Getting Enough Breath?

Q: I have read your articles on Metrics-Tempo, Pace, etc with a lot of interest. What I was wondering, if you increase your DPS [distance per stroke], that means your SPL [strokes per length of pool] goes down. If SPL goes down, doesn’t that mean you will take less breaths in a minute? Won’t less oxygen impair the ability to swim longer distances?

I am probably missing something here, but would like your views


Here is my response:

Yes, longer DPS means a longer stroke, which means you take fewer strokes to get to the other wall, which means a lower SPL.
DPS = Stroke Length (SL)
SPL = # of Strokes Per Length of pool, or ‘Stroke Count’

1406 enough breath

If there were no other dimensions to breathing but just breathing in/out, then yes, longer strokes = longer span of time between breaths = more stress on the cardio-vascular system and less O2 for the muscles.

But breathing involves at least these three variables you have control over:
1) heart rate (an objective way to measure oxygen demand)
2) frequency of breathing (the breathing pattern)
3) quantity and quality of air exchange during the stroke cycle

When seeking to improve your DPS/SL the goal is not to make as long of a stroke as possible, but to reach an optimal stroke length.

Optimal Stroke Length = a small range of DPS/SL that is statistically shown to be our most efficient (in terms of using the least amount of energy, oxygen). This is approximately between 55% and 70% of your wingspan/height. Optimal SL doesn’t complete the speed efficiency equation but it sets up the first, and most important part.

#1 We first use technique improvement to lower O2 demand, primarily through removing struggle against gravity and remove excess drag from poor body shape and poor movement patterns. Reducing wasted effort – lowering energy waste – lowers the Heart Rate. Lower HR = Lower oxygen demand. And a lower demand for oxygen means the swimmer has more options for when breathe.

#2 Once a range of appropriate Stroke Length is developed the swimmer can adjust Tempo and adjust breathing pattern to maintain comfortably-frequent air exchange. A swimmer, especially in open-water, needs to be ready at any time to skip a breath if something prevents one and not feel much stress or desperation about it.

#3 And we work on actual breathing technique (exhale and inhale patterns) to improve exchange, trigger parasympathetic nervous system to lower HR, and thereby lower stress on the brain and body. How we exhale, where we exhale, how much we exhale and inhale- all that has an effect, and we can learn to control it and adjust it.

Let’s take a moderate Tempo of 1.25 and look at how different breathing patterns affect breaths/minute:

  • Pattern (Breaths / Minute)
  • 2-stroke (24)
  • 3-stroke (16)
  • 4-stroke (12)
  • 5-stroke (9)
  • 2-stroke + 3-stroke (19.2)
  • 2-stroke + 4-stroke (16)

Which one should you choose? You need to make that decision by what your body says it needs.

But for some reference point on what to aim for: I feel that a good indicator of achieving a basic level of swimming efficiency is to be able to swim comfortably with a 3-stroke breathing pattern in your  SPL Green Zone, and in the middle of your Tempo Comfort Zone. Coach Terry also uses a 3-stroke pattern as an ‘aerobic governor’ – if he can maintain a 3-stroke breathing pattern at a racing effort level that is his sign that he is holding in the aerobic zone. If that starts to feel inadequate he knows he is pushing into anaerobic zone. I agree with that guideline and use it myself. I breathe at such a pattern that allows me to skip a breath from time to time when I get smacked by a wave or something. I would switch to 2-stroke only in an anaerobic sprint and know I have limited time at that effort level.

Does that make sense or raise more questions?


To answer the shortest question:

How do I get enough breath while swimming?

  1. Lower heart rate by lowering your struggle against natural forces outside and tension inside the body.
  2. Increase the frequency of breathing, while decreasing that struggle.
  3. Improve your method of inhale and exhale.


The first product of technique training is to lower the demand for energy/oxygen. Speed is not the first product (it is the third one). The first obstacle is the struggle against gravity. When we quit struggling against gravity (achieving balance and lateral stability), we have removed the largest area of energy waste for human swimmers. The next obstacle is the struggle against excess water resistance (drag). When we minimize drag (by improving body shape and movement patterns) we have removed our second biggest area of energy waste.

Then there is the task of choosing the optimal SPL x Tempo combination to create the desired Pace.

