Abdominal Burst Breathing – Keeping Calm and Well Oxygenated

When you Can’t Breathe with Your Chest

A couple of weeks ago, I started to get severe breathing difficulties when swimming long distance in open water. The symptoms were a very tight chest and a claustrophobic feeling of my rash vest (thin wet suit top) being very tight, and I started to cough. I realised something was very wrong with my breathing, so quickly switched to abdominal burst breathing to keep me calm and to keep oxygenated.

Systema Technique

This technique is based on a Systema technique and is surprisingly effective in reducing panic and keeping oxygen levels high. It uses your diaphragm as the breathing mechanism. Lowering your diaphragm pulls air into your lungs and raising it pushes air out. Your diaphragm is used in normal chest (rib movement) breathing but not to this extent.

Use Your Diaphragm

To get an initial feel for this, place a hand on your lower abdomen and make your abdomen expand into your hand. Keep your throat open and you will feel air being sucked into your lungs with little rib movement. i.e. it enables you to breathe when your chest is constrained. If possible, breathe in through your nose with your tongue on the roof of your mouth and your throat open. When you pull in your lower abdomen you will feel the air being forced out of your lungs – pursing your lips as you do this makes the effect stronger and more effective. Pulling in your abdomen sharply will force air (and fluids) out of your lungs.

Breathe Out First

In a panic situation you should breathe out first, even if you feel you have no air. This gives you better control and stops you sucking in water inadvertently. Because of your inherent body elasticity, air will be drawn into your lungs when you relax and let your abdomen expand.

To make this burst breathing, simply pull in your abdomen at a fast rate, making sure you relax and expand your abdomen in between.  You can learn this technique relatively quickly, but it is best to practise this regularly to embed the movement.  It is important to feel when you have enough oxygen (just before you start to feel dizzy) – you do not want to hyperventilate.

Focus On

Things to focus on are:

  • expanding, relaxing and contracting your LOWER abdomen
  • PURSING your lips as you breathe OUT
  • breathe OUT forcefully (and first) by pulling your lower abdomen in
  • let body relaxation and elasticity help you breathe IN
  • breathe IN through your nose if you can – this helps your brain judge oxygen levels
  • do NOT over do it!

Staying Calm and Well Oxygenated

Using this technique, you can remain calm and oxygenated for vital minutes while you work out what you need to do!

Other, related posts:

Structured abdominal breathing

Better swim breathing technique

Connected swimming