Breathe Easy

There are several details to making the breath (in freestyle stroke) feel relaxed and easy.

Among the several here is one that, coincidentally, several recent students have noted as making the biggest breakthrough:

Turn to breathe sooner.

Now, this assumes that you are already keeping your head down, and rotating on your laser spine (I label it the “Shishkabok” here in Turkey) because that is the only way this will work smoothly for you.  If your head is tilted up it disrupts the whole set up.

So presuming you are holding good head position, let your head rotate to air with the turn of the shoulders, as soon as you set the catch. The Catch, torso rotation, and turn to breath are one smooth, unified movement.

As I have heard so many coaches say, “You can’t breathe too early” (in the catch phase).

As a matter of fact, there is so much inertia in the whole equation that is wanting to push your breath later and later in the catch phase, and perhaps blow it all the way into the recovery phase. What you end up with is a classic-looking, but poorly timed breath while your recovery arm is swinging forward. Just because it is so common does not mean it is a trait that should be imitated. Test it and you will see for yourself.

swimmer breathing

Ideally, you should have taken a quick ‘sip’ of air, and have your head turning back, by the time your recovery arm starts its swing forward. A visual cue: your eyes should not be able to see your recovery arm coming forward.

In Google Images I typed in ‘swimmer breathing’. I was embarrassed for all the swimmers I saw on that first page with poor timing. The only two pics that came even close to showing good timing was this one with Terry, coincidentally…

terry breathing

You’ll notice how the head is nearly hidden in the water while taking his sip of air. Goggles are split by the water. There is a nice little trough where his mouth is because his head has stayed down.  If, in fact, his head is already turning back to its down-looking position, then this is about as late as you’d want to be doing it. 

And another positive example snapshot here:

Head is down. You can get the sense of his spine pointing straight down the lane (not up into the sky), and the spine is one straight line from head to tail. You can see that front arm holding position nicely in front. He’s (hopefully) finishing his sip of air and ready to turn back without seeing that arm swinging forward.

No doubt, this early breath takes some training and constant upkeep, because, like I said, there is a great deal of inertia (water resistance, imbalance, poor head position, exhaustion, old habits, rough water, etc) pulling you towards a late breath. Even swimmers with highly develop breathing skill need to keep this tuned up because everything is constantly working against it, especially under challenging race or water conditions. But that late breath creates a chain reaction of drag inducing adjustments in body position and loss of streamline that make you a bit more desperate for air. A negative spiral.

So, we can organize easy breathing in three learning steps:

1) head position

2) timing

3) breath management

When my students adjust the timing back to an early breath (after making sure the head is down, goggles split by the water, laser-spine-shishkabob thing pointing straight down the lane), they report a dramatic increase in how easy it is to get enough air. It’s not just that they have more time to take a breath, but that their bodies suddenly require less air – they were formerly burning up so much just from poor head (and therefore, body) position. They have perceived that it became easy because their entire swimming became easier – just from keeping the head in good positions and the sip of air well-timed.

Little things like this add up, and little things can make a huge difference – for ease or for exhaustion. You choose which by how you train. 

Breathe on!


8 responses to “Breathe Easy

  1. Great piece Mat, as usual !!!

    How does the timing here fall into your piece on the timing of the 2 b k ? In that blog you have a great diagram, explaining that the kick should be after the shoulder has fallen into the water. At this point, the left arm is in the catch position on the diagram, assuming that this stoke is a breath stroke, is this a bit late as the head is still in neutral ??? I hope i have explained this ok !!!



    • Great question! TI calls it ‘integrated breathing’ for a reason. When it all comes together – the spear, the catch, the 2Bk and the turn to breathe – it is a magic moment that everyone is amazed by: the ease, the acceleration. Yet for perhaps the vast majority of swimmers the breath is the moment the balance and thus, the stroke falls apart and exhaustion results.

      The rotation of the shoulders is also what carries the head with it for the breath. The idea is that there should be no strain in the neck, the head stays fixed on the spine ‘shishkabob’. The rotation of the shoulders does the work with just a slight reach further with the chin and mouth to get air. Another way to visualize it is to pretend there is a strong rubber band connecting your chin to your shoulder and the shoulder pulls the chin to air. Done well and it feels like your head is laying ‘downhill’ a bit because you need just the corner of the mouth to come to air, not the eyes. One goggle under water, one goggle above. Watch Shinji or my video from above water and you won’t even see our head above water when we turn to breathe – we take full advantage of the pocket of air that is formed conveniently at the mouth by perfect breathing position.

      A great way to work on the timing of this is to do ‘one-arm’ swimming. Tuck one arm snug to your side, hand ‘deep in the jeans pocket’ so-to-speak (to keep it out of the way as if the entire arm was surgically removed), and then stroke with the other arm as normal. On the first round you will breathe toward your stroking arm. You will notice that you must turn to take the breath at the beginning of the catch or else you won’t be able to keep your head flat at the surface. It reveals the perfect moment of highest acceleration where it is most timely to take that breath.

      For a whole jump to higher difficulty, now try breathing away from the stroking arm. You’ll be required to time the turn to breath at the moment the spearing arm is at Mailslot and starting to go down to its target – this is the precise moment of the rotation, and thus the precise moment you turn to breathe but it is your shoulders taking the head with them. The head does not turn independent of the shoulders until the very last moment as the corner of the mouth reaches to the air pocket.

      The one-arm stroking drill is a powerful way to reveal the connection between the spear and breath, and the connection between the catch and breath – and hence, the perfect timing between the catch and the spear which links all three. If you have your 2BK ready to go, then you will discover it must come into play at those precise moments as well.

      The inverse discovery is that without the other arm doing its ‘normal thing’ on the other side you are completely dependent on using rotational power to move through the stroke cycle and move you forward. To the degree that you struggle in this drill you find out how much you’ve been relying on the other arm to do something other than drive energy forward. This drill forces you to learn how to use balance for breathing, not the arms pushing you there. It is a simple and brilliant way to expose one’s actual balance, stroke and timing skill.

      Once you have studied each piece individually, then you start to work on linking two of them together (in neuroscience jargon it is called ‘chunking’) – there are several combinations of increasing complexity for the brain…

      A – spear forward
      B – catch moment
      C – 2BK
      D – breath

      So you begin by practicing just A, or just B, or C, or D.
      The next phase is practicing AB, AC, AD, BC BD, CD
      And the next phase is ABC, ABD, BCD
      And eventually ABCD comes together. When it falls apart you move back to one of the lower order combinations and work on it some more.

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  3. Mat
    Thanks for the great advice re: turning to breathe earlier. I am an adult on onset swimmer training the TI way and since commencing my journey 12 mths ago (could not swim 50 mtrs without losing breath) I got a coach and have been stuck on 100 meter sets. I put your breathing advice to work last weekend and swam 800mtrs non stop ! For this 54 year old – that was like accomplishing a marathon. I look forward to completing my 1st 1 km swim next week. Thanks Matt !
    Best wishes

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