According to Statista, there are approximately 4.7 million regular swimmers in England. That’s 9.4 million lungs, with a capacity to hold a total of around 28 million litres (or about 14 million large soda bottles) of air, entering the pool on a weekly basis!
Did you know that swimmers generally have a higher lungs capacity than land-based athletes? A research paper in Science Direct found that swimmers’ lungs have higher values of vital capacity, forced vital capacity, and forced expiratory volume. You might think that this is due to a genetic predisposition, but this is only partly correct. A swimmer’s high lungs capacity is also partly attributable to the special way in which swimming trains the lungs through specific breathing patterns, specific training positions and the specific surrounding medium. In fact, swimming is often regarded as the sport with the most profound and beneficial effect on your lungs.
Every swimmer knows the importance of breathing, both for improving your strokes and for keeping you afloat in dangerous situations. Swimming is an intensely cardiovascular sport and breathing is the engine which drives our movement through the water. But if you have weaker lungs, or if you struggle with getting into a rhythm while swimming, you’ll know that breathing isn’t something you can improve overnight. It is something which takes discipline to build up.
So, how exactly can we develop our breathing skills? Here is a practical guide on how to breathe and boost your lung capacity, both in and out of the pool.
Yogis and Zen masters have known the power of mindful breathing for centuries. Regular breathing exercises will not only help you achieve soundness and stillness of mind (before a swim competition for example), but they will train your lungs and help you feel less exhausted and oxygen-deprived in the pool.
Try the following breathing techniques once a day:
- Pursed lip breathing – Inhale air through the nose to push out abdominal muscles and exhale through pursed lips, taking twice the time of inhalation. You can try this exercise both underwater and outside the pool.
- Deep breathing – Take a deep breath and count to 20, and then exhale slowly. Enhance this exercise by a few seconds and you can eventually hold it for a long count of seconds.
- Hold your breath – According to your ability and under supervision, try to hold your breath underwater. NB: Lactic acid is generated in your body when you hold your breath, so a little burning sensation is normal for you to experience.
These exercises need patience and practice to get good at. Don’t rush them. Remember, you should exhale slowly to reduce the speed of oxygen depletion. Otherwise, you may be caught gasping for air frequently. Don’t push yourself it too hard or you may get fatigued or develop a serious condition. Give yourself breaks if you feel light-headed or experience a highly uncomfortable burning sensation.
Think for a moment about how you breathe while swimming front crawl. Do you fully exhale before turning your head to take a breath? Do you feel like you take in enough air? It’s worth asking a swim coach to help you analyse your breathing while swimming as they may spot something you are doing wrong which you may have missed!
Here are some other in-pool exercises to try, which will help you improve your breathing:
- Light kicking movements. Physical exertion in the water depletes your body of oxygen and energy, but especially if you are flapping your limbs around excessively! Your thigh muscles are the largest in your body and thus demand the most oxygen. Try kicking lighter than usual to help you save oxygen.
- No-breath and limited-breath lengths. Challenge yourself by doing a length of front crawl without breathing (remember to kick lightly!). If that is too tricky, see how far you can go and extend the stretch or holding your breath over time. Time and count the breaths that you take in different strokes per length. First, try breathing every 3 strokes per length. Then breathe every 5 strokes. Then every 7 strokes etc.
- Breathe in and breathe out. At the end of every set, when you stop to breathe before going for your next length, stay there and do the following: breathe in through the mouth and out through the nose 5-6 times in a row, this can massively improve lung capacity!
Looking after your lungs
As well as breathing and swimming techniques, be sure to take care of your lungs by taking the following steps:
- Stop smoking! Smoking (and second-hand smoke) damages your airways and the alveoli in your lungs.
- Improve the air quality in your home by removing dust, mould and artificial fragrances. If you want, you can get an air filter or purifier.
- Eat antioxidant-rich foods. These include (among many others): berries, nuts, grapes, coffee, green tea, dark chocolate, spinach, artichokes, red cabbage and beans!
Furthermore, if you are particularly susceptible to lung infections, be sure to get flu or pneumonia vaccinations to promote your lung health (especially in the winter periods).
Thanks for reading, we hope you found some useful tips here, let us know your top breathing tips in the comments below!