Math - PACE comparison

All four of these combinations produce the same Pace. But which one should you choose to use? That depends on factors I’ve explained in the Metrics 101 and Metrics 102 blog series.

A swimmer using either or both an inappropriate SPL (too long or too short) or Tempo (too fast or too slow) for their body dimensions and event will experience an excess and uncomfortable desperation for more air.

This is what our TI training is for – to learn how to control and adjust both SPL and Tempo, which in turn affects Pace and HR. Switching gears – as on a race car or bicycle – to choose the best balance between fuel consumption and speed.


4 responses to “Getting Enough Breath?

  1. At last, a simple explanation why I have been getting breathless after 1 length. I have been swimming super slow in an effort to achieve a lower spl. That came at a huge cost. Granted my breathing needs improvement (too much head lift at times), but after trying a faster stroke rate, I was able to go longer distances with just an increase of spl that stayed within my range (based on height/wingspan).

    Thanks for such an informative post.


  2. Yet another outstanding entry MaviMat. I appreciate your command and insight into what makes swimming a movement art, a path for self discovery and a communion with nature. The explanation of how your breath fits into the overall swim equation was very informative.

    The other day I was holding pace with my partner, but with much less energy expense. I was holding on to the 3 stroke, alternate breath, breathing pattern for most of it. It felt great even though I was challenged cold water temperatures.

    The day before while swimming an open water event with Cibbows, I encountered completely different circumstances. On this day, the water was very choppy with a strong headwind. In this case, I was not able to hold the 3 stroke breathing pattern. First of all one side was into the wind. First big gulp of water made me breath to the other side. Second, you really had to fight the chop. I tried to just keep my head low in the water and torpedo through the waves. But still, I felt an increased energy demand. With my breath a little strained, and the unbalancing of being knocked around by the waves, it was hard to maintain my swimming pool form.

    In hindsight, I was experiencing a new level of swimming – a greater challenge. I also found great admiration for those swimmers who swam through this chop with more ease. This 2.5 K (2 Bridges Swim) up in Poughkeepsie, NY and your articles has inspired me to keep developing as a swimmer.


  3. Hello Mat,
    seems to me your’s and Terry’s “aerobic governor” is for more advanded swimmers (than I). In drills (up to 200m) 3 breath pattern is possible, but it’s always driving into a beginning anaerobic feeling the more to the end. Swimming with 3bp in aerobic state needs slowing down extremely (around 24:30min for 1000m – 20-22min with 2bp as my “normal” time).

    So, do you know other “aerobic governors” for a little pace tweak in swims longer than 20min? (My tweaks for now are passing another swimmer who is slightly slower after that, slow down for recovery to his pace and then again a little more up into the old aerobic felt 2bp. But it’s only possible with 2bp.) Or how to bring the 3bp into a relaxed recovery stroke with comparable pace to 2bk steady stroke?

    Best regards,

    • Every human is a little different – or quite different! There are many factors that can affect respiration ease. So, I don’t mean to make it sound too generalized.

      What tempo are you swimming at? That can affect things – if the Tempo is ‘slow’ that means there could be too much time between breaths even if the effort level is low. If we could get some objective measurement of your heart rate while swimming at various Perceived Effort Levels, then we could actually pinpoint what is your true aerobic effort zone and the tempo and pace at which you are in that zone. There is a conversion factor for laying horizontal in the pressure of water immersion compared to standing upright under gravity – the heart rate in swimming at the same effort level will be lower than while running, for example. Same work load quantitatively (theoretically) but the swimming position and condition changes the heart rate and therefore the respiration rate. This is something I need to research a bit more for curiosity sake.

      If you aren’t comfortable with straight 3bp, you can also make a compromise: Breathe 2bp on LEFT, then 3 strokes, then 2bp on RIGHT, then 3 strokes, then 2bp on LEFT, etc. That way you still work on bi-lateral breathing, and get a mix of 2bp and 3bp.

      Also, check that you are exhaling with small bubbles from the nose continuously on easy effort levels, and a bit more bubbles from nose and mouth on moderately high effort levels. If we hold our breath it creates several negative effects inside the body which makes the heart rate higher and cause us to feel more desperate for air.

Please add a constructive comment.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s