Triathlon Training: Find Your Breath in the Water

Don’t let swimming be a stumbling block for signing up for your first triathlon.

“If I could swim I would totally try a triathlon!”

Is this you? Do you feel like you are doomed to the world of cycling and running because of the whole swimming thing? You are not alone. Sadly, swimming is an all too common stumbling block for a lot of potential triathletes. It doesn’t have to be.

Swimming is the least natural discipline of the bunch, and the most technical, but it is also a very learnable skill. Developing your swim fluency quickly is about knowing how and where to spend your energy early on so you can get to the part of swimming that really matters: feeling comfortable and enjoying it.

Strong swimming starts with a strong foundation. [Photo credit: Pixabay]

Before You Jump In

That leaves you with the golden question, where do you spend that energy once you decide to jump in and learn?

As with many things training and life, the best place to start is by defining what success looks like to you, especially in the early stages. Two main goals should emerge early on if you are being realistic in your approach:

  1. To feel comfortable and confident in a controlled setting, like an indoor pool. You should feel like you can swim easily all day long.
  2. To take that comfort and translate it into open water skills so you can do a triathlon.

Comfort is of paramount concern in the early stages. Unfortunately, a lot of folks go wrong right from the gate, especially if they are trying to teach themselves. It is easy to get caught up in the technical aspects of swimming like your hand entry or the catch and the pull when you really need to begin with something far more simple: breathing.

Moving through water is the least natural activity in triathlon because of one big difference: you can’t breathe whenever you want. It’s a total pain in the butt. When you come from another sport where you haven’t given much of any thought to how you breathe, being forced to go back and start with mastering something so simple feels akin to learning to crawl.

If you can’t breathe effectively and are constantly swallowing water, you will end up frustrated and may even want to quit. If you can breathe well, however, you are well on the road to becoming comfortable and allowing yourself to master increasingly technical aspects of swimming.

Breathing Drills

Breathing well starts in the mind. It’s a natural assumption to think that breathing in the water is all about the inhalation, because obviously you have to take in air to survive. In reality, the biggest mistake beginner and intermediate swimmers make is actually with the exhalation. It may seem backwards, but that’s where your mind needs to be from the very beginning.

When you don’t exhale correctly, you end up holding your breath, which makes two things happen:

  1. You tense up. When you exhale you release that tension. Imagine you’re having a stressful day and someone tells you to take a deep breath. It’s not when you take the breath in that you feel better, it’s when you let it go. Holding your breath tenses you up and that is bad for your swimming technique.
  2. You get that “need to breathe” feeling. The sensation you are feeling is not the lack of oxygen, but actually the build up of CO2. When you hold your breath you keep the CO2 in your blood stream and lungs, which makes you feel desperate for air.

These become two huge stumbling blocks to feeling comfortable and becoming a stronger swimmer. Exhaling is worth mastering. On the path to mastery folks tend to make a lot of the same mistakes. Knowing what they are in advance will save some time. Not everyone holds his or her breath in the same way. It can trip you up in several ways, but usually takes one of three forms:

  • Mistake: Holding your breath the whole time your face is under the water.
  • Fix: Always blow bubbles.
  • Mistake: Closing your mouth and holding it for a second right after you take a breath and return to the water.
  • Fix: Your mouth needs to remain open the whole time, and you actually need to start exhaling just before your face returns to the water. This keeps water out of your mouth and lungs.
  • Mistake: Not exhaling past the water, or holding breath for a split second before inhaling.
  • Fix: Blow out just past the point where your mouth hits the air, then relax and let the air come into your lungs. Again blowing bubbles just past the water helps keep it out of your mouth.

Practice is key to avoiding these common mistakes. To build a really solid exhalation habit, try implementing these two drills the next time you’re at the pool.

Sink Drill

Either go to the shallower end of the pool or stay near the wall. Let go of the wall and let yourself sink. As soon as your mouth hits the water start exhaling slowly. As you exhale, you will sink further. Do this until you feel the beginnings of needing a breath then return to the surface. Repeat as needed until you feel very comfortable spending time under water and are familiar with the sensation and timing of needing to breathe.

Breathing and Kicking Into the Wall

Once you have mastered using your breath to sink you can start making it resemble swimming. Start with both hands on the wall, stomach facing the bottom and legs extended out behind you. You can start with your face out of the water. Start kicking (from the hip) into the wall with pointed toes then put your face into the water and blow bubbles. When you need a breath, turn your head to one side and take a breath before returning to the face down position. Take as much time as needed for a good breath. Make sure to practice breathing to both sides.

You’ve Mastered the Breathing, Now What?

Once you nail your breathing, it’s time to think about balance. Almost everyone deals with sinking legs and feeling rushed to get in a good breath – both symptoms of poor balance. The good news is that if you can correct your body position you will be able to float and not feel rushed to take a breath. This is a huge win for feeling comfortable and in control when you swim.

The best visualization when working on balance is that of a seesaw. When you put more weight on one side than the other, the opposite side rises. It’s much like that in the water. If you have strong, lean, heavy legs you are already at a bit of a disadvantage because they want to sink. To make them float along the surface you need to lean on your torso almost as if you were putting more weight on that side of the seesaw. Often you will hear this described as “swimming downhill” because that is very much how it feels, especially as you are learning. It may even feel downright wrong the first few times.

In contrast, if you make the common mistake of lifting your head too far out of the water as you breathe (instead of rotating to breathe and staying horizontal), you load the legs causing them to sink and you wind up rushing your breath. Balance matters. The more horizontal you can be the easier swimming becomes.

Developing the feel for balance and swimming downhill boils down to patience and doing the drill work required to teach your subconscious to find certain body positions automatically, freeing up your conscious mind to focus elsewhere.

Use the following drills in your next swim session to work on balance.

Kick Body Position Drill

Push off the wall, face down and arms at your side. Kick (with or without fins) from the hip and experiment with how much you lean onto your chest. You will feel your legs and feet rise or fall based on how you position your torso. Find your sweet spot that gets them just below the surface. When you need to breathe, either take a quick breaststroke or rotate to the side (harder) and grab a breath.

Kick on Side Drill

Kick on your side rotated to 90 degrees. Bottom arm is extended out in front of you and the top arm rests comfortably at your side. Draw your shoulder blades together and back, keeping hand in line with shoulder with fingers below your wrist and wrists below your elbow.

6-1-6 Drill

A continuation of the side kicking drills: 6 kicks on the side, stroke and rotate, breathe and 6 kicks on the other side. Repeat until done with that part of your set.

6-3-6 Drill

Much like the previous drill, kick 6 times on one side but take three strokes instead of one in between sides, breathe, and then kick six times on the other side.

Get Comfortable

Feeling comfortable in the water leads to feeling confident and confidence breeds a willingness to practice. Work on breathing and body position drills 2-3 times a week for the next 2-3 weeks and you will feel more comfortable and confident about swimming and maybe you will consider trying out your first triathlon.

Now that you know how to breath, it’s time to fix your freestyle:

Avoid These 4 Mistakes for Better Freestyle Swimming

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