Swim Longer, Faster, and Calmer with Distances & Breathing Drills

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Triathlon swimming
Avoiding cramps while swimming and exercising.
Triathlon swimming
Push yourself past what you think your limits are, and you’ll find your panic subsiding and confidence building.

I’ll tell you a slight secret–I’m rather prone to panic attacks, and there’s something about swimming that can trigger panic like nobody’s darn business. When I first started triathlon, I struggled to swim any real distance without popping out of the water like a sputtering whale. I would swim 50 yards, stop at the wall for a 5-10 second breather, then swim another 50. It was . . . well . . . rather lame. But with the help of my swim coach, who did some good old fashioned pointing and laughing therapy, I eventually learned to stop freaking out and start swimming well. If you’re also struggling with open water swimming and panic, check out my post on training for triathlon swim starts.

Swim Farther

First things first, in order to swim longer distances, you’ve got to swim longer distances! If you’re only jumping in for a 300 yard swim, you’re not going to make much progress. It’s vital that you swim at least two or three times per week for more than just a few laps. You have to put in that nice base training before you can work on getting faster. What really made the difference for me was getting a swim coach. Not only did she correct some rather terrible form (which did make for faster times and less energy expended), but she also pushed me to swim farther than I thought I could.

My coach taught me that it was actually my mental wall that perpetuated my panic. Once I pushed myself–or perhaps my fear of failing my coach outweighed my fear of drowning–under the guidance of a coach who knew my limits better than I did, I convinced myself that the panic was mostly in my head.

So, what’s the lesson? Take a class! Find a coach! Your local gym or college should offer a class that will suit your needs. Don’t be afraid to go for a beginner’s or intermediate-level class. Panic can be a form-crippling disadvantage that a good coach can work with you to overcome–something that a master’s swim class may expect you to have under control.

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Stop Freaking Out

Try a few breathing drills that will help you to realize that you don’t need as much air as you think you do. As my coach always says, “Air is optional.” While I’m not advocating for you to never breathe, you will surprise yourself by how much you can build up your lungs. For each of these drills, if you really feel yourself start to panic, it’s OK to pop up and take a breather (literally)–don’t put yourself into danger. But try to stay confident in your ability and push past your mental wall.

The Drill:

  • Swim 200 yards while breathing only every 5th stroke. It sounds like it may not be a big deal, but when you’re used to breathing every 2nd or 3rd stroke it will make a huge mental difference.
  • The key with this one is relaxing. Don’t try to speed up your stroke to get air more often, you’ll only tire yourself and get panicked. Stay smooth, concentrate on proper form, and tell yourself you CAN do this.

The Distance:

If you know how far you’ll have to swim for your next race, work past that distance. In other words, if you have to swim 750 for a triathlon, push yourself to 1200 or 1500 yards. Not all at once, of course, because you don’t want to overdo it. But here’s how it works:

  • Take stock of how far you can swim now without panic or stopping at the wall–say it’s 400 yards. Try adding 100 or even 50 yards to the end without stopping. If you feel yourself start to fight for air, remember to concentrate on form or something else that will take your mind off your need for oxygen (I focus on keeping my arm from dropping when I turn to breathe). Keep pushing your distance out swim after swim until you’re doing over 1,000 yards at a time.
  • When you go back to your race distance, you’ll realize that it’s a measly pile of yards that you can do no problem! Although this probably doesn’t seem like much while you’re reading it, it will help to prove something to your lungs. When you hit that long distance mark, you’ll realize that you CAN swim for a ways without the freak out. Et voila! You’ve broken that mental wall that told you your lungs, heart, body couldn’t swim so far.
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Perhaps the biggest technique change that worked to allay my panic in the water was tweaking my breathing pattern. If you’re breathing every 3rd stroke or every 2nd stroke on the same side each time, you might try playing with the pattern and see what effect it has. You want to make sure that you breathe on both sides in order to keep you balanced in the water, but there are a few variations on bilateral breathing that you might try:

  • Breathe twice on the right side, take three strokes, then breathe twice on the left side. 
  • Breathe three times on the right side, take three strokes, then breathe three times on the left side.

Play with these alternate patterns to see if one works best for you. Remember, having something to focus on outside of your want for oxygen is key to moving you past the point you never thought you could go.


But as always, do these drills at your own risk (meaning I’m not carrying any responsibility for giving you the idea 😉 ), and never by yourself without the supervision of a trained lifeguard. Always take care when pushing your limits underwater!

About Bek 301 Articles
SLO Cyclist's former chief editor and recovering road snob, Bek made sure everything ran smoothly around here. She was also the one who reminded us not to take ourselves too seriously--unless it involves black socks. Black socks are always serious.

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