Help! My Body is “Sinking” When I Breathe

We want to thank a fellow blogger and triathlete named Brittany for sending us our first triathlon swimming question! We hope to hear back from her after she tries our advice.

Brittany’s Question:
My slowest portion of the triathlon is the swim, so I’m always looking for ways to improve technique. I can and do breathe on both sides, but I notice that during certain drills one side is worse than the other. It’s almost like one side of my body “sinks” a little bit on rotation, and it’s harder to get a breath. I’m not sure what causes this imbalance, but if you have any tips on how to improve balance and body positioning, that would be very useful. (note: I’ve read Total Immersion and so am pretty familiar with rotation drills, etc. – that’s where I started to notice the sinking). Thanks!

Katie’s Answer:
Ask a friend to videotape you. 
Ask someone to record you swimming and doing the drills you’re having problems with, and then watch them later at home with a critical eye.  Look for any inconsistencies on your less dominant side (the side that’s not as easy to breath on). Once you can pinpoint a problem area it’ll be easier to know how to improve your stroke.

Add a pull buoy into your drills.  You could be sinking because you’re hips are sinking on one side when you breathe, or it could be because you’re dropping one of your elbows when you’re pulling through the water.  The pull buoy will make it easier to keep your hips up.  It’ll also make it easier for you to focus on your stroke.  Remember to keep your elbows up underwater as well as above water.  They should never drop below your hands when you’re taking your pull.

 Try adding a swim snorkel to your training.  The snorkel will allow you to focus on your stroke without having to worry about breathing.  It’ll help you even out your stroke because you’ll be able to feel any difference from side to side, and you can actually watch your arms pulling though the water to make sure you’re using the right technique. You can even use a pull buoy with your snorkel for added support in the hips.  If you don’t have a snorkel you can pick one up at Sportmart or a similar store.  Make sure you get one for competitive swim training.  The most common brand is Finis.

 Try Kick Switch Drill.  During this drill, you kick about 7 kicks on your side with you head in the water in a normal swimming position facing forward.  While on your side you bring your arm up to look like a shark fin with your hand next to your head, ready to enter the water.  After the 7 kicks, you take a stroke with that hand, switch sides, take a breath, and repeat with the other side all the way down the pool.  during this drill, focus on keeping your hips high, keeping your spine aligned and straight, and having a good relaxed pull through the water with high elbows.

 Focus on your head position when breathing.  Everyone has one side that they prefer to breath on.  The goal of breathing on both sides is to even out your stroke so one side of your body isn’t overdeveloped and your stroke is even.  Sometimes when a swimmer breathes to their less dominant side, they lift their head out of the water instead of just turning them to the side.  When this happens the whole body position can get shifted, and the hips will drop making the swimmer sink.  Think about resting your head on the water, and turning it instead of lifting it.  Your breath should be quick.  Taking a long breath could be another reason you’re sinking because you lose forward momentum.

Maria’s Answer:
Try kicking on your side with one arm extended: I think it is possible that you are dropping your elbow on one side, especially when you take a breath. If that is the case, you will be able to see it now that you know to look for it. When your arm is extended, don’t ever let your elbow drop below your palm. Try doing 25s where you alternate kicking on your side with one arm extended. When you breathe, focus on keeping that good extension.

Are you able to maintain a 6 beat kick even during breathing cycles? If not, you will want to focus on that. Sometimes people have a nice, regular kick until they breathe. Then, for whatever reason their legs kind of scissor apart and go back to normal when they are not breathing. Try doing some rotation drills where you focus on what your legs are doing.I think you would benefit from wearing fins occasionally to help you isolate your problem without taxing your legs too much. Fins will make it easier to practice and maintain that 6 beat kick.

As for balance and body position, you want to feel like you are swimming downhill. When you swim, your body will follow what your head is doing. Always try to keep your head in line with your spine. If you’re lifting your head away from your shoulder during breathes on one side, that could also cause the “sinking feeling” because it is going to cause your body to loose it’s alignment in the water. You can fix that by doing drills where you pretend your ear is glued to your shoulder during breaths and keeping your back straight.

Do drills that isolate both sides. When you do your rotation drills, make sure the opposite shoulder is rotating out of the water. Swimming drills like RAO or LAO (right arm & left arm only) are drills you should be doing regularly. Try to notice what you’re doing right on the “good” side of your body and emulate that feeling on the other side.

Do you have a freestyle snorkel? Wearing a front breathing snorkel can help you get that good rotation without breaking alignment during breaths. Then, when you aren’t wearing the snorkel you’ll want to keep that same feeling.

Vicky’s Answer:
Elbow Collapse. The usual culprit for sinking on one side is an elbow collapse. Make sure you are leading your stroke start to finish: fingers, wrist, elbow; both under and over the water.

Body Extension. Everyone has a strong side and a weak side when they swim. A side they are more comfortable breathing to. What can happen when breathing or rotating to the weak side is a collapse through the side where the head can lift during the breath rotation, causing the hip to collapse. Concentrate on keeping long though the spin and not, as I tell the young children I coach, “scrunching up their sides” and twisting to breathe. Make sure you train and get comfortable breathing to both sides, focusing on your non-dominant side.

Categories: Dear Water Bloggers

Tags: , , , ,

4 replies

  1. Thank you so much for this very thorough answer! I tried some of the suggestions in practice last night; I don’t think it’s dropping my elbow, though that’s a really good thought I might not have realized. I have a feeling it’s the “Body Extension” comment (from Vicky) that I’m doing some sort of spinal twist. I say this because I notice one side of my core seems stronger than the other and I feel differences between the sides while rotating. One feels straighter than the other, so one side stays straight but the other collapses more easily. Do you girls do any swim-specific core work? I do lots of planks.

    I’m going to try some of your other suggestions as well, and am even planning to get video taped soon. Thank you again!!

  2. Thank you so much for this very thorough response! I tried a few of these in practice. I don’t think it’s the elbow drop, though that is a really good thought I wouldn’t have noticed. I have a feeling it is the “Body Extension” comment by Vicky. I think one side scrunches because one side of my core is weaker than the other and there’s a funny twist going on. I have the opportunity to get video taped next week, so I’m going to do that to see if that’s the culprit. In the meantime I’ll try some of your other suggestions out as well. Thank you again!!

  3. What fantastic news, we are so happy you got something out of our response! We are also eager to find out if you discover anything else when you see yourself swimming on video. The scrunching should be relatively easy for you to fix now that you are aware of it. As for core exercises – planks are great but don’t stop there. There are tons of ab exercises you can do – you can also bring medicine balls into your routine or a TRX machine. We’ve been focusing a lot on the basics, but we will be adding an entire category dedicated to core work soon. Make sure you check back so you can see our recommendations. Good luck with everything! When is your race?


  1. Water Bloggin’ | The Fit Formula

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: