In 2003, I watched one of my athletes struggle with finishing her races as she prepared for the Sydney Olympic Games. Regardless of how much effort she put in or how hard she trained, she was consistently getting beat during the final lap of her races.

While at the Short Course World Championships, I watched her race from an underwater camera. Based on what I saw, my perspective on the importance of breathing completely changed. The harder she tried and the more tired she became, the more she clenched her teeth and held her breath while pushing herself to unbelievable levels.

I realized that when we exert ourselves and try hard to do well, our natural tendency is to hold our breath and go for it. For example, think about the first thing you do before you lift something heavy… you take a deep breath and hold it.

When I spoke with her about what I saw, she began to tear up as she replayed the story of how she almost drowned in a backyard pool when she was a toddler. Her natural tendency to hold her breath and try harder was heightened by the fact that when she was stressed in water, she regressed to holding her breath for survival.

Throughout the next month, we focused on relaxing in water and simply breathing. The results were amazing; her performance was better, she swam the final lap of her races faster, and her overall swimming experience became more relaxed and enjoyable.

What does deep, relaxed breathing do for us in our daily life and before races? It allows us to relax, focus better, think more clearly, and increase oxygen in the blood.

Simply breathe with intent, breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth. While swimming, breath in through the mouth and out through both the nose and the mouth.

Sounds simple, right? However, don’t let the simplicity devalue the concept. Here are steps to take to get your breathing back on track:

  1. While you are lying in bed, slow your breathing down… in through the nose and out through the mouth.
  1. Once you get better at doing this in the quiet of your own home, try slowing your breathing down while doing a basic activity, such as driving.
  1. Take a few minutes to focus on breathing before attempting a more stressful activity.
  1. Repeat these steps again and again. Within a matter of minutes, you should feel anxiety decrease, relaxation increase, and performance improve.

Better breathing is necessary for a higher-quality life and for faster, higher-quality swimming. Air is the fuel of your swimming car… breathe deep and race on.

See you around the pool!

Yours in swimming,

Mike Walker