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Learning to Swim for Triathlon – Breathing Correctly

Learning to Swim for Triathlon – Breathing Correctly
Learning to breathe correctly while swimming is the foundation of a confident swimmer.

Breathing correctly while swimming is a pre-requisite for a relaxed and efficient swim stroke. It is also the foundation of a confident triathlon swimmer.

Learning to Swim for Triathlon

Since I began learning to swim (around the time I began grade school), I was initially surprised to hear that there are many over 50 who have never learned to swim. However, it is truly never too late to learn to swim. In fact, you should learn to swim for all its benefits.

Most who struggle with learning to swim, including my mother and my aunt, swear they were simply not ‘made’ to swim. In reality, their difficulty with learning to swim was rooted in their inability to ‘catch’ their breath.

The literature on swim training is full of support for the premise that breathing correctly during the swim is the first and most fundamental skill to master on the road to becoming a confident swimmer.

It is only after we have developed a means of taking in oxygen needed to fuel our muscles during swimming that we can work on other parts of the technique.

The confidence that comes from relaxed breathing during the swim will also help us deal more effectively with the unknowns that can and often do occur during a race.

Why Breathing While Swimming is Challenging?

The swim strokes commonly used in a triathlon require breathing with our face in the water most of the time.

This is certainly true of the fastest and most popular stroke for the triathlon swim, the front crawl, sometimes referred to as freestyle.

For this stroke, our face, nose, and mouth will be in the water during most of the stroke. This is especially true if we maintain a proper body position. With a correct position, our head will be in line with our spine in order to maintain balance in the stroke.

Even the breaststroke, used by some triathletes, involves the face being underwater a good deal of the time.

While it is possible to swim with our head out of the water, at least for shorter swims, this body position leads to extra drag by causing the legs to drop in the water. It can also lead to fatigue of the neck muscles. Greater fatigue during the swim will affect the other legs of the triathlon.

Controlled Breathing Starts With Base Fitness

The more relaxed our breathing is during the swim, the more we can focus on the stroke and on maintaining control of body position in the water.

There are two principal contributors to controlled breathing: (1) fitness and (2) breathing technique in the water.

Let me start with the first one – fitness.

We all know that when starting to exercise after being away from it for a while, our breathing becomes labored and our heart rate becomes elevated more quickly than when our fitness increases. Our bodies are not as efficient in using oxygen as they will be when we become more fit.

It is well documented that the amount of power we generate at a given heart rate increases as we become more fit.

My own experience has been that when I resume swimming after a period of low activity (low aerobic fitness), my heart rate will often spike when I push myself to swim faster.

When that happens, I am forced to slow or even stop momentarily. This doesn’t give me confidence as a swimmer.

For this reason, I suggest that before starting to swim, you develop a base level of fitness through combined walking and running or other aerobic exercise, such as water aerobics, using the approach described in this post on building a base level of fitness.

What Makes for Proper Breathing During the Swim

We rarely pay attention to our breathing when we are on land. We may be more aware of our breathing when running, biking, or performing other strenuous activities. However, even if conscious of our breathing, we notice it is a more or less continuous process. We are continually either inhaling or exhaling.

Why then do people hold their breath while swimming, expecting to almost instantaneously exhale and inhale? It doesn’t work. And breathing incorrectly becomes even more apparent as we swim for a short while and our body’s demand for oxygen ramps up.

When learning to swim, breathing must be conscious. It must involve proper amounts of inhaling and exhaling. The challenge is that the ratio of inhaling and exhaling is not natural. Neither is the environment. That’s why we need to learn to breathe in the water and to do so with ease. That is my goal.

For the rest of this post, I will assume that you will learn to swim using the forward crawl stroke, the one most commonly used for the triathlon swim.

Inhale quickly through the mouth

Inhaling during the swim stroke occupies a small portion of the breath. Tilting our head to one side periodically so that our mouth is out of the water gives us time to take a quick breath of air. Even if a little water gets into our mouth during this process, it is not a problem since our mouths are designed for taking in water as well as air.

inhaling during a front crawl
Inhaling during the front crawl stroke occurs with the head rotated to one side, yet partially underwater. Note the wave in front of the head and the depression near the mouth.

Exhale through the mouth and nose until ready to inhale once again

Exhaling is where most of the difficulty occurs. Unless you have exhaled all or nearly all the contents of your lungs, the amount of oxygen you are able to take in during the inhalation portion will be limited.

