Diaphragmatic Breathing Exercises for Improved Swimming Performance

Breathing Exercises Lead to Better Swimming

Portrait of a young man swimming in a swimming pool
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What is the most effective breathing exercise technique for swimmers? Coach Shev Gul takes a look at diaphragmatic breathing exercises for swimmers and how to achieve it while swimming. Using these breathing exercises in swim practice could help a swimmer perform better in training and racing and help improve recovery from training and swim meet competitions.

Why do some members of the coaching and the medical community take breathing for granted? Here we will review the differences between ineffective, shallow chest breathing and natural, diaphragmatic breathing, and how we have lost this nature-given breathing ability. To achieve it, we must work on re-learning and re-educate ourselves, our coaches, and our athletes on how to breathe properly, correctly, and more efficiently. This can be accomplished through a natural diaphragmatic breathing or deep breathing exercise techniques which enable athletes to perform better training, have better races, and helps improve recovery during training and races.

Diaphragmatic Breathing Technique Exercises - DBT

In sports performance, there is a strong link between the following four areas of the human mind-body system:

  • Effective Breathing-Technique
  • Physiology
  • Internal State
  • High Performance

Proper or correct breathing technique is central to the ancient practices of Yoga, QiGong, Ayurveda, and other meditation disciplines. Diaphragmatic deep breathing awareness and practice is an important part of training for martial artists, musicians, vocalists, public speakers, dancers, and athletes!

All our bodily actions - talking, singing, playing wind instruments - and the outward application of force or power with our arms or legs, like hitting, kicking, pulling, stretching, pushing, lifting, and throwing should be done during the exhalation phase of our breathing process (a martial arts fundamental for maximum work-power creation and application).

In swimming, no matter what stroke, the main work phase should be done during the exhalation phase of our breathing process. This must be executed properly, correctly, and fully during each stroke cycle to maximize the effectiveness of that stroke cycle. Breathing (both exhaling and inhaling) correctly is critical in maintaining the appropriate level of oxygen for energy, keeping the correct pH levels in our body, and maintaining the correct carbon dioxide level for bodily functions.

Why Coaches Continue to Take Breathing for Granted

Because we take breathing for granted, the information on the benefits of a diaphragmatic breathing technique (DBT) is not widespread in today`s medical community. Illness and pathology, not wellness (better mind-body performance of an individual or a sports person) are not the priority of many health-care practitioners. In addition, things that are free (like breathing) can`t be patented, so they do not attract funding for research, so little information on these subjects finds its way into popular medical and sports science research journals. That`s why it has escaped the sports research scientific community`s close attention. Many coaches pay little or no attention to this free bodily function-subject too, as I have personally discovered during my consultations with numerous top Olympic coaches at various sports conventions.

Shallow Chest Breathing

Unfortunately, we continue living our lives and raising our athletes on a poor diet of shallow chest breathing habits. The good news is that poor and ineffective breathing habits can be reversed.

Among infants, correct breathing comes naturally. Observe a baby as it breathes to see its belly rise and fall with each breath. As we grow older we are taught to suck in that gut and puff out that chest as we try to look slimmer! Such resistance to the natural breathing posture restricts oxygen intake, which can lead to numerous physical as well as emotional problems.

Shallow chest breathing invites problems by delivering less air per breath into the lungs. Less air per breath leads to a higher number of breaths, putting in motion a series of physiological changes that constrict blood vessels. An imbalance between the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the lungs delivers less oxygen to the brain, the heart and the rest of the body.

Shallow chest breathing promotes early fatigue in athletes, effects their rhythm and their timing, and as their stroke technique falls apart, inevitably their speed. 

Coach Shev Gul takes a look at diaphragmatic breathing exercises for swimmers and how to achieve them while swimming. Using this breathing method in swim practice could help a swimmer perform better in training and racing and help improve recovery from training and swim meet competitions.

