We all know what that cliche means. Fact is, there are very few times we need to hold our breath. Underwater without oxygen might be one of those few exceptions. Unless we happen to be free diving, not many of us go about holding our breath in our day-to-day activities. Maybe another exception is meditative breathing, but that is not an endurance hold. Most of us breathe without thought. It’s an involuntary action.
During the dinner I attended a couple of weeks ago (two posts ago), I mentioned that I left early. It was too loud and I couldn’t eat without hacking so I said ‘chow’ to the folks around me and headed out. On the way out, an older Japanese lady stood up and said “Freddie, would you please help me? I really need some advise.”
Uh oh, I’m thinking. What can she possibly want my advice about. How to deftly hack? But she says, “Last year I learned to swim. My daughter can swim and swim for a long time and doesn’t get tired. But when I swim, I do a few laps and I’m huffing and puffing and I get very tired. I’ve been swimming for about one year and I don’t know what to do. What do you suggest?”
I’m thinking, why is she asking me? I don’t talk to anyone about sporting activities. The only thing she may know is that I ride my utility commute bike around town. And I didn’t have a “swim instructor” note pasted to my forehead. (disclosure: I don’t have one because I’m not one). She couldn’t possibly know that I was on the swim team in college. Why is she asking me this?
The college swim team was something I did on the spur of the moment during my first year as a fresh-man. I never played organized team sports in high school, as I was always working part-time after school. It’s not that I didn’t like sports. I liked just about everything. But because I needed the income, working took priority and sports activities had to be relegated to pick-up games when I had time.
Therefore, the swim team experience in college was an interesting one. As it was, after I signed up (there was a sign stating “no experience necessary”) I found out that two guys I knew from my home town were also on the team. One, a stronger swimmer than I and the other an excellent platform diver. So those two and another freshman from Brooklyn and I seemed to ‘hang out’ when there was time during non-swim practice.
The team was a crazy mix of guys. The four of us were known to partake of Afgan herb before matches (before I knew where Afghanistan was). After some matches, for sure we didn’t need the chlorine water as an excuse for red, watery eyes, but the water coverup was convenient.
The guy from Brooklyn was truly a little off. He was known to regularly snort jello cubes during lunch. Yes, that would be balancing a wobbling cube with two fingers under one of his nostrils, holding the other nostril shut with a finger from the other hand , a quick snort and magic. The cube, itself the size of his nose, would disappear upward into his nasal cavity. And he didn’t hold his breath. Guess it’s didn’t help that we always egged him on whenever there was jello around. But when there was, he’d gladly entertain us.
I had “lettered” that year, the only year I was on the team. That would not have happened had it not been for the better swimmers letting us freshman start certain events when we swam against lousy teams. Against one state university I was lucky enough to win a 100 yard freestyle event that gave me enough points to garner the coveted school ‘letter.’ Don’t know what ever happened to that letter and I wasn’t the letter wearing kind anyhow.
Maybe it was the euphoria in 1971 that I had a high draft number that year, thereby assuring me that I would have very little chance to end up in Vietnam. A few guys I knew weren’t so lucky. So maybe that carefree attitude opened up the door to recreation experimentation. If I said I never hallucinated during swim practice, I’d be lying. But it only took once to realize that a hallucinogenic trip during hard physical activity was not very smart. That day the pool felt like jello. And every time I looked up for a breath, there were colorful monsters hovering over the folded bleachers stacked against the wall. During that practice, the coach said, “spaghetti, what the f**k is the matter with you? You ok?” I said, “no coach, not feeling so great” Somehow I was cognizant enough not to tell him about the jello-like water or the monsters. He thankfully let me bag the rest of practice that day.
The upper-class guys on the team were hard asses, but nice guys. That year many of them decided to break the Guinness Book of World Record for longest length of time for a group treading water in a swimming pool. Pool water is a lot less buoyant than sea water. After a couple of days straight, 24 hrs each day, they managed to break that record. I was in awe and felt no compulsion whatsoever to be a record breaker.
Note: Whatever intelligence I lacked during that time period, at least I was smart enough to leave behind experimental recreation along with that first year of college.
But back to the Japanese lady. I asked her what she did during her swim routine and how she was breathing. She said she mainly got tired during the freestyle stroke. (I took it for granted and didn’t ask her about the butterfly stoke). She showed me how she took four strokes and on the forth stroke she turned her head to breathe. So then I asked her, acting out the stroke, if she ever breathed every two strokes.
She said that she only breathed every four strokes in the freestyle, not every two. When I asked her why, she said that she was taught that way and needed to concentrate on her form. I tell her that what she is doing is fine, but that maybe her body is telling her she needs to breathe more. What happens when you jog lightly, I asked her. You breathe more because your blood and heart are asking for more oxygen. You would not jog or walk hard and hold your breath every four steps. No, when you walk or jog, your breathing is more rapid and automatic to compensate for the energy required. Swimming is hard work. It’s ok to breathe every four strokes, but when you get tired, you need to breathe more often.
But she says, “I’ll not be able to concentrate on my form.” And I tell her that her form is secondary to breathing. Practice breathing more. Practice every other stroke. I tell her if she gets good at that, then she can practice every third stoke, breathing from one side, then from the other side on third stroke. Breathing then form, then breathing and form.
It must have looked funny to those seated that two people, a guy with a covered up swollen neck and an elderly Japanese woman, were standing making swimming stroke motions in a noisy restaurant. She seemed to be happy and invigorated with what I told her and anxious to try my suggestions. All I really told her was “don’t hold your breath.”
Now, tomorrow, since the dentist last week discovered yet another infected tooth in the lower jaw, I’ve got root-canal number three scheduled, the third in two months. At least I’m still in Colombia where the cost is reasonable. That side of the neck and jaw is swollen with lymphodema — crap that should not be there leaving that area prone to infections. I’d like to think that this is the last root canal for a long time, but I won’t hold my breath.
P.S., and don’t take my word for it, nicole scherzinger also recommends don’t hold your breath.