). to learn to breathe stick your tongue out and pant like a puppy. This involves the diaphragm more than regular breathing. Keep this up and slow it down, taking bigger inhales until you can inhale and have the air go directly to the lower lungs. Another way to learn this is to take a piece of tubing smaller than a garden hose and larger than a straw. You can find this at most hardware stores sold by the foot. Take a ping pong ball. Inhale through the tube and pick up the ping pong ball with the inhaling air. Try to keep it up as long as possible. This will get you using the lower lungs also.

The next in learning breath control is to do continuous deep water bobs. Learn the timing of the exhale so you run out of air as you reach the bottom.shoot yourself back to the top, inhale (without stopping) and go right back down. This works best in about 8 foot of water.

Good luck

October 7th, 2002, 05:29 PM
I use a bobbing exercise with people learning to swim to help them get comfortable with the timing of exhaling and inhaling in a vertical position before they try it in a horizontal one. In the shallow end of the pool, squat down so your head is just above the surface. Take a deep breath and submerge yourself and beginning blowing bubbles. Just before you run out of air, jump up high enough so your head clears the surface and graba quick bite of air and let yourself submerge again. Don't stop when your head is above the surface--occasionally people who are trying this for the first time wil pause to finish exhaling, inhale & exhale a couple of times (or wipe the water off their faces, or some such movement) before submerging again. You have to jump up, take a quick breath, and instantly submerge again. Take your time exhaling, but not inhaling. When swimming you have to exhale almost all your air BEFORE you roll to take a breath--there isn't time to exhale & inhale when your face is clear of the water. Also, be sure to inhale only through your mouth (you can exhale through both mouth & nose). If you find you are getting too much water up your nose, try a nose clip til you get used to the breathing pattern. Good luck! It will come quickly.

October 7th, 2002, 08:19 PM
Just playing Devil's Advocate here; become a backstroker like me and then the breathing is much less an issue.

October 8th, 2002, 05:01 PM
I just wanted to thank everyone for their advice!

bridges: Hmmm...I'll have to see if I can track down a video sometime. In the meantime, maybe I'll just spend some time at the pool, watching some of the better swimmers....

mattson and janis: Heh heh...I've never been much of a musician, but I DID take some singing lessons a year ago, which involved lots of breath control. You're right...I'd bet that a lot of it applies! As for thte bobbing bit, my pool doesn't have a deep end, but I think I'll try the modified version mentioned by annb48.

annb48: Thanks! I haven't been inhaling too much water as of yet, but I think that's because I've been working so hard to get my head all of the way out of the water to take the next breath. (No wonder I'm pooping out so quickly...) I'll try the bobbing bit to see if I can't work out some of the coordination...

pbsaurus: Heh heh....the backstroke lesson is in two weeks, and believe me, I'm really looking forward to it.

Thank you everyone! What a great and supportive group!