I don’t need to point out the ridiculously obvious here but you are breathing all day, all the time. You do this more than you do almost anything else. So we should therefore acknowledge that breathing is essential to us, and our ability to be endurance machines.

Unfortunately, breathing is often overlooked as both a training method and a recovery strategy. Taking the time to focus on controlled yet relaxed breathing during rest periods (i.e. when you are recovering from a session) can help restore homeostasis to the body, helping you to relax and ‘switch-off’ the body from the heavy stimulus of training. This also works as a method for enhancing focus before a training session or race – taking the time to sit down and focus on breathing can laser in your concentration and help zone out distractions. Call it Zen or whatever you want – it works and has been adopted by some the best athletes in the world.

More on this next week.

One of the MOST overlooked aspects of IM swim training is correct breathing. To develop confidence, strength and great body position in the water, you need to breathe correctly. Don’t get sucked into that mentality of thinking that you have to focus on minute technical details before you have worked on the fundamentals (Kristian wrote a great piece on this –check it out) – you are only wasting your time and delaying the adaptation of your abilities – and everyone wants to quicker faster, right?

Sure, there are elements of your swim stroke that may need attention (not overloading with drills – this is a sure fire way to ruin a good training session) but something that is heavily overlooked is how you breathe. And not just in training, in racing as well. Why? Look at where you train for 90% of your swim prep: a calm, lined pool with lane ropes to stop the chop and little crowding (ok sometimes). But your races can be far from that. Even if you get a millpond flat race venue, it’s not the same as a pool. Now add into this mix the whirlpool of mass swim starts and you have a very unique situation. If you have not spent time preparing specifically for that environment, then you are in for a struggle.

You have to breathe to swim. But you have to breathe right, to ensure your body position remains taught in the water and you can maintain speed with efficiency. This is influenced by how you breathe: how you expel the air underwater, how you balance your inhale/ exhale with your stroke and how you time each breathe.

And again this is different to how a pool swimmer should breathe. There are some similarities sure, but there are very some big differences.

Possibly the most crucial thing you need to master is ensuring that you can breathe both unilaterally and bilaterally. Spending hours in the pool perfecting a smooth looking 3 or 5 count breathing rate might feel great. But when you turn up to race with swell, chop, winds and 2000 others, you are most likely to revert back to a short, punch breathing rate which will elevate your HR and cause you to become very in-efficient, very quickly. Ever wondered why your stroke falls apart at the half way point? It’s not because you have flawed technique, it is because you are most likely breathing incorrectly. On the flip side of that is if you have spent long hours working only on a short two breathe (same side) technique, then you are risking massive muscular imbalances, poor efficiency and little chance of holding a good line (i.e. you will swim much longer than 1.9 / 3.8km!).

Your ‘hack’ to fix this is to incorporate a mix of the two into your training, so that you are comfortable breathing both bilateral and one side.

The best way to do this is by breathing for 3 strokes on one side, then 2 on the other, and then repeating.

What this does is ensure you can balance your position (avoiding dominating one side of the body) better but also adjust to “doubling up” on just one side. This is invaluable for when you turn up to a rough swim course. The more relaxed and composed you breathing is, the less energy you will waste, allowing you to maintain great alignment in the water and navigate more accurately. Another important component of OWS is the ability to accurately sight and hold you line – something that many athletes’ struggle with this. And the main reason (other than lack of OWS and practice) is due to dominating one side (combined with poor core mechanics). This always pulls the steering to that dominant side. Hence why a lot of poorly trained athletes (weak core, not great at sighting) swim an extra 2-300m in a race. That adds minutes to a swim time, and affects the rest of the day. This probably doesn’t apply to those who can swim mid 50’s or faster in IM racing, but it DOES apply to a lot of AG athletes.

It’s a pretty simple change to how you might be breathing now (even if your current strategy works for you, it can be improved) and might only take 2-3 sessions to adapt to, but the benefits are huge. You don’t need to make this a drill – just incorporate it into your warm-up and take it from there.

So next swim session, start using this simple hack to improve your swimming efficiency. You will develop greater fitness in the water and you and I both know that this is essential to racing well in the latter stages of the day.

Oh, and if you are still wasting time with drills, stop. Just stop. And read this great blog from Swim Guru Gerry Rodriguez. That guy knows his stuff.

Coach Pete Lever