Learning to Breathe

My swimmers had an amazing meet this past weekend. They all got at least one best time, and most of them got at least one cut time (which is ultimately meaningless, but goal times are goal times and it keeps them motivated, so ultimately not meaningless at all). This is my third year coaching some of these kids, and they have come a long way. I have come a long way.

One struggle that most swimmers have at this age and level is hanging their breath when they swim freestyle. Ideally, swimmers should sneak their breath, turning their head slightly in sync with the rhythm of their stroke and body rotation, suck in a breath and then put the head back into a neutral position, never breaking the stroke rhythm. I have a video I show the swimmers of an Olympia who is breathing every other stroke but he does it so quickly, you can’t even tell.

My swimmers show their whole face, almost turning on their backs, when they breath. The rhythm isn’t smooth, but instead a stroke-stroke-BREEEEAAAAATH-stroke-stroke-BREEEEAAAAAAATH. As I watched swimmer after swimmer hanging their breath at the meet, I sighed and audibly said to no one in particular, “Well, we’re going to have to work on sneaking our breath in practice.” One of my coaching colleagues overheard me and said, “I wonder if she’s holding her breath. Did you tell them to breathe out?”

No one teaches you how to breathe in swimming. For years, I would get out of the water after my backstroke races gasping for breath, legs shaking, unable to walk. The strongest part of my stroke was my kick, and your legs have some of the biggest muscles in your body, needing the most oxygen. My legs should be hurting if I was swimming my hardest, I should be breathing heavily, but this was something different, a burning in both my legs and lungs that I didn’t experience when I swam freestyle or butterfly. How was it that the one stroke where your head is almost never underwater, I was unable to breathe?

Turns out, I was hyperventilating; my coach finally asked me, when I was 16, after I had been swimming for 8 years, when I breathed when I swam backstroke. In and out every stroke, I said. He shook his head and laughed at me. No, he said, you need a breathing pattern like in all your other strokes. In for one, out for two. I had always been a backstroker and no one had ever told me how to breathe. The next meet, I went a best time for the first time in ages, and I could finally get out of the water and walk to talk to my coach. I had to learn how to breathe.

For swimmers, if they hold their breath when their head is under water, then they have to both exhale and inhale when they put their heads up. I know this, having told many swimmers that exhaling was as important as inhaling. They needed to make room in their lungs for the new air to come in, that if there is already room, it makes sneaking their breath that much easier. They also need to control the exhale so that they are breathing and not gasping when they come up. I know this, and yet had forgotten to teach my swimmers that lesson.

My son last year swam his first (and so far only) 200 free. Your breathing pattern in races is part of your strategy. Generally, the longer the race, the more often you have to breathe. An Olympic 50 free swimmer won’t breathe at all during their race. But while swimming an 800 or 1500, even an Olympian breathes every three or so strokes. The 200 for my son was the longest he had ever raced, so more like a distance race than a sprint. I didn’t think I needed to tell him how often to breathe; at that age, they usually forget what you told them and breathe whenever they need/want to. And the more tired they are, the more often they breathe.  

Halfway through the race, the other coach and I noticed he was laboring, badly. And then we noticed he wasn’t breathing all that often. We counted – he was breathing, consistently, every seven strokes. Even on his last 25, which looked like it hurt a lot, he kept dutifully breathing every seven strokes. And that breath lasted a good half-second, at least. When he got out of the water, he was exhausted. I asked him why he breathed every seven. He didn’t even realize he had been doing it. Of course, it was all my fault because, “you didn’t tell me when to breath!”

Our instinct is to want to breathe, and when we can’t, to hold our breath. Our instinct is to do what needs to be done in order to get a breath; this means that in strokes like butterfly and breaststroke, you have to teach the kids that their goal is not, in fact, to bob their heads up and down in order to breathe, but to propel themselves forward in the water. That their heads come up at all is incidental. Take advantage and breathe, but don’t make it the focus of your stroke. Forward, not up, I tell them.

There is an analogy buried in this reminder about not knowing how or when to breath, that the breathe doesn’t come naturally for many swimmers, that you need to tell them, to remind them when to inhale and exhale, and how often. That breathing isn’t the goal, but the means to an end. How we breathe in the water is different than how we breathe on land.

I can’t tell right now if I am starting a long inhale or exhale. I’ve put aside my multiple manuscripts and have started to read again, voraciously. I haven’t read this much in years. I’m reading about writing, about editing. I’m reading other people’s memoirs, I’m reading as much as I can about where I grew up when I grew up there. I’m still writing, obviously (1000 words on breathing!), but it’s a different kind of writing, compared to what I had been working on for the past six or so months. It’s a necessary moment, an inhale to my exhale of words. Breathing words in, fill my brain, process them, gain strength from them, breath different ones out. And yet somehow it still feels like an exhale, a moment of calm.

In talking with a friend yesterday, she put into words something I didn’t even realize I was struggling with: I don’t know how to be a person with my ADHD under control. In some ways, the medication is like when my coach finally told me how to breathe in backstroke; HOLY SHIT, it didn’t have to be this hard, to hurt this much. In other ways, I feel like my swimmers who are unsure when to breathe in, when to breathe out, how often to breathe, like my son in his 200 freestyle: he’d never done it before, and no one told him what to do, what to expect, so he was out there on his own, doing the best he could.

I’m learning how to breathe again. I know how to be a person who is not depressed, not anxious, because I remember those times when I wasn’t those things. I have never not had ADHD. Or rather, I’ve never not been at the mercy of ADHD. So when I take my pills, it’s strange because I don’t know how to feel the way I feel, how to deal with it, how to enjoy it, how to harness it.

I don’t like driving, for instance, after I’ve taken my medication. I learned to drive with ADHD, and I’ve driven my whole life with ADHD. I don’t feel comfortable driving on the medication because it doesn’t feel like driving has always felt for me.

I also don’t like “wasting” two hours of medicated time during my commute. I still associate taking my ADHD medication with being productive, rather than just being well.

I’m learning how to breathe again. And there isn’t a coach there to tell me, here’s how you do it.