In 2020, I trained as an Advanced Oxygen Advantage Instructor so I have more knowledge about efficient breathing on land and how this translates to physical exercise. I work with a lot of swimmers and triathletes and breathing is usually something I have to work on with everyone.
Breathing is an automatic process that we do not have to think about. True, but many people in modern society have developed poor/dysfunctional breathing patterns which we can live with but affect our performance in our daily lives. Poor breathing can affect our physical and mental health, our focus, concentration, energy levels and definitely sports performance.
Breathing is multi-faceted and when looking at someone's breathing we have to consider three aspects:
- respiratory biochemistry (volume of air we breathe in and out)
- respiratory biomechanics (how we are breathing - which muscles/body parts should be working)
- breathing cadence (how fast or slow we are breathing)
How we breathe on a daily basis at rest or during light physical movement determines how we breathe during physical exercise. If we have some level of dysfunctional breathing on land and at rest, then we cannot expect to breathe optimally when running, swimming, cycling, etc. We are likely to experience more fatigue, breathlessness, less endurance, poorer sleep, less energy, focus and concentration.
We are very good at training our muscles to become strong for sport, but are usually unaware that we also need to train our breathing muscle - the diaphragm. Athletes often "gas out" due to a weak diaphragm before their arms or legs give way. Many people breathe using the upper chest rather than their diaphragm which results in less oxygen uptake and delivery to the working muscles. As well as our main breathing muscle, the diaphragm is also one of our major spinal stabilisers and research has found a link between lower back pain and poor diaphragm use. We need to keep our spine in alignment to be able to breathe efficiently, as well as move efficiently.
In swimming, an added challenge is that we do not have access to air all the time and this puts us in "survival" mode and tends to create certain movement patterns which can disrupt the flow of our swimming. For example, lifting the head too high out of the water when taking a breath to ensure we get air, or taking a big gulp of air to make sure we have enough oxygen to survive until the next breath, etc.
Breathing recovery is also an important aspect that is usually overlooked in sport. If you look at swimmers resting at the end of the swim lane between swim sets, you will generally see them all hyperventilating through the mouth, chest rising and falling, then set off again on their next swim set. We can learn simple breathing techniques to help our body recover quicker and send more oxygen around the body, during and after a swim session. This applies to other sports too.
If you are planning a challenging swim session or before an event, there are also simple breathing exercises you can do before getting into the water to prepare your body and mind.
I integrate this breathing knowledge into my swim coaching, but also offer separate breath coaching sessions to my clients if my Initial Assessment highlights some level of dysfunctional breathing. See my breath coaching website for more details: