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by Emmett Hines

April 4, 2012

Fixing breathing with a snorkel

For many swimmers, the part of their swimming technique most flawed is everything done while trying to snag that next gulp of air and then recovering from the experience over the next stroke, or two, or three. Yet, because this is repeated thousands of times each workout, the struggle for air and the attendant loss of performance—head-lift, hip-drop, neck craning, pushing down on the water instead of making a proper catch, etc.—eventually begin to seem normal to the neuromuscular system and soon become habit.

Repeating this every second or third stroke means that the swimmer simply cannot establish sound fundamental stroke technique habits based on rhythmic motions around a well-postured core cutting javelin-straight through the water. This is because it takes at least one additional full non-breathing stroke to fully recover balance. And, depending on how out of balance the swimmer gets, it may take more like two or three non-breathing strokes to recover balance. This means the swimmer is forever locked in the vicious cycle of:

  1. During one stroke, using a going-for-air motion that results in a loss of balance
  2. During one or more subsequent strokes, trying to recover from the most recent awkward or destabilizing breathing motion
  3. Repeat

This cycle leaves no opportunity for uninterrupted well-balanced swimming—the only kind of swimming from which good habits might be built.

Your Vicious Cycle

So if your current going-for-air habits destabilize your balance, even a little, you too have some form of this cycle at work in your swimming. And your neuromuscular system accepts this as normal (and worse, maybe even think of it as OK). Sound good to you? I hope not.

The Snorkel Solution

Try a snorkel. Yeah … I know … you’re flashing on images of grandpa in big ol’ shorts, sporting a scuba mask, a plastic tube flapping around by his ear, swimming turtle-crawl in the slow lane and doing face-in-the-water U-turns a couple yards shy of each wall.

But what you need is a snorkel designed specifically for swim training; one that mounts in the center of your forehead and curves up from your mouth, runs in front of your nose and over the top of your head to allow for a proper head position while not getting in the way of your strokes and not creating useless extra drag. Finis is the only company currently offering a proper training snorkel: the Swimmer’s Snorkel.

How it helps

A training snorkel eliminates the distraction and complication of turning the head to breathe, giving you an opportunity for uninterrupted focus on, and repetition of, other aspects of swimming. Here are a few critical areas, vitally important to effective swimming, where the snorkel excels as a training aid.

Tight Line

The snorkel helps you learn to maintain the tight line of good aquatic core posture while inhaling. Keeping your tight line is greatly complicated by the action of inhaling, especially when taking deep breaths. The secret here is to expand your lungs to the sides and back instead of heaving your chest and letting your ribs pop out. Use of the snorkel gives you great feedback about what happens to your tight line as your diaphragm, chest and back muscles work to fill your lungs. By not having to turn your head to breathe, you can isolate and refine your swimming-while-holding-tight-line-while-inhaling skills ... something you can’t do without a snorkel. Using the snorkel on long, high-intensity sets that require full ventilation gives plenty of time to work out postural details while forming strong habits that elude most swimmers who insist on always breathing the old-fashioned way.

Central Line

The snorkel also keeps your central line on the desired line of travel. Even with good core tension, it is easy to stray away from the chosen path while swimming. You have no accurate visual feedback about the line you are really traveling, except when keeping your eyes firmly focused on a thin line directly under your nose. Most swimmers, including you, traverse a zigzag line to some degree without being aware of it. This is most often the result of pulling the head and/or upper body toward the breathing side each time a breath is taken. Once that zigzag becomes a habit, it feels normal and is hard to quit. Yes, you can spend some time doing no-breather swims in order to spot the problem. But only a snorkel gives you enough uninterrupted, straight-line visual feedback to really feel what it is like to swim continuously in a straight line—a first step toward correcting the problem.

Ups and Downs

Imagine rowing a boat that has lots of up and down motion where the front end and back end alternate elevations. Your job as pilot and power source is clearly a lot tougher than that of the other guy whose boat skims along on an even keel. If you watch nearly any non-elite swimmer closely you’ll see that either the head or the entire front end of the body has some upward motion on each breath. And, consequently, the hips tend to dip toward the bottom at the same time. A snorkel allows you to learn what it feels like to swim distances without up and down motions of your head or hips.

How to start using it

Even if you are a veteran of conventional snorkel use, a training snorkel takes some getting used to. Here is a progression that starts from scratch and builds to full-stroke swimming. People of different ability and experience levels will benefit from different amounts of time and experimentation in each step.