Therefore, exhaling through both the mouth and nose should begin immediately upon completing the inhale portion. Continue exhaling until beginning to inhale once again.

Remember to exhale through both the mouth and nose. Most of the exhaled air should, however, pass through the mouth.

Exhaling through the nose alone has two limitations. First, it is nearly impossible to exhale an adequate amount of carbon-dioxide rich air during the short period of a single stroke.

Secondly, forcing as much air out of the nose as possible forces germ-laden water droplets from the throat into the nasal passage and other portions of the sinuses and ears. Water trapped in these parts of the body can be irritating, even unhealthy.

Triathlon Tip: Do you struggle with water in your nose during swimming? According to USAT officials, it is legal to use nose plugs and even a face mask during a triathlon swim. For more information, check out this related post: Product Review: Nose Clip for Triathlon Swim Training.

Never hold your breath

If you are having difficulty breathing while learning to swim, stop and observe. Is there any time in the stroke during which you are holding your breath? Never hold your breath! Always be either inhaling (while your mouth is out of the water) or exhaling.

Learning to Breathe Correctly While Swimming

I hope that I have convinced every new swimmer preparing for a triathlon to begin their swim training by learning to breathe properly.

At this stage, it is critical that you keep yourself safe by avoiding water too deep to stand in. With this ‘safety first’ goal in mind, here are two options for developing your breathing technique.

On Your Own – With a Friend Who Can Swim

While getting lessons from a professional swimming instructor is best, you may not have access to one because of where you live. Or, your fitness or community center may not offer lessons.

You can develop confidence in breathing during the swim on your own. However, at this stage in your swimming development, don’t go into the pool without an observer (lifeguard or friend who remains on the deck watching you).

First, practice breathing while standing in the water. Put on your swimming goggles (and nose and earplugs if needed). Put your face in the water and exhale simultaneously through your mouth and, if not using a nose plug, your nose.

When you have exhaled nearly all the air, roll your head to one side until your mouth is just out of the water. Quickly take a breath, roll your head back into the water, and begin exhaling. Repeat this process several times.

For this exercise, you can rotate to the side most comfortable. However, after a while, you will want to become comfortable breathing on either side. You will understand later, especially during an open water swim on a sunny or windy day, why this additional flexibility in your swim stroke is valuable.

Note that breathing while moving through the water will be easier than when standing still. As the picture above shows, water flows around the body as we move through it, creating a depression around our face. As a result, you can take a breath with one eye (goggle) underwater.

Next, grab a kickboard

Once comfortable with the rhythm while standing, you can grab a kickboard. Hold it with your arms extended in front of you. Extend your body in the water while maintaining a straight spine. Keep your butt, legs, and feet near the top of the water.

Kick along the length of the pool practicing breathing – inhaling and exhaling. Continue to exhale until your mouth is out of the water enough to grab a quick breath.

Try to avoid lifting your head when rotating it to take a breath. Be aware that the kickboard will keep your arms and head higher in the water than when swimming without it.

Once you are comfortable kicking and breathing, you can hold the kickboard with one hand, alternating hands as you use the other to pull through the water.

These techniques are demonstrated in this video.

Join an Adult Swim Class at the YMCA or Your Fitness or Community Center

I learned to swim well when I was young. However, the quality of my swim stroke and my confidence as a swimmer jumped to a new level through the help of one of my kid’s YMCA swim coaches. He had watched me swimming laps and gave me a couple of pointers related to breathing that I have included above. These simple tweaks in breathing changed my swim.

Safety First – Save the Open Water for Later

There are several advantages of starting to swim in a pool.

First, and probably most important, is that you can control the depth of water you are in. Many pools have a depth in which you can safely stand. If there are deeper sections, it is easy to see where the depth increases to avoid these.

Many pools also have lane dividers, ropes with or without discs, running between individual lanes. You can hold on to these if it becomes necessary to stop in an area too deep for standing on the bottom.

These are typically not available in open water. Also, in most cases, it is difficult to see the bottom and gauge the depth of the open water.

Related post: Triathlon Swim – How Does a Pool Swim Differ from Open Water?

Where Do You Go From Here in Learning to Swim for Triathlon?

As with learning most new skills, patience is a virtue. Keep working to become comfortable breathing with your face in the water.

