Swimming: Help Please

Obviously the Achilles heel of my triathlon training is going to be swimming. Sunday was sucktastic in that I could barely do 50m. On my back I’m great because I can breath but the front crawl is killing me.

The feedback from my instructors is I have great form (yay!) but I seem to have a mental block with the breathing. About a lap in I start to feel like I’m not getting enough air and start to panic at which point I stop so I can catch my breath.

Right now I’m taking breaths at every third stroke but am wondering if switching it up to every second stroke might help?

Any advice y’all can give would be greatly appreciated.


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About Sharon

Sharon DeVellis is a mother, wife and writer who can uncork a wine bottle in less than 10 seconds but buys twist-offs for emergencies. She’s currently in therapy to stop talking about herself in third person.
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33 Responses to Swimming: Help Please

  1. Sandy G says:

    Sharon from my years of swimming in the st lawrence river and the moisie river when the water gets to choppy I swam under for a little bit.. it is never choppy under water. Try it a little bit also see how long you can hold your breath because with a lot of people swimming there will be a lot of chop, Also if it is a windy day there will be chop. You might want to build up to be able to swim 1/2 a length or more under water in the pool. See if anyone can teach you the dolphin swim that they use to start in the olympics. That is supposed to be a very quick swim once you learn it and you can gain ground with it.

  2. Hey Sharon,
    One thing that you may want to think about is how you are taking air in and out. When you take a breath, do you hold it and then when your head is out of the water again, breath out and then in again? It’s really hard if I can’t see you to know, but if you think that’s what you are doing, that could be one of the major problems. Letting the breath out AND getting the next one in during the short time your head is turned out of the water is hard to do and I could totally see it becoming an issue after a lap or two. What you can practice is the slow release of air out of your nose as you are swimming, so that when you DO lift your head, the breath is already out of your lungs and all you are doing is inhaling. This will also aid you in the following:
    - not taking in water in your nose, especially when doing turns
    - not panicking as much because you didn’t have enough time to do both things while your head was up
    - not having as many issues when there is a splash or out on open water because you have more time to let that clear and THEN take your breath
    - much better regulation of the breathing (it better simulates regular breathing – in, and gradual out)
    - you won’t get as tired as quickly
    I also agree that until you can go a good distance breathing every second stroke, I would not go for the three. If your ear starts getting plugged or you want to switch sides you can do that at any time, but I would focus on how you can swim to stay regulated and not get so out of breath that you have to pull up completely.

    Another note – how is your kicking? Do you stop kicking when you take a breath? How far are you raising your head out of the water? The flatter you are in the water, and the more you kick through the breathing, the less effort it is to take that break to breathe…
    Anyways. Really curious to hear about whatever you decide and your progress. Please keep me posted, ok?

    • Sharon says:

      Hi Pamela,

      Thank you so much for taking the time to help me! I am breathing all of my air out in the water. I’ve tried it different ways – through the mouth, through mouth and nose, through nose only (this feels best). I’ve been tilting my head up and towards my shoulder but not lifting it out of the water.

      I think my kicking is good. The feedback I get from my instructors is that my form is good and they think the breathing is a mental block thing. I’m definitely going to try the breathing every second stroke which seems to be the general consensus from the feedback I’ve received.

      I’ll most definitely let you know what happens. I’m excited to try!

  3. MIchelle Knoll says:

    Not sure if this will work in reverse…. I am a good swimmer but not a good runner. So I had no problem breathing every third stroke for crawl but couldn’t breath properly when I ran. So when I ran in high school I pretended I was swimming and breathed every three strides. So since you are a good runner maybe you could do the breathing like that when you run so it transfers over to swimming? I like breathing every 3 because then you don’t get more tired on one side but it does take getting used to to breath both sides as one side comes more naturally.
    I agree with Annie- I was also guard & instructor. It takes getting used to and we normally start people on one side. You can also practice breathing just by holding on to side of pool and practice going under and breathing & getting into a rhythm. Breathing out under water between breaths also helps. If you need help I don’t mind heading down to the pool with you.

  4. Keith says:

    Ok, blogger on the work browser ate my first try at a comment. Now, what did I say? Something about diaphramic breathing. Many people breath from the top of their chest, and as the effort goes up, they start to gasp and pant. This shallow breathing is not effective.

    If you stand in front of a mirror, try breathing deeply and see if your whole ribcage moves. Once you’ve got the hang of that, try it in the pool. Breath out as you turn your head, so the last bit of air leaves your lungs just as your lips clear the surface. Now pause, glide, and take the time for a full deep breath. That will help keep you relaxed, and make sure you have lots of air. As you get better at it, your stroke will adjust. Breath to one side for a while if you need to, but make sure it isn’t always to the same side.

  5. Paul says:

    Try the Finis swim snorkel,its about $30 and you can forget about your breathing while you practice your stroke and build up your stamina.

    You can then bring in breathing as needed because you will have confidence in your technique and fitness.

    Try the Swimsmooth website for real professional help as well.

  6. Kaari Cox says:

    Sorry, can’t help you…I panic when I try to exhale when my face is in the water. So if I had any recommendation, it would be the dog paddle. Color me extremely impressed!

