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Breathing and Swimming

Breathing and Swimming:
Connect to your breath during cold water exposure

By Breathing Expert and Advanced Oxygen Advantage Instructor Thomas Hague, The Breath Coach 

It’s 06.30 on Monday 20th March and it's cold and drizzling outside with a heavy sea mist hovering over Ilfracombe Harbor, Devon where I take my daily early morning dip. It's a special day on the calendar and with the heavy winds, rain, and mist I’m not able to see the ocean or
Damien Hirst's Verity standing proudly from my bedroom window. However, I know that in 30 minutes I’ll be stepping out of the 5.5-degree Bristol Channel with a brain full of beta-endorphin hormones, providing me with natural pain relief and of course, the much revered and celebrated sense of euphoria. I’ll be glad that I got myself ‘up and at um’ in the knowledge that tackling the day head-on like this provides me with the energy and clear mind I need to see the day through. I tend not to like myself too much at this stage of the day. I’m in a mental battle with myself and self-doubt is whizzing around my sleepy head- a tug of war between the strong and sturdy warm bed and the much weaker pull of the cold and uninviting grey ocean. Through experience, I know that the ocean defeats the bed every time despite its inferior standing at the beginning of the competition. Go! I tell myself. You are unstoppable. You are strong. You are the pilot and not the passenger. I know its the best thing to do and I’m never disappointed.

What's the special day, I hear you say? It’s Spring Equinox and at exactly 9.24 pm. I’ll be celebrating along with my family and many others around the northern hemisphere what we have been waiting for since the deep dark winters crept upon us in late October- Spring! I’m a huge fan of spring. It delivers so much in terms of natural beauty but gives us humans a lift both physically and mentally. This equinox- The vernal Spring Equinox is a great time to get intentional about the seeds and dreams you want to plant in your life while shedding winter’s layers. It’s a good time, full of optimism. The sun is exactly above the equator, bringing us a moment of sublime balance – equal day to equal night. Spring Equinox embraces the energies of rebirth, fertility, creativity, balance, and growth for mind, body, and spirit. What better way to start afresh, and shed the clothing of heavy winter darkness than with a cold swim in mother nature in nothing more than your swimwear? 

If you are reading this as a cold water novice or a seasoned pro I hope you can learn a thing or two. From connecting to your inner self, and your breath, and how doing so will affect your reaction to cold water and increase your resilience to stress. You can also learn to improve your performance in the water as an athlete competing in races and triathlons or any sport. 

I’m an Advanced Oxygen Advantage Instructor and breathing coach and was taught by Patrick McKeown who is considered one of the biggest names in breathing, health, wellbeing, and sports performance. I teach people how to breathe correctly to enhance the way they feel, move, perform and recover. I teach a whole range of people from those who  suffer from stress and anxiety, poor sleep, asthma, and breathlessness to those looking to improve their sporting performance. Everyone can benefit from breathing functionally. Most of the time, we’ve simply not noticed it's changed and become dysfunctional. 

Breathing plays a huge role in our day-to-day lives. We understand that we breathe all day and all night without giving it a second thought but have you considered how functional your breathing is and how you can optimise to feel, train and compete at your best? If you haven't considered it then you are missing out. Breathing for optimised health, wellbeing, and sports performance is now considered as important as exercise and diet and if you can utilise the untapped power of your breath the possibilities are endless. 

I use my breathing to guide me through each day. I’m connected to how I am feeling and breathing constantly. Breathing shapes my day and without it, I wouldn’t be able to work clearly with focus and without distractions. Without it, I wouldn’t know how to inject some energy when I need it most during the notorious mid-afternoon slump. I wouldn’t be able to control my stress and anxiety when I’m overworked, sat in traffic and late for an important appointment, or how I’m going to pay the bills. I wouldn’t know how to connect to myself, clear my mind and downregulate readying my mind and body for a night of deep and restful sleep. Breathing can do all this and more. 

All of us at some stage in our lives suffer from elevated levels of stress and anxiety but it depends on how we deal with this that makes all the difference to our health and wellbeing. We understand that elevated and longer-than-usual bouts of stress are bad for us. The question is, how can we become more resilient to stress? This is where our breathing and the implementation of cold water swimming come in.  

