Breathing for performance in swimmers ( and runners and cyclists and everybody else)

Osteopaths have been obsessed with breathing, structure and function forever. Lately, attention to athletic performance and breathing has been increasing.

Mobility in the thoracic cage is notoriously sub-par in large sections of the population. With a sedentary lifestyle and over-loaded stressed-out bodies the chest cage will frequently stiffen. This excessive stiffness naturally directly affects breathing and shoulder mechanics. Osteopaths can use very effective thoracic mobility techniques for the muscles, spine and ribs, and assess the whole body for optimal breathing capacity. In fit, systemically well people,where mobility is sub-optimal, I find manipulation of the thoracics creates noticeable mobility and ease of breathing improves.

At rest breathing into the lower chest cage, specifically in the lateral lower ribs, will reduce excess tension in the upper girdle. Upper chest breathing over long periods will affect the shoulder mobility, strength and endurance in addition to reducing performance. The accessory muscles of breathing are important for higher intensity exercise, but over-use on a daily basis through collapsed posture and high chest breathing habits shorten these muscles and reduce their performance when you need them most. 

In many people, there can also be an habitual, unconscious restriction of thoracic mobility through intercostal and abdominal holding patterns during movement - an overemphasis on "strong" core muscles. Manipulation can help here, but its better to consciously use new breathing patterns with the movement desired.

Because the ribs provide crucial links in the force transfer of the shoulder girdle on the water or from the hips any "inactive" or shifted (but non-painful) ribs ruin force transfer. Postural shifts in the thoracics can be improved with exercises, manipulation and changes in habits. Using breathing work into the restricted region to get the intercostals to function better is also important to open the rib structure.

Weak abdominals - say from sub-optimal endurance, or displaced ribs which the abdominals connect onto, reduce expiration ability, decreasing tissue oxygenation and leads to breath-stacking at high intensity.

Be aware that nose-breathing is not the be-all and end all of breathing. At high levels of intensity, mouth-breathing may be superior. Some peoples nasal passages just won't match mouth breathing if the passages are too narrow.

  • Swimmers, know your breathing habits

    • How many strokes do you take before you breathe?

    • Do you hold your breath at all when your face is in the water?

    • Do you feel like you can take in a deep satisfying in-breath?

    • Are you frequently yawning, or catch yourself holding the breath?

    • Is your thoracic rotation stiff and restricted?

  • Signs of mouth breathing: Dry mouth in the morning or generally, regular dental issues, crowded teeth, high, narrow shoulders

Breathing practice tips:

  • Practice using your diaphragm to breathe – first at rest, then during swimming. This is lateral rib breathing. There are a variety of thoracic and abdominal breathing patterns that loosen and strengthen the whole thoracic system.

  • Get your accessory muscles of breathing strength and length-tested. Diaphragmatic breathing is all well and good at rest, and contributes to performance too, but your accessories enable high-level performance and won't operate well if short or tight.

  • Use a regular breathing pattern when swimming to ensure complete exhalation (get into a rhythm).

  • Don’t hold your breath during free-swim unless you are sprinting 50m or less.

  • Use consistent, controlled exhalation, primarily out of the nose, when your face in the water (called ‘trickle breathing’).

  • Exhale adequately before your next breath (avoiding breath stacking).

  • Practice diaphragmatic breathing during rest intervals. Breathe through your nose where possible.

  • Maintain good thoracic and rib mobility to minimize resistance to thoracic cage breathing motion. This will partially be reflected in thoracic rotation compliance, but also in thoracic extension ability

Matthew Fourro