Open Water Breathing

author : Team BT
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Open Water Training: Tips to Improve Your Breathing Technique

From recreational fun-seekers to seasoned, competitive triathletes, open waters attract all kinds of swimmers and many will wisely train in an indoor pool to build their confidence and competence before taking the plunge into the great outdoors.

However, those training swims often focus on improving a particular stroke or building endurance and while that’s important, it’s not possible without first developing the right breathing technique.

The Importance of Improving your Breathing

As a form of aerobic exercise, the muscular energy needed to swim requires glucose, the body’s fuel stores obtained through diet, getting oxidised efficiently by oxygen obtained by inhalation. This process creates carbon dioxide, a waste product that is safely removed from the body via exhalation. Excess CO2 is the main cause of feeling breathless. It can place undue stress on the heart, increase blood pressure, speed up fatigue and in worst cases, trigger an overwhelming, poorly timed urge to inhale or cause fainting which can pose life-threatening risks to your health.

Getting a breathing pattern right is particularly important for open water swims because they pose greater physical and mental challenges than swimming in indoor pools; cold water temperatures, currents, weather conditions and difficulties sighting can all increase the risk of fatigue and injury.

According to the swim specialists at Zoggs, each swimmer is different and needs to develop a breathing pattern suited to their fitness levels and preferences, but there are some simple ways to train that can help everyone improve their breathing technique:

Breathing Out

Exhaling properly is crucial for overall performance and safety in open water. It will:

  • remove excess air from the lungs to reduce buoyancy, making it easier to adopt a streamlined body position

  • help you to relax and get full range of motion from joints and muscles

  • prepare your cardiovascular system for the fresh intake of oxygen

  • Most importantly, expel carbon dioxide. 

Whether completing breaststroke, front crawl or butterfly, take care to exhale through the nose or mouth in a steady stream any time that your face is entering or under the water. This way you can completely empty the lungs of air, expel CO2, prepare your body for a fresh supply of oxygen and avoid swallowing or inhaling any water.

Breathing In

Inhaling without drawing water into the body takes practice so when training, swim at a slower pace to give yourself time to focus on developing the right head position, timing and technique.

Front crawl requires you to rotate the head to the left or right to lift your nose and mouth above the surface just enough to inhale without breathing in water. By mastering the correct head position, you will find that you won’t end up breathing in a wave as often as you will create a little pocket of calm water where your mouth is making the transition smoother. Some swimmers find it easier to do this on one side more than the other, but while it’s not essential, learning to breathe bilaterally (on both sides) can help you maintain a stable body position. It is also particularly beneficial in open water as if the sunlight is blinding you on your strong side, you may be forced to switch to breathing on the other side so it’s important to have the ability to do both.

The intensity of your swim combined with your fitness levels and choice of stroke will dictate how often you inhale, but keeping training schedules and your approach varied may make it easier to adapt to and overcome changeable open water conditions.

If you’re new to swimming, practice breathing first to find a comfortable head position and rhythm and then add the strokes in later. Holding on to the side of the pool or using a kickboard, keep your face in the water, exhale, and then take a breath every 2-5 seconds. When you’re ready to add strokes in, this approach will make it easier to maintain a good body position and stable arm and leg movements.

To train while swimming, try different breath patterns over the same distances and monitor your comfort and performance.

Swim 200m freestyle or breaststroke inhaling every 2nd stroke. Take a 30 second rest then swim another 200m inhaling on every 3rd stroke and repeat, increasing to an inhale on every 5th stroke. Doing this will help you practice bilateral breathing and finding the pattern that’s right for you.

By focusing on your breathing and synchronising it with your movements, you will soon develop an overall swim rhythm that feels natural so that you can become a stronger, safer, open water swimmer.

You can find out more about overcoming the challenges of open water swimming in the Zoggs ‘Life in the Fun Lane’ blog.


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date: May 30, 2016

Team BT