  1. First, while wearing the snorkel, simply put your face in the water and breathe through the snorkel enough to get comfortable. Experiment with different size breaths. People who've never used a snorkel, or who've only used snorkels with a face mask that covers their nose, are often surprised to find that they do not know how to keep from inhaling through their nose, thus getting a snoot full of water every time they try to inhale. While this can usually be overcome through patient practice, a nose clip can quickly render the issue moot.
  2. Now spend some time doing easy kicking with fins. The general idea is simply to kick from your hips with fairly straight legs instead of kicking from your knees. If your knees bend it should only be as a reaction to water pressure, not because of a direct action of your muscles. If your kick involves contracting muscles to bend your knees, you are lost and need to start over. (If this concept is new to you, try holding your legs stiff as planks. Yes, this is a simplification, but does express the most important aspect: don’t build your kick around bending your knees.)
  3. Learn to purge your snorkel of water. There are two ways to accomplish this:
  4. Go under water deep enough to allow the snorkel to fill with water, then resurface and blow out briskly to purge the snorkel of water. This will come in handy when you make mistakes that swamp the snorkel, however it does take a large amount of air to move the water out once upright and at the surface.
  5. Once you get comfortable and are doing flip turns with the snorkel, the displacement method works better: While upside down, such as during a flip turn with a snorkel, blow a small amount of air into the snorkel. That small bubble of air will clear the snorkel of water before you resurface, negating the need to save any air for the big blast at the surface.
  6. While still kicking easily on the surface, work on assembling your tight-line posture and balance, holding both as you breathe. It is important to spend time working with the full range of ventilation. Breathing deeply while holding the abdominal tension required for tight-line posture is complex if you aren’t used to doing it. Remember, expand your lungs to the sides and back instead of heaving your chest and letting your ribs pop out.
  7. Add core rotations to your kicking. The idea is to build a good feel for what it means to remain 100% horizontal and keep your tight-line posture fully engaged as you cruise the length of the pool. Done properly, the back of your head, shoulder blades, hips and legs remain right at the surface at all times. Be aware of a patch of flesh on each thigh, just beyond the edge of your suit. As you rotate down the lane you want to have one of these patches, or the cheeks of your butt, exposed to the air at all times. Anytime you don’t have one of these exposed to the air there is a problem with posture. (Note: the “patch of flesh” thing isn’t operative if you are wearing a jammer.)
  8. Add strokes to those rotations. Start with a single-arm stroke cycle, several rotations, then another single-arm cycle. Go a length using one arm, then a length using the other, then a length alternating arms.
  9. Execute cycles of two strokes (one with the right arm and one with the left), several rotations, and another cycle of two strokes. Alternate which arm goes first in each cycle of two strokes.
  10. Then sets of three strokes, with several extra rotations between each set. Alternate which arm goes first in each cycle of strokes.
  11. Then sets of five strokes, etc.
  12. Then full-stroke swimming.

The Real Payoff

The greatest value in the snorkel comes from wearing it through a large portion of your full-stroke swimming —50 percent or more (and some days maybe even 100 percent) of your workout swimming. This is where real habit-building happens. You want to make continuous tight-line, impeccable balance and javelin-straight core your “normal” feelings (as opposed to something that involves no posture or intermittent posture and up-and-down and/or side-to-side motions). Creating new habits requires lots of time and repetition. Overwriting current bad habits with new good habits requires even more time and repetition. So lots of time spent swimming with the snorkel will have big payoffs in the habit department.

Then, for short segments (in the beginning, just a length or two), remove the snorkel and swim with breathing motions. Your job here is to have great awareness of where your head, lead arm and hips are while breathing without the snorkel then compare and contrast that to swimming with the snorkel. After much time spent swimming with the snorkel it should now be much easier to sense and identify balance, posture and timing errors that result from your going-for-air motions.

Because the snorkel has allowed you a bunch of uninterrupted time focused on good posture and balance, you will have new knowledge and skills (and, eventually, habits) to apply in correcting those going-for-air errors.

Shortest Path

What you eventually want is to be able to count on a zero-head-lift, zero-loss-of-balance, zero-performance-hit breath any time you want air. Learning how to get, and making a habit of, such breathing motions is much easier to do when you have the right foundation ingrained in muscle memory—and the shortest path to such a foundation is traversed with the training snorkel firmly attached.

Added Bonuses

Darn near any other swimming skill you might desire is easier to learn and habituate when you use a snorkel to remove the distraction of "how do I get air". And when your workout calls for kicking drills you can eschew the kickboard (which teaches you to kick uphill instead of in a straight line) in favor of the breathing tube—you'll go faster and be creating better habits.

Where to Find It

Finis Inc. has several to choose from. I strongly recommend the Swimmer’s Snorkel which you can likely purchase at your local swim shop or online swim retailer.

Once you get really good using the Swimmer’s Snorkel you may derive increased benefits from the Freestyle Snorkel, also offered by Finis. This snorkel is designed specifically for freestyle swimming, and is particularly beneficial at higher speeds. It requires a higher level of skill to use properly but promotes further skill refinement in more-skilled swimmers. (Warning: If you make the mistake of saying to yourself, "I'm just going to shortcut the learning process and get this snorkel as my first training snorkel" you'll likely just end up frustrated and unhappy. Get and use the Swimmer's Snorkel first. Then, after maybe a year of using it, consider the Freestyle Snorkel.)

For more information about the techniques presented in this article, visit Coach Hines’s H2Ouston Swims website. There, you’ll also find his book Fitness Swimming, 2nd Edition.

© H2Ouston Swims, Inc. 2010

Emmett Hines is director and head coach of H2Ouston Swims. He has coached competitive Masters swimming in Houston since 1981, holds an American Swimming Coaches Association Level 5 Certification, was selected as USMS’s Coach of the Year in 1993 and received the Masters Aquatic Coaches Association Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002. Currently Coach Hines coaches the H2Ouston Swims Masters group in Houston, TX and works privately with many clients. He can be reached for questions or comments at 713-748-SWIM or via email.


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