Breathing: how swimming has helped my asthma

I have been asthmatic for as long as I can remember, and I’m convinced that it has been swimming which has prevented me from suffering any really nasty health scares with the condition. In fact, I only actually fully admitted that I had asthma when I had let my previously super-fit condition slip after I started my working career. I do remember getting a little wheezy as a child during the school cross country but back then parents weren’t so keen to trot their little ones down to the doctor to be prescribed inhalers, so you just got on with it. It was only at the age of thirty, after an episode of debilitating breathlessness which had me hanging out of the bedroom window gasping for air, that I decided it was time to visit the doctor to ask for help. Since then, I have used inhalers to help keep my asthma under control. I have been through all of the colours – brown, blue, pink and so on, each one has a slightly different way of helping ease your lungs – but undoubtedly the activity which has helped the most to support my asthma has been the controlled and trained breathing which comes with swimming.


Breath control, whatever your swimming style, is the key to a rewarding swim experience. If you are trying to keep your face down in the water to achieve the most streamlined position for maximum speed, it is going to be vital for you to regulate your uptake of air. Even if you are a head-up drifter who rarely experiences water above the neckline, you’ll find breath control helps to enhance your swim experience just as much as for more energetic swimmers.


The first piece of advice I would offer is to start your swim slowly, working on your breathing rhythm before you enter the water. Even in summer, entering unheated water presents a shock to the body, so it pays to give yourself time to adjust to that new environment, get your breathing under control and build up your exercise level steadily. I have found that whatever sport I am performing, going off hell-for-leather without a proper warm up is a sure way to trigger asthma-related breathing problems five minutes into the workout. I have learnt to warm up slowly and carefully, controlling my breathing as I build up. It is almost as if I must coax my body into accepting that it is going to have to step up its breathing rate, and if I don’t my lungs complain and I end up wheezing and having to stop what I am doing.


In my quest for improved breath control I took advice from my friend, fellow swimmer and yoga teacher, Katy. She has taught me to work hard on inhalation from deep in the belly, focussing on using the diaphragm to power the lungs which, like a bellows, fill and empty, perfectly synchronised with my swim stroke. There is an unhelpful saying when trying on a too-small pair of trousers: “breathe in!” It is in fact the complete opposite: breathing in, if using the diaphragm effectively, will actually cause your tummy to swell outwards as the lungs fill and occupy more space pushing into your abdomen.


Katy explains: “I think many people don’t even realise that the diaphragm is a large muscle that separates our chest and abdomen. When we breathe in it tightens and moves down, creating a vacuum that sucks air into the lungs, pushing the abdominal wall out. When we breathe out it relaxes, domes up and sucks the belly in. Diaphragmatic breathing helps relieve stress but also strengthens the diaphragm, so the lungs maintain their elasticity and efficient function. I find it is helpful to complete five mindful breaths with my hands on my belly, noticing it rise and fall before getting into the water.”

Katy leading breathing practice during a yoga class at Tiptoe Yoga

Another important thing to remember when swimming, especially front crawl, is to make sure you do not hold on to air once it has done its job oxygenating your body. Breathing out is just as important as breathing in and it is worth remembering that your body is using the outgoing air to dump unwanted carbon dioxide, so don’t be tempted to hang on to the air in your lungs – get rid as soon as possible by releasing bubbles underwater in the same way as you would breathe on dry land. People do this in different ways: through nose, mouth, or a combination of both, but the main thing is never to hold your breath when swimming and breathe as naturally as possible while making sure you don’t inhale any water. There is an instinct to gasp in the early stages of a swim, especially if the water is cold and you’re under pressure to keep up. That is definitely the time to resist primeval instinct, to establish calm in your head, make sure that you are gliding and not fighting through the water and not struggling to catch your breath. Only then will you be able to establish a sustainable breathing rhythm to carry you efficiently – and if it’s your aim, quickly – through the rest of your swim.


My final point about breathing, and this really only applies to sea swimmers using front crawl, is to teach yourself to breathe on both sides. This will enable you to adapt to almost any conditions and it will improve your ability to keep an eye on your surroundings without having to stop or lift your head too often to look forwards. It also means that if for some reason you are unable to catch a breath on one side, perhaps due to a rogue wave, you can always take a breath on the next stroke over on the other side.


We’ll show you all of these breathing tips and more on our May sea swimming courses, which you can find out more about, and book, using this link.

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