Can't Breathe When Swimming Breaststroke

I'm learning to swim late in life, having been virtually phobic about the idea for years; I'm having difficulty breathing in breaststroke. I've learnt to swim the strokes underwater, and now I have to come up to breathe, and I'm finding it hard. I can get the head-raise fine and open my mouth, but I can't breathe in without getting a lung full of water or not breathing in at all and just opening my mouth. Any advice would be welcome. Thanks so much for this.

Thanks for contacting me. Congratulations on overcoming your near phobia, taking the plunge and learning to swim.

The breaststroke breathing technique is enormously frustrating for an adult to learn because, in theory, it’s a simple action. Yet, physically, it’s tricky to get the hang of, especially for an adult.

Factors That Make It Hard To Breathe

Please take a few steps back for a moment so that we can put things into some perspective. Adults notoriously take a long time to learn how to swim, regardless of their past experiences, phobias and abilities. Several factors contribute to this, the most relevant being:

  • Ability (or inability) to relax
  • Flexibility (or lack of)
  • Relative density (how well you float or sink as the case may be)

Combine these with your perception of what you are supposed to do when you swim, and the result is a very awkward, almost robotic swimming stroke that goes nowhere fast. This usually occurs regardless of how well you think you’re doing.

Don’t get me wrong. What you have achieved so far is monumental. It’s getting over that final hurdle that is the most frustrating.

Please take the above factors and apply them to your breaststroke breathing technique.

For breaststroke breathing to occur smoothly and seamlessly, the stroke has to have the following:

  • A powerful whip kick to help give the body some lift
  • A slightly downward arm pull to assist the body lift
  • Exhalation takes place underwater to allow the inhalation to be instant and easy.

The Not-So Vicious Circle

If an adult swimmer is tense, unrelaxed or anxious, the leg and arm movements are usually incomplete and therefore lack the power to assist the body lift. A lack of flexibility will add to this, and any lack of flexibility in the neck joints will limit lifting the head to breathe.

If you know you don’t quite clear the water as you attempt to breathe, then human instinct kicks in, and you naturally hold your breath and any conscious attempt you make at inhaling results in a mouth full of water.

Despite the frustratingly long time it seems to take to get this right, it is possible to get there. Trust me on this. I’ve seen adults just like yourself go through the same experiences and eventually learn to swim breaststroke and get the hang of breathing to the point that it is like second nature.

How? Learn to swim slowly at first. Take a woggle, place it under your arms and swim breaststroke in slow motion. The extra support will help you clear the water to breathe, and swimming slowly will firstly allow you time to exhale completely in the water and, more importantly, help you to relax.

Relaxation leads to increased confidence, and increased confidence leads to increased relaxation. It's a not-so-vicious circle.

Slowly Is The Key

It's very easy when learning to swim to get caught up in swimming a certain distance. Before you push off the wall, you subconsciously have a goal of how far you need to get. 5m, 10m, whatever it is, forget it. The distance you cover is not important.

As you experiment with swimming slowly or in slow motion, you will soon be pleasantly surprised to find yourself covering some distance without trying. This is because you are learning to feel through the water and not fight through it. There is a difference, and it is this difference that can be hard as well as time-consuming to find, but when you do, it is like that riding a bike moment.

My popular book How To Swim Breaststroke contains some easy-to-understand exercises that simplify Breaststroke and make it completely achievable for anyone. Check it out below. 

The Simple Breaststroke Book

How To Swim Breaststroke with ease and confidence.
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