Swimming is a unique sport in that you can’t breathe anytime you want. So, learning to train the breath as part of your overall dryland program can have very positive impacts on your core training specifically, as well as your overall swimming performance.
The breath acts as the foundation of everything we do. This is why if you don’t have your breathing functioning properly, every other part of your training suffers. This is because proper breathing patterns have many benefits to the body and parts of your dryland program.
These benefits range from reducing stress levels, lowering the heart rate, lowering blood pressure, improving digestion, managing chronic pain, and regulating the body’s reaction to stress and fatigue. Any athlete would benefit from these effects. And they can all be gained by simply ensuring your breathing is functioning properly.
In order to get the maximum benefit out of each breath, we recommend the implementation of belly breathing into your dryland program. A belly breath is defined as breathing down into the belly rather than up into the chest. With a good belly breath, we can activate the parasympathetic nervous system. This part of our brain tells the body to relax and manages physical stress.
If we are not using a quality belly breath and are constantly chest breathing, we are actually activating the sympathetic nervous system instead. The sympathetic nervous system is the part of the brain that controls the fight or flight response which increases physical stress. By increasing the awareness to our breath, we take advantage of the parasympathetic nervous system response it provides, and ultimately, we perform better both at rest and during activity.
Below are some simple drills to address the rhythm and mechanics of the way we breathe that will allow improved performance in your core training as well as swimming performance:
Breathing at Rest:
First, it’s important to practice breathing at rest. To start off, we want to inhale through our nose. Ask yourself if you can feel the belly expand and the rib cage pushes out like an umbrella as the air comes in. During the exhale, blow out through the nose and feel the belly draw in, like wringing out a rag. Make sure to get a full exhale to push all the air out of the lungs.
Some common faults of chest breathing versus belly breathing include puffing up the chest and never letting the air go all the way to the bottom of the diaphragm. Chest breathers also have a shorter breath, pumping more air in without fully exhaling all of the air out. It is also common to see the belly pushing out on the exhale, which is the exact opposite of what the belly would do if you were belly breathing.
When this concept is broken down, it is easy to see how quickly something like the diaphragm or the nervous system can get really confused when doing chest breathing, especially when almost everything is opposite of what it should be.
Therefore, we recommend intentionally practicing the belly breath before or after a dryland session while coaching the athletes through the proper steps.
Some simple coaching cues for the breath in a comfortable seated position could be:
- “Belly out on the inhale”
- “Draw ribs and belly down and in as you blow out through your nose”
- “Expand and the rib cage push out like an umbrella as the air comes in”
- “Blow out through the nose and feel the belly draw in, like wringing out a rag”
Practicing breathing at rest may seem redundant at first, but it makes a huge difference when trying to change a movement pattern that athletes do all day long and absentmindedly.
Breathing During Exercise:
When properly applying our breath to movement, the focus should remain on the exertion and relaxation phases of each exercise. Most exercises have a concentric component and an eccentric component. The concentric part of an exercise is when the prime mover, or main muscle being trained, is shortening. The eccentric phase of the exercises is when the same muscle is being lengthened. The concentric portion of the exercise is typically the exertion phase while the eccentric tends to be the relaxation phase.
Think of a push-up for example. When lowering down into the push-up, the chest is lengthening. This is the relaxation phase. Pushing back up would be the concentric or exertion phase.
The exertion phase of an exercise occurs when we want to exhale. On the other side, the relaxation phase is usually the best time to inhale.
Going back to our push-up example, we would breathe in as we descend into the bottom of the push-up, and breathe out as we push up away from the floor. An easy way to remember this is that the most challenging part of an exercise is usually the exertion or concentric phase. Many people can do the first part of the push-up by sinking to the ground, but it is a lot more strenuous to then push back up against gravity. Therefore, we need to breathe out as we exert the most force.
Another example would be the kettlebell swing. As we bring the kettlebell between our legs, we would breathe in. Then, as we exert force and shorten our muscles to drive the hips through, we would breathe out. Ideally, the athlete would want to remain breathing through the nose throughout the exercise, but as exercises get more taxing on the aerobic system, it is fine to breathe out of the mouth.
The focus here is to breathe through the belly and to use the breath to make the exertion portion of each rep stronger.
The muscles used in the exhale are actually part of the core and can add a little more stability to each exercise. This is yet another reason why you need to be breathing properly to get the most out of your core training. We recommend choosing an exercise the athlete is comfortable with and taking some time out of the session to practice a few reps with the proper breathing patterns in place. See if the athlete can find the exertion phase of an exercise first, then feel the difference when applying the breath.
By drilling down proper breathing mechanics to be second nature it will then allow great improvements when an athlete is doing core training specifically or any other type of training in or out of the water.
Progressing the Breath:
Once breathing mechanics have been implemented, we can take it to the next level. The goal here is to keep tension throughout the breath. This is really the pinnacle of being able to breathe and move well as an athlete.
In order to keep tension during each breath, think of creating abdominal pressure 360 degrees around the rib cage while performing a belly breath. To test this, place the hands around the ribs as you breathe. Feel the ribs and belly pushing back against the hands throughout the breath. Repeat for five breaths while sustaining this pressure.
To really feel a challenge, try talking while doing this drill. Once this drill has been mastered, take it to the next level by giving yourself some gentle gut punches to see if you can hold that tension and brace against your hand. If you can do this drill, you can control your breathing with tension. This test is great when applying tension to an isometric exercise such as a plank.
Think of the abdominal tension required to hold a plank. Now think of how many people hold their breath while doing a plank. We know that breath-holding does not help the body perform. Think of how much better we could execute movements that require a lot of tension if we could supply our body with fresh oxygen by performing relaxing, efficient breathes through them. We recommend trying the “gut punch” drill first, then having the athlete perform an isometric exercise such as a plank while applying that same tension to the breath.
Advanced: Gut Punch Breathing (self-test)
If an athlete can’t complete this test much of their core training is less effective than it could be because of the underlying deficiency of the poor breathing.
So, the summary of the three phases of breathing are as follows:
- Train the proper belly breath mechanics at rest.
- Make sure the athletes are inhaling through the relation phase of an exercise and exhaling through the exertion phase.
- Test the athlete and have them practice holding tension throughout each breath.
By following these three steps, we can build a better foundation for the athlete to improve any athletic characteristic, including core training or swimming performance.
We know that breathing underpins movement and movement dictates strength. Strength is going to dictate power and endurance.
Proper breathing also promotes a parasympathetic response from the nervous system and adds stability to the exertion phase of each rep. Once belly breathing becomes second nature to the athlete, they will see the results transfer over to a better breathing pattern in the pool.
Ultimately a better breath is going to build a better athlete and a better athlete will always be a faster swimmer.
And if you want more help with your dryland training…
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Courtesy of SwimSwam’s exclusive dryland training partner, SURGE Strength.
SURGE Strength, a strength training brand created by Chris Ritter, CEO of RITTER Sports Performance, aims to build better athletes and faster swimmers through dryland programs, and coaching education.