Owen Jackson, coach, and cold water specialist explains further, “Cold exposure is considered a good stress [hormetic stressor]. By actively engaging in short-term [acute] periods of stress, it activates a cascade of beneficial hormones and neurological transmitters. These make us better equipped to deal with unavoidable stress, by becoming more resilient and less sensitive to it in our lives. In simple terms, embrace short-term cold exposure and see how it sharpens your focus and boosts your mood."

My own breathing before, during and post cold water swimming is focused on light, slow and deep breathing (LSD). Talk of the equinox and LSD may bring flashbacks for some but when associated with breathing LSD is imperative in keeping our nervous system in balance. It also helps us stay calm and focused and ensures we are providing the body's cells with the oxygen-rich blood it requires. The following describes how I suggest utilising your breathing whilst cold water swimming to maximise its associated benefits and enjoyment, as a newbie or a seasoned pro. 

Firstly, bring your attention to your breath. How do you feel? Scan your body for any pain and think about your physiological and psychological state. Feel the natural ground beneath your feet and between your toes. Connect with the earth and enjoy the benefits of grounding. Begin to breathe nasally only, connecting your breath to your diaphragm/belly and minimising any upper chest or shoulder movement. Aim to optimise your breathing to a cadence of 6 breaths per minute. I practice 4 seconds inhale and 6 second exhale to increase vagal tone, activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, and increase carbon dioxide in the body to improve oxygen delivery to cells and increase circulation. This is great for those who suffer from cold hands and feet which are accelerated during cold water immersion. 

Once you are ready to enter the water, continue to breathe LSD and when you are ready to fully immerse yourself take a deep breath into the diaphram/belly and hold it. Fully immerse yourself and slowly over a count of 5-15 seconds breathe very slowly out. On your next breath, inhale slowly for 4 seconds and exhale for 4 seconds. Control your breathing at this cadence and keep it LSD and nasal. This initial stage is the hardest and where most people ‘lose’ their breathing to the shock of the cold and begin to take short and shallow breaths in and out and adopt hyperventilative breathing. This type of breathing activates your fight or flight/sympathetic side of your nervous system and increases your heart rate, and blood pressure, and provides an oxygen deficit making you feel light-headed and unwell. Basically the exact feeling you get when you are in a heightened state of stress. The stress that the cold water brings is only accelerated with hyperventilative breathing so try to avoid this. 

Control your breathing! Once you have found your breath and a rhythm stick to a cadence similar to 4:4, 5:5, or return to 4:6. The cadence here isn’t all that important but the connection to your breath is. It challenges your resilience to stress. If you can breathe this way under a controlled stressor, in this instance very cold water then it proves that you can use your breath to control inevitable stress during any situation in life. You are unstoppable. You are strong. You are the pilot and not the passenger. You won’t be disappointed.

Stress resilience is how much stress we can take on before it overwhelms us. We all have different resilience levels to stress, affecting how easily it does or does not, overwhelm us. How you breathe directly affects your stress levels. Can you implement LSD breathing as part of your cold water swimming to build your resilience to stress and anxiety? Do feel free to contact me if you need any help relating to these common feelings associated with our busy lives. My details at the bottom of this blog. 

I lived in Hebden Bridge for seven years and my local swim spots were Lumb Falls and Gaddings Dam. This is where I began to cold water swim and became familiar with Swim Feral. Who were all these people with these beautiful-looking bags?! I was gifted by a good friend a whole selection of Swim Feral swimming products and I’m gutted that I didn’t purchase these items myself sooner. My jaunts to those swimming spots during the winter and summer months would have made them both easier and more enjoyable! I now use them here all over the beaches of North Devon. They are so adaptable. If you are considering buying from them, don’t hesitate. I have the Turtleback Bag, The Spot, and the Organic Poncho. Simply amazing. 


Breathing Expert and Advanced Oxygen Advantage Instructor Thomas Hague, The Breath Coach 



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