Practice: Breathing

I am posting this practice with my workshop students in mind. The terminology will make most sense to those who’ve taken TI lessons or a workshop before where we’ve introduced you to both the unique breathing Focal Points and the understanding for how to use them. But you are still welcome to give it a shot if you haven’t.

If you find this practice suitable to your needs, I would really appreciate you sending a report to me on your experience with it. This practice is meant to be completely customized to each swimmer’s skill level and needs. Feel free to try it, and modify it as you go. I also recommend that you use it a few times in order to measure your progress and test your increasing sensitivity to small but important details. It is my personal pattern to create a practice plan, test and refine on the first go, then run through the practice a few times (often with other practices spaced between) in order to get some strong data sets for comparison.


Coach Mat sneaky breath

Purpose: Imprint the head position, timing, and air intake of the rhythmic breath, and do it on both sides.

For more, read my post Breathe Easy.

Focal Points (FP)

  • A – Split The Face (or goggles)
  • B – Turn Early (as early as possible with the Catch)
  • C – Clear The Hatches (clear nose and mouth at last second before they touch the air)
  • D – Quick Sip Of Air
  • E – Laser Lead (keep that shish-kabob in the water, pointed down the lane)
  • F – Slow Bubbles from nose (during the stroke)

The practice below will use FPs A, B, and C for the sake of an example. Pick the ones you want to work with. I recommend that you pick just three of them. But as you get into the practice, if you feel you need to switch one of them, go for it.


10 minutes gentle swimming (as gentle as you can go, until you feel your body eagerly pulled into more), using the rotated ‘interrupted breathing’ position when you need a breathe. Distance is not your objective – you goal is relaxation and bringing all systems of body and mind into the water and into the tasks you are about to do. Read more on why and how about Tune-Ups.

Focus on:

  • long body line
  • rotating smoothing on the shish-kabob with complete control over stability and rotation
  • keeping the head submerged, but for the smallest face to breathe

Pause your stroke while rotating to breath and don’t resume until you have returned completely to perfect Skate Position.

Task 1 – Drill with Breath on One Side

Approximately 10 minutes. Distance is not important in this task, stability and ease is.

Drill = Superman Glide to Skate. Rotate to Breathe with the hand that goes to ‘the pocket’, and glide in perfect Skate Position to check your alignment. Stop, stand (or rest in Interrupted Breathing position), and repeat.

Do this set 3x, first with FP A, then with FP B, and then with FP C:

  • 3x Drill with FP A, breathe to right.
  • 3x Drill with FP A, breathe to left.

Again, and do the set 3x, first with FP A, then B, then C:

  • 3x Drill + 3-5 whole strokes, breathe to right.
  • 3x Drill + 3-5 whole strokes, breathe to left.

Task 2 – Whole Stroke with Breath on One Side

600 meters. Whole stroke, full length repeats.

Pick the wall to the right. One every length, you will only breath towards that wall. This will cause you to alternate between sides on each length.

Do this set 3x, first with FP A, then with FP B, and then with FP C:

  • Drill then continue 25 m (finish the pool length).
  • Drill then 50 m.
  • Drill then 75 m.

Do the set 1 more time, but now combine two of the FPs. For instance, you will hold focus on FP BC for the set.

Task 3 – Whole Stroke with Bi-Lateral Breathing

900 meters. Whole stroke, full length repeats.

Do this set 3x, first with FP A, then with FP B, and then with FP C:

  • 2x 50 m, with breathing every 3 strokes.
  • 2x 50 m, with breathing at 3, then 4, then 3, then 4.
  • 2x 50 m, with breathing at 2, then 3, then 2, then 3.

Complexity Magnifiers for the Tasks

If you need to increase the complexity level of this practice here are some primary ways you can do it. If you are not sure, try the practice above as it is written. Then you can come back later to pick one of these, try it, and then compare your results.

  • Combine Focal Points – AB, AC, BC, or even ABC
  • Count strokes and hold yourself to a certain SPL N.
  • Count strokes and change SPL per length on command, SPL N, N-1, N+1, etc.
  • Use a Tempo Trainer at a comfortable tempo, pick a breathing pattern and hold both.
  • Use a Tempo Trainer – pick a breathing pattern, pick a tempo well within comfort zone and work your way gradually toward one extreme end (fast or slow), to find the threshold of your skill. Change the tempo by no more than .02 beats per length.
  • Increase the distance of each repeat (instead of 25, 50, 75 you can do 50, 75, 100 for instance).
  • Increase the number of repeats (instead of 3x you can do 5x).

Use several magnifiers only if you can feel your body eagerly wants to be challenged more. You’ll know better if you’ve already tested yourself on lower complexity levels. If you are not sure, go ahead and try and you will quickly find out if you need to start on a lower level of complexity or not.

But everyone, by taking small incremental steps up in complexity will expand their skill level – you too! Give each incremental step in complexity some time and you’ll be amazed at how your brain adapts to accomplish the task with more ease (which means your heart rate will go down, as well as your demand for oxygen) then beg you for more. You’ll discover that your brain needs adapting more than the muscles need conditioning. A wonderful feature of the human body is that muscles will get the necessary conditioning by natural effect if you design the tasks to challenge your skills. Everything will get easier if you train the brain with mindful practice.


Ok. Try this and send me a report (even if you read this post months later).


7 responses to “Practice: Breathing

  1. Hi mat,

    Great advice as usual. Interested in what you actually do to clear nose and mouth of air. I try this, but still feel uncomfortable. Today, 1k, steady, controlled head spine position ( your previous post), breathing every 3, but did not feel comfortable ! Any advice on breath management ?