    • Sharon says:

      Be impressed when I can actually swim more than a lap and a half – LOL! On a good (great) note, I think all of this additional exercise is really improving my endurance on the ice. Maybe some day I will join you in a long track meet : )

  7. I signed myself up for private swimming lessons and am working on the same breathing technique drills as my 8 year old. The instructor has me staying on one side and kicking, just putting my face in and turning to breathe for a few laps to ensure my breathing form is good. I’m currently breathing every time my right arm comes out because I’m swimming so slow – form over speed. The instructor also has me doing slow-motion bobs – under and let air out in a sigh and then up to breathe and repeat. (These are killer hard for me!) I think it’s worth investing the time/money in learning to breathe properly and – eventually – I can get faster.

    • Annie @ PhD in Parenting says:


      I also had students practice breathing with a flutter board. Just kick while holding the board and focus on your breathing. Add the arms later.

  8. Anita Woo says:

    Hey there,
    Funny, my biggest worry for the triathlon is the bike – for swimming (though I haven’t done much in many years…) I sort of feel okay. That feeling may change when I start my swimming training, which I am already behind on. But I digress…

    I would say breathe as often as you need to until you feel comfortable. You will always have a dominant side that you feel more natural breathing on. Even after 10 years of competitive swimming, I find that when I get tired I revert back to breathing on my right side only. Go with that. You can go back to breathing every 3 strokes once you have the panic-y feeling of not getting enough air conquered. That may be your way to go during the real swim in open water too – keep in mind that swimming in a pool is very different from swimming in open water with lots of people around. I think it’s more important to get your comfort level there first, because quite frankly I can’t imagine that it will matter one way or the other whether you’re breathing every 2 or 3 strokes the day of the race. The main thing on race day is to stay calm, focus on your breathing and to not let your nerves take over. (Hmmm, I will have to remember that – easy to say, hard to do!)

    Keep on swimming, keep on swimming, keep on swimming…

  9. Louise says:

    Sharon……since my only goal with the triathlon was to finish the thing, I was more than happy to flip on my back and do a back stroke in the lake. It’s my strongest stroke because I’m not in a panic about swallowing water or forgetting to breath. I would flip over and do the front crawl every few minutes to make sure I wasn’t headed out further (in the wrong direction). But there are several volunteers in kayaks keeping a close eye on you. I know this doesn’t help with your technique, but I hope it helps with the anxiety. xo

    • Sharon says:

      I would love to do the whole thing on my back : )
      Where did you do your open water swims when you were training?

      • Louise says:

        I practised at Kelso and at any other lake we visited over the summer leading up to the race. My race was the last weekend in August. I always swam along the buoy line so I could grab onto it if I needed two. I rented the wet suit for 3 weeks so I could get used to swimming in it.

  10. Katie says:

    Yes! Switch to breathing every second stroke for now and build from there. I think you’re being trained to breathe every third stroke because in open water swimming, it’s pretty important to be able to see on both sides. You don’t need this know (assume you’re training in a pool), so breathe when you need to in order to keep swimming. Building your distance is more important now. Once you get stronger and more confident, you can stretch out your breathing.

  11. Former lifeguard and swimming instructor here. :)

    When you say you breathe every third stroke, are you counting each arm as one stroke (meaning you are breathing on the right sometimes and on the left other times)? Or are you counting two arms as one stroke, meaning you breathe on the same side all the time?

    I do think in terms of learning to breathe and swim it is better to (a) always breathe on the same side and (b) breathe more frequently than you need (rather than less frequently).

    So I would suggest starting with always breathing as you raise your right arm (or left if that is easier for you). Once you get better and faster, you could try switching it up to only breathing every second time you raise your right arm.

    • Sharon says:

      Hi Annie!
      Yes, every arm as a stroke so I’m breathing on opposite sides each time.
      So if I breathe every time I raise my right arm, would that be considered two strokes or one?

      • Annie @ PhD in Parenting says:

        I’d call it every second stroke. But yes — breathe every time you raise your right arm until you get the hang of it.

  12. Niki says:

    I seem to recall back in my swimming lesson days that we started out breathing on every stroke (quick breath w just ear out of the water in the direction it seemed most natural) and then we worked our way up to every 2nd or 3rd stroke. Developing the breathing pattern first seemed to help. Not a professional, of course, but I can swim a little still :) Good luck – I’m sure you’ll get the hang if it soon!

  13. Tricia Mumby says:

    Well, seeing as how this never happens to me from the couch.. I have no advice. Other than: You’ll figure it out! My god – you’re a speed skater! You can do anything!!!

    • Jenn says:

      It very well could. I breathe every other stroke because of my asthma – even though I could probably do every 3rd. I find that it’s easier to always breathe on the same side. When I taught swimming lessons, that’s how I taught the kids to breathe too. There’s certainly nothing to lose by trying it. Something else to try if you’re at a pool for a free swim (not a lane swim because people tend to get pissy if you do anything but swim) is stand and put your face in the water, and just work on the breathing without thinking about the strokes. That’s how we teach kids to be comfortable with their breathing in the water before the added challenges of staying afloat and moving arms / legs. It shouldn’t take you long to get comfortable with it.

      Good luck!

      • Sharon says:

        Jenn, that’s a really good idea about just practicing with my face in the water – thank you!

        • Jenn says:

          No problem Sharon. If you haven’t been swimming regularly, it’s not. A natural feeling to stick your face in water! Once you’re more comfortable with it, it will become more automatic and you’ll panic less!

    • Sharon says:

      Well, except speed skate – ha!

  14. When I was a teenager I swam for the local aquatic club. They taught us to breathe every second stroke. It worked great for me, and I still swim that way today. No panic at all for lack of breath.

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