Once you have achieved this, you are ready to move on. In the next phase, you will develop your form in each of the parts of the stroke. This will set the stage for more effective training and further confidence-building increases in speed and distance.

I will address these in a future post.

Leave Your Questions and Comments Below

What questions do you have about breathing while swimming? For the experienced swimmers and swim coaches, what would you add to my comments?

References

  1. Bragg, Patricia & Johnson, Bob, (1985), “Chapter 6: Swim Training for the Triathlon”, Complete Triathlon Endurance Training Manual, pp 275-336. Santa Barbara, CA: Health Science.

Favorite Swim Training Tools & Gear

Favorite Swim Training Tools & Gear
FINIS Tempo Trainer Pro

What if you are not from a swimming background though want to be more competitive in the triathlon swim? One answer is to add more structure to your swim training.

I Want To Be A More Competitive Swimmer

There are many triathletes whose goal for the swim is to “just get through it so that I can get on the bike”.

I am not one of these.

Swimming is enjoyable to me. I have spent many hours reading books and blog posts and watching videos about swimming in order to be a faster swimmer. I have also gotten advice from my son, a former college swimmer, on how to improve my swim.

As with most sports, improvement comes by developing better technique, a more efficient form, greater full body strength, and aerobic fitness.

Increasing Stroke Rate Using the FINIS Tempo Trainer Pro

According to Swim Smooth, there is an ideal relationship between swim speed (time per 100 m) and swim stroke rate (strokes per minute). A swimming stroke that is too high (RED zone) hints at too short a stroke. On the other hand, a slow stroke rate typically indicates too much glide with each stroke and a tendency to create a hand position in the latter part of the stroke that causes one to slow.

My swim currently falls in the upper left portion of the BLUE region. Using my FINIS Tempo Trainer Pro, I am training to increase my stroke rate while paying close attention to the catch phase.

Graph showing the ideal stroke rate for various times for swimming 100 meters.
The ideal range for swim speed vs. stroke rate chart is in white between the blue (too low stroke rate) and red (too high stroke rate). Source: Swim Smooth

About the FINIS Tempo Trainer Pro

The FINIS Tempo Trainer Pro is a waterproof metronome. The choice of one of its three modes depends on the training plan. For example, one mode allow you to set a time per lap for use with interval training.

I set the device to transmit an audible tone for each of the strokes in the targeted pace. For example, I set the Trainer to beep every 1.0 second for a stroke rate of 60 strokes per minute.

The pace is adjustable in 1/100th of a second increments giving plenty of resolution for every situation.

The small, waterproof device easily secures beneath a swim cap and transmits a clearly heard, audible beep. It floats in water to help avoid it being lost in the pool or open water.

The Tempo Trainer Pro also comes with a clip for ‘dryland’ training. For example, it is used in bike (cadence) and run (foot turnover rate) training.

The FINIS Tempo Trainer Pro includes a replaceable battery. I have had the device for more than five years and replaced the battery one time by taking it to a local BatteriesPlus store.

My journey toward becoming a better swimmer continues by working to increase my stroke rate. With strength training and more structured time in the water, I am confident that I will be more competitive in the triathlon swim.

You can find the FINIS Tempo Trainer Pro at SwimOutlet.com

Or at Amazon.com

Check Back Next Month for Reviews of Other Swim Tools

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Book Review – Train to Tri: Your First Triathlon

Looking to complete your first triathlon? Want to inspire and motivate your children, grandchildren, parents, friends, or co-workers?

If so, Train To Tri: Your First Triathlon by Linda Cleveland and Kris Swarthout is for you.  This 246-page guide provides the essential information needed to prepare for your first triathlon.Cover of "Train to Tri - Your First Triathlon"

Authors: Linda Cleveland and Kris Swarthout, both USA Triathlon Level 2 coaches with lots of experience competing in triathlon and coaching triathletes.

Publisher: Human Kinetics

Who is this book for?

Train To Tri is written primarily for those considering or already committed to completing their first sprint or standard (formerly called Olympic) distance triathlon.

Even though it is aimed at first-timers, it is not just for those doing their first triathlon.  While I have completed over 40 sprint triathlons, I found several useful training tipsI have already put some of them to use.

 

What does the book cover?

The book opens with a 24-question Triathlon Readiness Assessment.  Results of the self-assessment help the future triathlete identify with one of three categories – bronze, silver, or gold – and select the training plan included later in the book.  This initial section also provides guidelines for choosing the specific race for your first triathlon.

