Waiting to Inhale
(Revised from a 1996 article published in Swim Magazine)
by Coach Emmett Hines
Let's face it, the human body wasn't designed for swimming. The Good
Lord did not intend Man to leap headlong into a river and chase after
his dinner. He gave the greatest of the apes the power of reason and the
fly rod came to be. If Man should fall into that river, the instinct to
lift his head toward the heavens, thrash about wildly and scramble his
hairy carcass back onto the shore would serve immediate survival needs
well enough. (Dear Reader: If you have a political correctness hang-up
please feel free to replace the preceding references to Man
and his with Woman and her
but the hairy carcass thing stays put.)
The advance of civilization has allowed those of us at the top of the
food chain to spend some idle time toying with nature. As such, we have
made some modest progress in the area of aquatic ambulation. Yet the instinctive
need to lift the head skyward has not been overcome completely in the
freestyle stroke even in many elite level swimmers.
We all know, or should know, that lifting the head to breathe is incorrect.
Yet, if you watch a pool full of swimmers and pay close attention (perhaps
even using slow motion video) to the head motions of each you will find
that perhaps 95 percent or more of them are still lifting their heads
to some extent to breathe. Most people don't even recognize it as a problem,
much less an easily solvable one.
A swimmer moving in a longitudinally balanced position head, shoulders,
hips and legs all in a straight line parallel to the surface (see Of
Air and Gravity by this author) has the minimum form drag
possible. Now he raises his head a bit. What happens? The hips and legs
sink a bit. In fact, a 2-inch vertical lift of the head can cause a four
to six inch drop of the hips, which shows up as an eight to 12 inch drop
of the feet. This is enough to nearly double the total frontal surface
area and thus nearly double form drag. You know this instinctively
you'd much rather kick with your kickboard sliding edgewise through the
water than hold it upright like a tombstone, pushing it broadside-first
through an entire kick set (this is assuming you are one of those people
who still uses a kickboard at all).
If you study swimmers who are lifting their heads a bit when they breathe
you won't always notice lots of hip and leg drop. Why? Many people
use their kick to boost their hips and legs to the surface. All of the
extra kicking needed to keep the legs up at the surface when the head
is lifted is wasting energy a lot of energy.
You've no doubt been reading and following the advances in the swimming
technology as espoused by such forward thinkers as Bill Boomer and Terry
Laughlin (a.k.a. Total Immersion) and have a grasp of the concept of body
alignment and balance.
Assume now that you are swimming along, your head is attached
with your crown in line with your spine and you have finely tuned your
buoy pressure to maintain dynamic body balance as your body
rolls from side to side (like I said before, see Of
Air and Gravity). Let's say you've just taken a stroke with your
left arm and are ready to take a breath on your next stroke. Follow the
- You are gliding along on your right side (belly button facing
the left wall), your right arm is extended toward the far end of the
pool, your left elbow is high in the air above your shoulders moving
forward with the hand and forearm dangling toward the water and your
nose is pointed at the bottom of the pool. Secret: At this instant,
imagine a light thread connecting the tip of your chin to your collarbone.
- As your left hand/forearm moves forward and just passes your
head, begin to roll your body and stroke with the right arm. Allow the
head to hitch a ride with the rotating torso so that you
do not break or stretch the secret chin-collarbone thread. In other
words, the head and body should rotate as a single unit as you take
a stroke with your right arm and extend your left arm. During this roll
it's easy to allow instinct to take over in one or both of the following
- Lifting the head slightly. To counteract this
tendency you could press the side/back of the head slightly toward
the bottom of the pool so that it is in contact (or nearly in contact)
with the extended left arm. The idea is that you don't want the
gap between the side/back of your head and your extended arm to
widen as you rotate to breathe - if anything, you should be trying
to close that gap a bit while rolling to breathe.
- Pressing down with the extended arm. As you complete
your roll and as you breathe, it is important that your left arm
remains fully extended toward the end wall of the pool. A common
mistake is to put downward pressure on the extended arm or to "lean"
on it. This raises the head and shoulders a bit, thus putting lots
of downward pressure on the hips. Instead, think of keeping the
extended arm weightless in front of you while you lean
on your armpit instead. Sometimes it is even helpful to think in
terms of lifting the extended arm slightly as you go for
- As body roll reaches its farthest point onto your left side
(belly button now facing the right wall) your blowhole will gain full
access to life-giving oxygen. If you've really kept your head stationary
with respect to your torso (haven't stretched or broken your imaginary
chin-collarbone thread) your nose will be pointed straight up (or nearly
so). If you've successfully avoided pressing down on the water with
your extended left arm, kept consistent pressure on your buoy and resisted
the temptation to lift your head, you'll still be completely balanced
longitudinally and both your ears will be under water.
- While you grab a lung (or two, if you must) full of air and
while you are still gliding along fully on your left side with your
nose pointed up, recover your right arm by picking the right elbow up
and moving it forward. During the recovery, allow your forearm and hand
to dangle from your elbow like dead meat. Your chin-collarbone thread
should still be intact.
- As your high-right-elbow-with-dangling-forearm/hand moves
forward and just passes your head, begin to rotate your body and head
as a single unit back in the opposite direction from the previous roll
- toward the lying-on-your-right-side position you had in step #1. As
you begin this roll, start taking the next stroke with the until-now-fully-extended
left arm and extend your right arm fully toward the end wall - think
of using this roll to trade hands out front of your head
in Circles by this author). If, by the end of this roll, you
have still avoided stretching or breaking the chin-collarbone thread
you'll be back fully on your right side with your nose pointed straight
toward the bottom of the pool.
There you have it. Following the above will allow you to overcome the
instinctive tendency to lift your head and in so doing, decrease the amount
of energy you waste either with extra kicking to keep your hips and legs
near the surface or with extra stroking effort to overcome unnecessary
added form drag.
Copyright 2001. Houston Swims, Inc.
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Emmett Hines is Director and Head Coach of H2Ouston Swims. He has coached competitive Masters swimming in Houston since 1981, was a Senior Coach for Total Immersion Swim Camps for many years, holds an American Swim Coaches Association Level 5 Certification, was selected as United States Masters Swimming’s Coach of the Year in 1993 and received the Masters Aquatic Coaches Association Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002. He recently overhauled his popular book, Fitness Swimming (Human Kinetics, publishers) and the second edition was released mid-2008. Fitness Swimming has been published in French (entitled Natation, pub. by Vigot), Spanish (entitled Natacion, pub. by Hispano Europea), Chinese (entitled Jianshenyouyong), Portuguese (Natacao Para Condicionamento Fisico, pub. by Manole) and, soon, in Turkish and Italian. 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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