    • I can only speculate and offer my process of how I would go about examining your breathing struggle.

      A 3-stroke breathing pattern should be sufficient for just about any swimmer unless you are in an all out sprint or taking excessively slow tempo strokes (slower than 1.5 seconds – which would place 4.5 second between breaths, a long span of time). I consider 3-stroke breathing pattern (at tempos below 1.5) the standard, and should be comfortable for any swimmer from walk to cruising swim speed. If not, something significant is wrong.

      Three stages of breath development:
      1) Head Position
      2) Timing of the Breath
      3) Air Management

      Assuming you’ve worked on head position and timing of the breath already here are considerations for the breath itself:

      1) Lower overall oxygen demand by reducing imbalance, waste, tension, struggle, etc. (that is a MASSIVE category, or course)
      2) Breathe frequently enough to provide an abundance of air (in case you need to skip breathes occasionally)
      3) Prepare for each intake breath by consistent slow, light exhale from nose, underwater, between breaths.
      4) Set up the intake moment with a ‘blow-the-hatches’ exhale through the mouth and nose at the last micro-second before mouth touches the air. This is not meant to completely clear the lungs but to completely clear the airways of water.
      5) Use that moment of mouth-touching-air ONLY for intake. Airways should be clear ready for intake.
      6) Take just a sip of air. It should not need to be a long, deep breath. Make small, frequent, partial exchanges of air on each breath.
      7) Get the head back to down-looking position quickly. You should not see the recovery arm coming forward with your own eyes.

      If head position and timing are not dialed in well enough, then you should go back to work on those more. If the head position is not good, each breath will disrupt balance, and even in the best swimmers, it will take 2+ strokes to re-establish balance. Common swimmers take 3 or more strokes to correct balance (if at all). If a swimmer with poor head position is taking a breath every 3 strokes then he is in a perpetual state of imbalance, and thus working against gravity and provoking excessive oxygen demand.

      If you have to take long, deep breaths on each one then something is wrong.

      If you’ve been swimming for months or years then there should be a sufficient cardiovascular base. Being short of breath indicates there is excessive waste, not a lack of fitness.

      Check whether you are holding your breath for excessive amount of time on flip-turns – when done well, they are already taxing on oxygen – in a fast turn and long sleek breakout is a long time to hold breath (about 4.5 seconds). When not done well they can quickly put a swimmer into premature oxygen debt. I recommend learning to do a quick, skillful open-turn at the wall, especially for those who train for ow swimming – done well it is nearly as fast as a flip turn, and provides that quick breath at the wall more in line with the rhythm of breathing during the stroke section. OW swimmers are not training for flip-turning and are not training to go into oxygen debt every 18 strokes. In the pool we train for the skill and conditions we intend to swim ow with.

      Maybe something in these analysis thoughts above will help you point to possible problem spots…

  2. In the “tune up” section you refer to “rotated ‘interrupted breathing’ position. Did you mean “integrated breathing”?

    • Hello Gene,

      Are you familiar with the difference between ‘interrupted’ and ‘integrated’ breathing as we teach it in TI?

      Interrupted breathing position is where we are just about to finish a stroke in Skate position but pause the arm before recovery, and simultaneously continue the rotation until we come to the ‘Sweet Spot’ backstroke streamline position. We let the head rotate with the torso on the spine (like a shishkabob!). This allows a swimmer to maintain balance and streamline, yet rest and breathe as long as they like. I will teach this to those who need a transitional stage between non-breather (or extreme struggle in the breath) and integrated breathing.

      I re-read the article myself just to check if you caught a mistake. But yes, in this Tune-Up section I did mean interrupted breathing so that the swimmer can just focus on tuning up balance and a comfortable head-spine alignment before getting to the actual integrated breathing work. But this practice of rotating on the spine to Sweet Spot is excellent exercise for the same level of muscle control that will be needed in integrated breathing.

      I teach interrupted breathing for new swimmers, for children and for those with disabilities, and those who intend to race in open-water- just about everyone! It is a perfect self-rescue or self-calming breathing position – allowing long rest time with the most minimal amount of energy required – because it keeps the head underwater except for just the small part needed for breathing. A swimmer doesn’t have to work against gravity while breathing in this balanced position and can resume swimming quickly because they’ve kept streamline as well.

      Does it make sense to you how or why I applied it in the Tune-Up?

  3. Got it. I am self taught TI, and do not recall running across interrupted swimming. Am I correct to flutter kick while in sweet spot to maintain momentum?
    Appreciate your reply. Really enjoy your blogs–You are much more inclined to give the how and why of the information you are sharing than other coaches.

    • Welcome to the Self-Taught club! You can join the likes of me and Shinji then, as self-taught TI swimmers.

      Yes, you may flutter kick lightly while in Sweet Spot. Though, depending on your objectives and need to keep moving, keep the flutter kick as gentle as possible, and in a vertical pattern. The goal is to practice core rotation control and strong kicking can either distract from that purpose, or prop up the hips too much. If the kick is sideways it acts more as a prop for the rotation, making the legs hold it rather than the core muscles. Remove the kick and you will quickly discover how much or how little core control you have. Test yourself periodically by turning off the kick and just gliding a few seconds to see that you can hold the position comfortably.

      I love to examine every detail and I am a incurable “why?” person. And by attempting to explain things to you I improve my own understanding of it – a win-win. As a Self-Coaches swimmer-turned-coach it is also my focus to mentor other Self-Coaching swimmers. Thank you for the encouragement!

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