Ask the experts: Swimming Tips Former competitive swimmer Susan Mellish offers advice on breathing. Email This Story Print This Story Published on Tuesday, Mar 27, 2007 at 11:14 AM. What's the most effective way to breathe when swimming freestyle? Is there any benefit to breathing on both sides? Relaxation is key to proper breathing technique in freestyle. Tensing up and holding your breath while your face is in the water makes breathing more difficult. This forces you to both inhale and exhale when turned to get air -- an inefficient and exhausting way to breathe. Instead, remember that freestyle is a "long-axis" stroke -- it involves rolling the body along the spine as the hips are rotated from side to side. Breathing should be a part of this body rotation, not an independent twisting movement of your head. As your body rolls sideways, bringing your face out of the water, turn your head just enough that one goggle lens remains submerged and inhale through your mouth. When you turn back into the water, slowly exhale through the nose and/or mouth, blowing bubbles. Focus on exhaling air into the water more than inhaling, kind of like reverse breathing. Inhaling will occur naturally as a result of emptying air from your lungs. Practice this reverse breathing out of the water by making a conscious effort to forcibly exhale, while permitting your body to inhale on its own. You'll quickly learn how deeply you need to breathe to swim efficiently; you'll probably find yourself taking deeper, quick breaths while taking harder and more shallow, slow breaths while warming up or cooling down. Being able to breathe on both sides makes shoulder injuries less likely since you won't repeatedly "torque" the same shoulder each time you take a breath. Breathing on both sides also develops your back and shoulder muscles more equally, and in open-water races, gives you a better view of where you are and where your competition is. Practice breathing on both sides by taking a breath every three strokes. Breathing on your weaker side will feel odd at first but become more comfortable with practice. I've been swimming regularly as cross-training for my running. But I know only freestyle. Should I learn other strokes? If so, what strokes do you suggest, and what's the benefit of each? Swimming is an excellent non-impact sport that provides a full-body workout, but there's more to it than freestyle. Incorporating other strokes in your training will not only improve your conditioning, but it will also better strengthen your muscles. Switching strokes during workouts will balance the strength of opposing major muscle groups because different strokes use different muscles. Not to mention, swimming the same way session after session can get boring. Mixing it up adds variety to your workout, which may help keep you motivated. Start by learning the backstroke -- the most similar to freestyle and another "long-axis" body-rolling stroke. Freestyle uses your triceps and latissimus dorsi (or "lats," the large upper-back muscles), with the kick used for balance and forward progression. Backstroke uses the same muscles, but the movement is reversed. The muscles contracting in freestyle are lengthening in the backstroke, and vice versa. The backstroke is also great as active recovery after a hard freestyle set. An easy swim while floating on your back gives you a "rest" while still moving, and with your face out of the water, breathing is easier. The breaststroke and butterfly, "short-axis" strokes, use a variety of muscles and help develop flexibility and coordination. The breast and fly primarily engage the abs and lower back muscles and require simultaneous arm and leg movements. I suggest you learn breaststroke for several reasons. The breaststroke kick works both the inner and outer thigh muscles, and the pull is a great shoulder and upper body workout. One of the main benefits of breaststroke is that you breathe when your head lifts up during the pull, enabling you to see straight ahead. Doing a few cycles of breaststroke during an open-water swim can help you get a handle on your surroundings. If you're looking for even more of a challenge in coordination and bodywork, learn the butterfly stroke. Above all, perform the strokes correctly. Bad technique will hinder your training and negate the benefits of adding a new stroke to your swimming routine. Seek out an instructor or coach for guidance. As a triathlete, I've mainly worked on building speed in cycling and running. Now I'd like to focus on becoming a faster swimmer. What's the best way to do this? You have to swim correctly before you can swim fast. The first thing you need to do is master proper technique. Just as hunching over your bike's handlebars to get in good aerodynamic position reduces wind resistance, swimming with proper form allows you to cut through the water, minimizing resistance, or "drag." Using proper technique also makes you a more efficient swimmer -- you expend less energy fighting the water and save more for the bike and run. Since you race freestyle as a triathlete, practice freestyle and kicking drills that focus on perfecting body position and stroke technique. Swim speed is primarily the result of stroke frequency and length. However, taking numerous strokes doesn't necessarily equate to speed. It just wastes energy. The fastest swimmer is the one who travels the most distance with each stroke, also known as "distance per stroke" (DPS). Count the number of strokes it takes you to go the length of the pool, and then work on reducing that number. Try to "catch" the water as you take a stroke and imagine pulling your body past your hand. While kicking fast can also increase speed, as a triathlete you'll do better saving your legs for the bike and run. Instead, use a two beat kick (one kick per stroke). Here's a sample speed workout for a sprint-distance triathlon, which usually has a 750- to 800- meter swim portion: Warm-up 100 yards/meters freestyle, 20 seconds rest 100 kick, 20 seconds rest 4 x 50 easy drills Main set 4 x 100 freestyle, concentrate on maintaining DPS or taking fewer strokes. Use these combinations during your set: A. 25 fast/75 easy B. 50 fast/50 easy C. 75 fast/25 easy D. 100 all-out Sprint set To maximize your sprint effort, don't push off the wall at the start of each 25. 8 x 25 freestyle sprints on 1-minute (or 45 seconds depending on your speed) intervals Cool-down Easy 200, alternate between backstroke and breaststroke There are also many great resources for increasing your swim speed. I like the Swimming Faster Series with David Marsh, Auburn University's head coach. Here drills are taught in progression, one building on the other, and shown in detail. Visit myswimworld.com to find training DVDs. Some great books are Swimming Made Easy and Triathlon Swimming Made Easy by Terry Laughlin, of Total Immersion Swimming fame (totalimmersion.net). A former competitive swimmer, Susan Mellish of Lisbon, Ohio, has a master's degree in education and is an American Swim Coaches Association Level 2 coach. Her Sports is the only magazine for women who regard sports as a way of life. To subscribe to the e-newsletter, the magazine or to learn more, visit www.hersports.com.
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