Freestyle Rotary Breathing Advice

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QUESTION:
This year, I decided to learn to swim with the goal of completing a 2.5-mile open-water swim leg of an adventure race. I am currently swimming 250 yards at a time, but my breathing is still an issue. I took lessons and learned to rotary breathe, but it feels as if I can’t get enough air and I also get water in my mouth when I try. Any suggestions?
ANSWER:
Swim Caps off to you! Learning to swim is an amazing accomplishment!
I love the images of babies “swimming” underwater…eyes wide, smiling beatifically. These aqua tots’ primitive reflexes and lack of over thinking the task enable them to hold their breath underwater while their legs and arms instinctively slice the surrounding brew. Though a baby’s propulsion system will not yet support their mass over distance, these babies are achieving one of the most central tasks of swimming….being relaxed in the water.
Like most new swimmers, chances are that you are not yet swimming in this blissful-baby state. Tension in the mind and body contribute greatly to swimming-related breathing issues. The more mentally apprehensive you are about getting enough air, the more your muscles tense, the more your form suffers, and the more your body sinks. The harder a muscle works, the more oxygen it requires. The more your form is compromised, the less chance you have logistically of accessing the air you need. The more you sink, the more fear builds…which completes and restarts this downward spiral.
The good news is that most of these breathing breaks may be remedied merely by time spent swimming. Every time you increase your comfort level in the water, you will improve your form, let go of unnecessary muscle tension, and – stroke by stroke – build confidence in your swimming competence. With the onset of the belief that your next breath while swimming will not be your last, you will glide closer to your buoyant baby self.
That said, there are drills to practice while you swim your way to Esther Williams grace. Swimming freestyle is taught with a body roll, or pronounced side-to-side rotation of the shoulders, torso, and hips together as one unit. This rocking motion brings one shoulder and the top of the torso above the plane of the water while plunging the other below and vice versa as you swim. Many problems with air intake while attempting rotary breathing stem from not rotating the body far enough from side to side. Reduced rotation means that your mouth will not clear the water well enough on a breathing stroke to allow for adequate air intake…and often will lead to water intake. Some swimmers will also not roll as well to one side as they do to the other, complicating breathing on one side of the stroke.
Both of these problems can be addressed with a kicking drill. You will not stroke with your arms in this drill. Roll your body (shoulder, torso, hips, and head) to one side and kick six times, then roll to the other side and kick six times, continue alternating sides. For this drill, the head should lock into and follow the rotation of the shoulders, torso and hips to be above water while the legs kick…with the majority – if not all – of your mouth above the water line. This allows you to practice taking in air while moving through the water. During each rotation, the head should roll with the body back down into the water and then up to the other side. This is a good time to practice exhalation into the water. Once you have mastered six kicks, move to three, then resume your freestyle stroke with rotary breathing. This method of buying time to breathe while you learn, will build the skills and self-reliance you need to breathe more easily when you are ready to force the pace.
Other tips Include: Close the lips together on the side of the mouth that is closest to the water on every breath stroke. Think about releasing
unnecessary tension from your mind and body as you swim. As you relax, you will become more buoyant, graceful, and less oxygen-deprived. Stay in the slow lane, there will be time to gain speed once you have mastered rotary breathing. Watch great swimmers swim. Start clicking through YouTube. Watching someone swim well can encourage their stellar swimming form to creep into yours. Often I find that focusing on a long exhalation underwater between inhalations is one of the most calming ways to spend time between breaths while swimming freestyle. Cultivate comfort by floating. Float on your back and propel yourself synchronized swimming style by waving your hands. This will increase your buoyancy and reinforce how little effort is needed to propel a buoyant, streamlined object through water. Make a realistic, long-range plan to increase your swimming milage in time for your race and be sure to practice in open water before race day.
Finally, though there are work-arounds such as snorkels and backstroke, I would really discourage jumping to those options unless you have a serious asthma or COPD issue. Snorkels and stroke variants will slow you down and – though they may help you feel more comfortable in the water more quickly – working around rather than through your breathing issues may increase your aversion to learning. Best of luck on your race…crush it!

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