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The 5 Worst Breathing Mistakes Triathletes Make In The Swim

If you haven’t fixed your breathing, you’re wasting your time with other skills in the water.

Breathing is the MOST important skill in swimming.

If you don’t fix it FIRST, you’re going to be struggling with all of your other skills forever.

Breathing is a skill that everyone thinks they have mastered, probably because they’ve been doing it since birth.

And while everyone might know how to breathe, that doesn’t mean they know how to breathe well, particularly while swimming.

I never understood the importance of breathing until I actually fixed my breathing.

Sure, I could appreciate it when some one explained it to me, but I didn’t GET it.

I’d never FELT it.

It’s just like riding a bike, until you do it, you don’t REALLY understand it.

Swimming felt normal until I learned how to breathe more effectively, then swimming felt SO much easier.

Unfortunately, you don’t know what you don’t know.

It’s impossible to understand how much your breathing is holding you back until you experience effective breathing.

Put simply, great breathing is small, straight, and fast.

Less than great breathing is the opposite.

Easy enough to understand intellectually, but until you FEEL it, you don’t understand the power of effective breathing.

It took me a LONG time to figure out how to breathe effectively, because no one gave me the tools to learn these skills.

I had to figure it out for myself.

I’m going to show you exactly what I did to make it happen, so you can achieve the same outcome.

Let’s take a look at the major mistakes triathletes make with their freestyle breathing, and how to fix them.

#1 Holding Your Air

Many triathletes swim by taking a breath, then holding on to their air until their mouth is open again, then blowing out and exhaling in.

That means it’s going to take a LOT longer to get your breath done.

As we’ll see below, that’s a problem.

To make matters worse, it leads to panicked and rushed breathing.

You’re trying to get all of your air out and then back in quickly, which is going to create the sensation of gasping for air.

That’s exactly what you do NOT want to happen.

It’s going to increase your perception of effort, it’s going to make swimming FEEL harder, and it’s going to BE harder.

What to do instead?

You need to learn to let out SOME of your air while when your head is under the water.

Then RIGHT before you breathe, you want to forcefully exhale ALL of your air.

To get this skill down, practice bobbing.

You can do it in shallow water or deep water, it doesn’t matter.

What you want to practice doing is getting a solid breath, then when you’re underwater, slowly exhale some of your air before forcefully exhaling ALL your air right before your head breaks the surface.

That will help you get a quick fast breath.

And a fast breath is going to lead to fast swimming.

#2 Lifting The Head

Because the head is underwater while you’re swimming, the natural instinct is to lift the head to breath.

In many cases, our instincts serve us well.

In this case, they do not.

Your body is like a seesaw, with your lungs acting as the fulcrum.

When one end goes up, the other end goes down.

When you lift the head to breathe, down go the legs.

What’s one of the most common frustrations in triathletes?

You got it, sinking legs…

Sinking legs mean slower swimming and a LOT more effort for the same speed.

Not good.

While lifting the head to breathe doesn’t necessarily cause this to happen, it will definitely make the situation worse, which is to be avoided whenever possible.

The solution?

Learn to ROLL to the breath, rather than lift to the breath.

Here’s how to do it.

This exercise focuses on fully rotating all the way to the back.

You’ll get air by ROTATING the head and body, not lifting the head and the body for air.

It’s an exaggeration of what you need to do, but by exaggerating you’re REALLY reinforcing the key idea.

Practice doing the drill, then practice swimming freestyle, going back and forth between the two.

Focus on the sensation of keeping the head EXACTLY in place and rotating to breathe rather lifting to breathe.

It may feel VERY strange to you.

That’s perfectly fine.

A big change is going to feel really weird, and a big change is going to mean a lot of progress.

Staying a low is KEY to a great breath and effective freestyle.

#3 The Fishhook

Ever see someone breathe and it looks like there is a fishhook in their mouth and someone yanked on the line?

That’s a common breathing mistake, and a particularly bad one.

When the head gets pulled out of alignment, that means a lot more drag is going to be created, which is going to slow you down big time.

Unfortunately, the head doesn’t act alone.

It’s connected to the shoulders, so when the head moves out of alignment, so too do the shoulders.

And the shoulders are connected to the torso which connects to the hips.

When the shoulders go one way, the hips are going to go the other way.

And the hips are connected to the legs.

