Free Air: How to Stroke Better while Breathing
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on May 19th, 2010

As I’ve written before I use the Endless Pool for tuning-and-tweaking my stroke.  I reserve all swimming that is even moderately effortful for conventional pools or open water.  Yet I feel I’ve significantly improved my speed through EP practice because it allows me to identify and improve stroke errors in a more targeted and intensive way.

This morning was my second EP practice since installing a pool at home. Not having used the EP in over a year, I’m reacquainting myself.  This morning I decided to focus on improving how I hold water with the extended hand while breathing.

A common error associated with freestyle breathing is that the lead hand collapses (in aggravated cases) or strokes prematurely because the rotation to air, plus a tendency to lift the head, loads the lead arm. When either happens, the next stroke (left hand if you breathe right) is less effective: The hand moves back more than you move forward.

In recent years I’ve improved that aspect of technique a great deal, with most of that improvement coming from EP practice. In recent weeks, I’ve been aware of a slight “slipping” sensation in my right hand when breathing left so I thought it was time to refocus on it.

I started with a very low current speed, stroking as slowly and gently as possible. On each stroke I paused my hand for a moment at full extension. I could see my hand in the bottom mirror so I checked that it was (i) still for a moment, (ii) on a Wide Track and (iii) hanging relaxed with fingers separated and palm back.

I took 10 right breaths (20 strokes), 10 bilateral breaths (30 strokes) then 10 left breaths. I used this breathing sequence to pinpoint my right hand. Because of bad habits acquired and ingrained during millions of “pre-TI” strokes from 1965-1988, when I was mainly a left-side breather, my right hand has been more stubborn about learning patience. It’s much better than it used to be, but still not as good as my left hand during a right side breath – because that was still a relatively  blank slate when I began TI practice 21 years ago.

When breathing right, it’s easy to imprint a patient right hand. Breathing bilaterally I get 5 strokes in every 6 in which I can hold that patience fairly easily. When I breathe left, I really have to focus to avoid right-hand slippage.

After each sequence of 30 breaths, I turned up the current slightly, and returned my focus to keeping that “moment of stillness”  before stroking.  I continued that for about 20 minutes.

In my final 10 minutes, with the current flowing a bit faster (yet still probably in a leisurely 27 min for 1.5k range) I alternated 20 bilateral breaths with 20 left-side breaths, taking a break of 5 cleansing breaths after each sequence of 20 breaths/100 strokes.

My focal point here was to feel (1) a slightly-exaggerated overlap between my hands while breathing; and (2) a sense of lightness and absence of pressure in my extended hand as I breathed.

I’m not sure my right hand was improved after 30 minutes of practice. I am sure I was more sensitized to it and that way lies improvement.

These three screen shots,  from Lesson 6 of the Easy Freestyle DVD show a patient right hand–relaxed and on-track with palm back–just before my face emerges to breathe. 2nd image shows same moment, from the surface. 3rd image shows a split-second later. I’m just about to return my face to the water, left hand about to enter, and right arm still extended.

Related blog on breathing skills: Free Air: How to Breathe Easier

TI Breathing Skills DVD

Related thread on TI Forum.

7 Responses to “Free Air: How to Stroke Better while Breathing”

  1. Lawrence says:

    Very interesting, Terry.

    Recently I’ve been making similar checks on my own technique in the pool. I’m right-handed and, I suspect as a consequence (since I hadn’t really ever swum freestyle until last year so have no history to erase), find that while I spear to full extension with my right arm (so that breathing to the left is easy and relaxed), to achieve equal efficiency on the other side I sometimes need to remind my left arm to be more ‘assertive’ in reaching forwards after entering the water. Whenever I feel that breathing to the right doesn’t feel as good as breathing to the left, I invariably find that this is the issue.

    I don’t suppose you’re left-handed?

  2. John Beaty says:

    I have the same problem when breathing to the right, my left arm doesn’t get as good of a hold of the water.

    When breathing to the left, my arms are more patient. I believe this is due to my left side having less muscle memory to change when breathing to the left. I have always been a right side breather, until learning to breath left.

    One thought I have changed recently when it comes to breathing is the angle of my gaze. I have look to the side, but I believe that when I look to side on my right, I discovered that I would lift my head slightly. This was not a problem when breathing left. I didn’t know why for the longest time until a friend of mine said that I appeared to be have my slightly backward gaze on my left.

    I tried this though on my right side. Instead of looking directly to the side, I shifted my view to slightly behind me. This has allowed me to breath with less head rotation and my left arm feels to be more patient.

    While I doubt my my head position truly changed much, I believe that having my view be slightly behind me instead of directly to the side has made me keep my head in a more stable position as it rotates to/from the breath

  3. Nick says:

    Thanks Terry, very timely advice. Helenita has critiqued two videos of my stroke so far and this is my biggest problem.. I have a tendency to lift my head, which as you know, makes my hips fall and literally “puts on the brakes”. Have you ever had a student whose neutral buoyancy had them a few inches below the water line and when they rolled for air still had their face underwater thus requiring them to lift their head? (yes, I’m looking for an excuse:)).
    Thanks again Terry!

  4. Nick – Not when they were swimming whole-stroke with continuous rhythm. If the head is too low to get air I look for two things: (1) burying, rather than releasing, the head; or (2) spearing the arm at too steep a downward angle.

  5. John I’ve faced the same issues when breathing left – overcoming muscle memory from before I understood technique. So I continue to work on it.

  6. I’m right handed. My issues come from muscle memory created during the years I was a left-only breather and didn’t understand technique.

  7. […] discouraged. When seeing no light at the end of the tunnel, read this post. Most people have a preferred side, and most have to work to breathe equally on both sides. […]

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