An effective breathing technique has a dramatic effect on an athlete's physiology, his/her internal state (relaxation) and ultimately on his/her performance. By using the Diaphragmatic Breathing Technique, an athlete learns how to control the inhalation and the exhalation process of the breathing action. Correct breathing leads to:

  • more energy for the body
  • more energy for the working muscles
  • better metabolic action at the cellular level

By using the Diaphragmatic Breathing Technique, our brain (the human body`s biggest oxygen guzzler), is supplied and nourished with oxygen. A brain with plenty of oxygen can operate and control the physiological functions of the body more efficiently. This can result in the formation of a positive internal state, a relaxed state which, in turn, can enable a superior performance to be achieved.

Progressive Diaphragmatic Breathing Technique Practices - Dry Land

With the help of a trained breathing coach, one has to re-learn again how to use and control the diaphragm movement correctly. The key to a DB technique is:

  1. On Inhalation: Quick and large volume of the air be taken in. The amount of air being inhaled is always a function of the amount of air being exhaled.
  2. On Exhalation: A prolonged and evenly discharge of the air is maintained throughout the cycle of the motion being executed. A puffing action at the end of the exhalation phase will enable the athlete to completely empty his/her air tank (the lungs).

The DB technique must be learned and developed on land first, while the breathing process is a naturally occurring, automatic, and reflex action. Note that during exercise and sports performance, one does not and should not ever think about their breathing action or that performance might be compromised. Let's look at some DBT practice ideas.

Using this breathing method in swim practice could help a swimmer perform better in training and racing and help improve recovery from training and swim meet competitions. Here are some progressive land DBT development practice ideas:

  • Walking Practices - Learning the DB technique first through walking action is the best way to familiarize the mind and body system with the timing and the rhythm aspect of the Diaphragmatic Breathing Technique-process.
  • Unilateral practices - Breathing in on every second step-stride. Left Hand Side (LHS) and Right Hand Side (RHS) practices. Just before the back foot is about to be lifted off the ground, a quick and large amount of air is taken in via the mouth. As the same foot moves forward and is about to touch the ground, A long, continuous and even exhalation action via the mouth, with a puff at the end, is executed. Repeat 10 x 6 step-stride cycle.
  • Breathing in on every fourth step-stride. LHS and RHS practice - Bilateral practices. As above, but breathing in on every 3rd, and 5th step-stride.
  • Treadmill - Gym Practices - The next phase of progressive dry land practices can be effectively achieved on a treadmill in the gym. Starting on 3-4 km/hr treadmill speed, and then progressing on to 5, 6, 7 and up to 8 km/hr speeds, the DB technique is practiced and consolidated further.
  • Using Arms (for swimming) - Dry Land Practices - Now, we are moving the practices to the arms (swimming specific). Simulating or choreographing arm action corresponding to all four strokes used in swimming, one can further consolidate the learning of Diaphragmatic Breathing Technique.

These progressive pool practice steps can be used by coaches to teach DBT to swimmers:

  • Holding on the rail - one arm - The swimmer`s body on its side, extended arm/hand on the rail, face down, the upper arm resting on top hip, legs kicking to maintain flotation. Swimmer performs DB technique sequence as taught by the coach, trained in the correct breathing method (DBT). Repeat: 6 times on LHS and RHS each.
  • Push and Glide - Swimmer pushes and glides from the wall, in Body Long Vessel (BLV) position. DB control action is practiced with one arm action, over a distance of 10 yards. Repeat: 6 times practicing on RHS and LHS each.
  • Super Slow Swimming - The next phase of DBT drills are performed while swimming in super slow mode (SSS) until swimmer becomes fully competent with the technique.
  • Normal and High Pace Swimming - Finally, the swimmer starts incorporating his newly learned DB technique skills in fast swimming modes, until it becomes a reflex action.

Add DBT to your swimming or coaching toolbox and you will see the difference in training and in performance. Remember, "relaxation at high speeds is the most important factor in winning the workouts, races and Olympic gold medals" (JW, GT - Popov). For full details on progressive practices for the remaining three strokes, contact Coach Shev.

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