I like the basic strategy of the first triathlon training plan laid out by the authors – to focus most of the training effort on your weakest leg.

You should focus the most time and effort on [your third strongest sport] to develop strength and endurance as well as improve technique. (page 9)

Gear

Once you decide to do a triathlon, you will quickly learn about the incredible amount of clothing and equipment (called ‘gear’ in the triathlon world) surrounding the sport.  Since not all the gear is necessary for your first triathlon, the authors distinguish between the ‘necessary’ and the ‘nice to have’ or ‘you can wait and decide after your first race’ gear.

 

Your Triathlon Support Group

Training with a group can provide the extra motivation needed to push through a training program and reap the rewards of completing your first triathlon.  A group can also help you to improve your technique more quickly.

In this chapter, the authors suggest ways to create a support network for your training in swimming, biking, and running that includes various clubs and your family, friends, and co-workers.

You may have various support group options.  For example, if you live in a retirement community, such as The Villages, Florida, you have a built-in support group in The Villages Triathlon Club.  Members train and race together with encouragement galore.

If you are working in an area without a triathlon training club in the area, you can create your own support group through a local fitness center, community pool, bike shop, and running store.  This provides flexibility to follow your specific training plan while enlisting the support of instructors and others with experience from which you can benefit.

Swim

The chapter on swimming covers the basic elements of an efficient stroke with illustrations for a proper freestyle technique.  I appreciated the suggestion for traveling and swimming, especially the advice for making use of the typical small hotel pool.

Interestingly, many triathletes find swimming to be their weakest sport.  If you are in that group, get comfortable being in the water and with swimming with other people as you will experience on race day.  Whether swimming in a pool or in open water, you will inevitably come close to, if not in contact with, other swimmers.  Staying calm is the key to finishing the swim.

If the race you choose includes an open water swim, you will want to practice swimming in open water to become familiar with ‘sighting’.   For safety reasons, I recommend adding the ISHOF Safe Swimmer (see also below) to your list of gear.

 

Bike

Most of us know how to ride a bicycle.  However, many have never ridden in a large group at speeds associated with a triathlon.

Therefore, the focus of this chapter is safety.  According to the authors, safety in biking begins with a review of the various components of the bicycle to make sure that they are each in good working order.   They also describe the most important cycling skills and suggestions on how to hone these, both individually and in group rides.

When riding on the road in traffic, you need to follow the rules of the road as if you were driving a car. (page 78)

Run

We all know how to run. Right?  Well, not necessarily in a way that is the most efficient or that minimizes the possibility for injuries.  About half of this chapter is dedicated to proper cadence (steps per minute) and body form.  The rest of the chapter introduces training with a heart rate monitor and training involving the three-run types included in the weekly training plans.

If you take one thing from this chapter, remember to progress slowly (the ‘10% per week’ rule) to minimize the likelihood of injury.  Unfortunately, we need to be reminded of this every so often.

 

Strength and Flexibility

Building strength and increasing flexibility are two keys to increasing your performance in triathlon.   For many of us who spend a lot of time sitting during their workday, lack of flexibility can be the major root cause of injury.   The authors show that a relatively small amount of time spent in strength training and stretching can lead to better performance and fewer injuries.  Plus, these are another way to ‘mix it up’ and keep the training interesting and fresh.

 

Nutrition and Rest

If we all know how to run, most of us are even better at fueling (aka eating).  The challenge is to eat properly.  It becomes even more complicated when we are exercising, burning more calories, trying to build muscle, and recovering from the stress of training.

Triathlon training can be a great way to shed pounds and improve your health.   Eating the right foods in the right amount and at the right time is the focus of this chapter.  The authors are clear: “Although your daily caloric burn will certainly increase based on your training volume, you don’t have a license to hit the buffet for every meal”.

The chapter begins by showing us how to calculate two important numbers related to exercise – resting metabolic rate (RMR) and caloric burn rate.  The authors discuss how to eat (or ‘fuel’ as they define it) throughout the day. This includes eating before, during, and after workouts.  Sample menus for triathlon training days help to illustrate the principles of proper fueling.

The chapter concludes with a discussion about the importance of rest within a process known as periodization.  The authors even provide a simple test to help us determine when our body is telling us to take a day of rest.