So now the legs are going the opposite way again.

And the same thing happens when the head comes back after the breath.

Now you’re wiggling through the water, which is NOT good.

All the means a LOT of drag, which is slowing you down.

It gets worse.

Let’s say you breathe to the right, so your fish hooking to the right.

That means your head is pulling to the right with each breath.

Guess what else is going for the ride?

As mentioned earlier, your shoulders are going to follow the head.

And your arms are attached to your shoulders.

Now your arms are out of position, and it’s going to be REALLY difficult to execute effective arm pulls when your arms aren’t in the right position.

Actually, it’s impossible.

Now your breath is affecting your arm pulls, which means it’s effecting your speed.

All because of the breath.

It’s a big deal.

How do you fix the fishhook?

While it can be helpful to THINK about what you’re doing, I generally prefer a more impactful approach.

I’d rather force a change than to try think through a change.

Throw a paddle on your head and start swimming.

If you’re pulling the head to the side, it’s going to come off.

If you’re keeping it straight, it won’t.

It can be really frustrating at first, but sooner or later, you will figure it out.

Be patient, give it some time, try to get just ONE good breath and then go from there.

The fishhook will be a thing of the past.

#4 Slow Breathing

One of the biggest issues you’ll see in triathletes is a slow breath.

A slow breath can happen from holding your air, lifting the head, and pulling it to the side.

So, if you fix those issues, your breath should speed up.

But some triathletes just take their sweet time.

The problem here is that a slow breath takes all of the previous mistakes, and it magnifies them.

You’re going to be out of position for LONGER, which is not good.

It’s a vicious cycle.

Breathing errors slow your breathing down, and slow breathing makes the error worse!

How do you speed it up and break the cycle?

Never see anything out of the water when you breathe.

Ever hear of the suggestion to only let one goggle come out of the water?

This is the same thing, taken to the next level.

You don’t want to see ANYTHING.

Here’s why it works.

First, it takes time to focus on something.

If you have time to focus on something while you breathe, it’s SLOW.

So, if you never focus on something, your breath will be faster.

It should just be a blur.

Second, if you’re not seeing anything, that means the head is moving FAST and staying low.

Lastly, you KNOW if you’re breathing effectively because you either see something, or you don’t!

Can you see the side of the pool?

Can you see people?

Can you see anything?

If you do, speed it up, and if not, you’re good to go!

It’s okay if it’s a blur, but if you see clear images, no good.

Simple and effective.

Of course, fixing the previous issues will make it a lot easier to improve the speed of your breath, so make sure you work on those skills first.

#5 Unilateral Breathing

This one is a little more controversial.

You should be able to breathe bilaterally, and you should practice it.

So, what do I mean by that?

It means that you should be ABLE to breathe to both sides with relative ease or effort.

If you can’t, that means there is some underlying issue in your stroke that is holding you back.

In many cases, it’s the result of an inability to effective roll to BOTH sides.

One side is pretty easy, and that’s the preferred breathing side.

The other side is hard and that’s the side that’s difficult to breathe on.

If you CAN’T breathe to both sides, you need to fix that to improve your stroke.

The breathing is the symptom, your freestyle technique is the CAUSE.

That needs to get fixed.

How do you do it?

The same strategy for keeping the head low is what works for getting the rotation on track.

ROLL to the breath.

Get comfortable rotating all the way to BOTH sides, and you’ll have a lot more options in terms of how you move through the water.

The quality of your breath to both sides doesn’t need to be equal, but you should be competent with both.

It’s well worth the effort.

How often should you practice bilateral breathing?

You don’t have to use a bilateral breathing pattern, such as breathing every 3rd stroke.

You can just practice breathing to both sides.

If you’re training in a pool, you can simply breathe to the non-preferred side every 3rd, 4th, or 5th lap, whatever you prefer.

If you’re swimming in open water, just string together 10 or so breaths to the non-preferred side, and do so every so often.

What percentage of a workout should you breathe to the non-preferred side?

Not much, maybe 5-10%.

Of course, if you want to breathe more, that’s fine as well.

Incorporating bilateral breathing is more of a training issue than a performance issue.

When it comes to racing, just do whatever you prefer.

If you want to improve your swimming, you need to improve your breathing.

Tackle your breathing using the strategies I’ve laid out, and you’ll be well on your way.

Keep it simple...



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