If you do not get adequate rest, the muscles will fatigue and eventually fail, resulting in injury. (page 139)

Training plans

It’s now time to put the information from the previous chapters together and begin to train for your first triathlon.   Sample 8-week training plans are provided for bronze-, silver-, and gold-level athletes for both sprint and standard distance triathlons.    I appreciate that the authors show readers how to tailor the plans to meet their particular strengths and weaknesses and their individual schedules.

 

Preparing to race

I love this section.  Here, the authors take the new triathlete down the ‘home stretch’ to completing their first race.

Filled with practical advice, the authors walk us through the two weeks leading up to the race.  With greater detail for race day, you can feel the thrill that begins upon waking and includes crossing the finish line and heading to the refreshment area for a cold drink and banana.

 

Why get this book?

Train To Tri is pragmatic and focused.  It includes essential information for each of the sports of triathlon.  The authors season the information with the nuances of practicing them within a triathlon.

You can trust the USAT-certified coaches with this ‘no-nonsense’ guide.

 

You may also be interested in these posts

 

Disclaimer: Please note that SeniorTriathletes.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program.  This is an affiliate advertising program that provide a way for sites to earn advertising fees.  They do this by advertising and linking to amazon.com. Amazon, the Amazon logo, AmazonSupply, and the AmazonSupply logo are trademarks of Amazon.com, Inc. or its affiliates.  As an affiliate, I will receive a small commission for any purchases of this product that you make through Amazon.

 

This post was originally published on January 21, 2018.  It was updated on September 20, 2019.

5 Common Mistakes in the Pool Swim of a Triathlon

5 Common Mistakes in the Pool Swim of a Triathlon
Mizzou Aquatic Center at University of Missouri, Columbia MO, venue for the swim leg of the TriZou Triathlon.

Want to prevent fellow triathletes from becoming annoyed with you during a race? Avoid these mistakes commonly made during a pool swim.

From my experience with sprint triathlon, here are the top five mistakes, in no particular order, that occur doing a pool swim:

  • Reporting too aggressive or conservative pace/time

This mistake most often occurs during registration when you are asked to provide an estimate of the time that it will take to complete the swim.   You definitely do not want to be swimming with triathletes who are significantly faster or slower than you.

If you are worried about the registration filling before you can time your swim, give your best estimate.  Then, after later measuring the time, contact the race organizer to make any correction.

In many cases, you will also have opportunity on race day to make any correction.  You will likely be asked to line up with those of similar pace (if the start is one at a time) or to join a group with those of similar speed (if swimmers start in a group, typically of five or six) .

Just don’t make the mistake on race day.

 

  • Starting too fast

With adrenaline rushing and the crowd roaring (even a small crowd can be deafening in an indoor pool), it is tempting to start swimming too fast too soon causing your heart rate to spike or breathing to become difficult.  The next thing you know, you are swimming much slower than planned or even stopping to catch your breath.  Better to start out at what you consider to be a bit slower that you think you should until you are in a rhythm.  Once your breathing is at a normal race pace and you are ‘warmed up, give it your all.

 

  • Not drafting, if it is possible

Drafting is considered by many to be one of the keys to conserving energy during the swim while at the same time turning in a respectable (for you) time.  The problem with drafting is that it can be difficult to practice unless you swim with a group.

To take advantage of drafting, swim with your hands just behind the feet of the person in front of you.  (Avoid touching their feet which sends the message that you want to pass them.)

 

  • Not staying in your space

This is especially important when swimming in the same lane as one or more athletes and remaining in the same lane during the entire swim.  Stay on your side (usually the right side) of the lane.  You do not want to be the cause of a head-on crash.

Even if the swim involves a single length of each of several lanes in a Z-pattern, stay to the right as a matter of courtesy to faster swimmers.  You will appreciate this if you are the faster swimmer.

pool swim

Staying within your space during a pool swim will allow faster racers to pass.

  • Not allowing faster swimmers to pass when they let you know that they want to

Another courtesy to fellow racers is to allow faster swimmers to pass.  Let them pass as soon as possible once they have signaled that they want to do so.  Typically, faster swimmers will tap one of the feet of the swimmer that they wish to pass.  If you can, move to the right side of the lane to allow them to pass.  In races in which the entire length of swim involves multiple laps within a given lane, it is typical for the racer who is being passed to pause at the end of a length.  Allow the faster swimmer or swimmers to pass you, and then resume your swim.

 

What is your experience?

Have you identified other mistakes or have experience with those I have listed? Leave your comments below.

 

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