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Underwater Swimming

Underwater swimming is a common event in the backyard pool or public pool, a challenging fun sport. This is a great way to have fun and expand your lung capacity. It makes you do a swimming stroke correctly, any performance difference becomes clearly visible. Find out about safety, breath holding and more.

Underwater swimming can refer to:

  • Unequipped swimming beneath the water surface
  • Free-Diving (in special suits)
  • Scuba Diving (Top and Levi's)
  • Snorkeling (with clothes for sun protection)
  • Survival Training (usually fully clothed)

Olympic Sport in 1900

Underwater swimming once it made it to the greatest international sporting stage. The men's underwater swimming was an event in the 1900 Summer Olympics in Paris, the only occasion such an event was held.

On 12 August 1900, some 14 swimmers from 4 nations competed. Held over a maximum of 60m, competitors were awarded 2 points for each meter swum, and one point for each second that they stayed under water.

It is not surprising that it was never seen again on the Olympic program considering the lack of appeal for spectators. Maybe now with underwater cameras it could make a comeback.

Increase Your Swimming Performance

Video technology has evolved to allow swimmers to observe and correct their technique mistakes from an in-the-pool vantage point.

Tiny video cameras enclosed in water-tight plastic casing have become an important advantage to many swimming programs. They allow athletes to think about their strokes visually, instead of relying upon a coach's verbal interpretation.

Please Note:

Swimming underwater fully clothed uses up much more oxygen because of the extra exertion.

Underwater Swimming Safety

Keep it safe. Only do underwater swimming under lifeguard supervision. Make sure your lifeguards know what you are doing and is ready to jump in immediately. Have lifeguards ready in the water and on poolside for immediate action.

Maybe you've seen these signs at some swimming pools:

No Prolonged
 Underwater Swimming 
or Breath Holding

Yet holding the breath underwater has been a common swimming pool game for years, and has been part of the training regime for competitive swimmers even before there were swimming pools.

DO NOT Hyperventilate !


Prolonged breath holding is a dangerous practice that can lead to drowning if you hyperventilate before you go under water.

Hyperventilation is the repeated inhalation of fast, full breaths of air and rapid exhalation. The effect of hyperventilation is to wash C02 out of your blood, resulting in an extremely low C02 level.

While underwater swimmers burn up oxygen through exertion, they never get the signal from the brain, the "bursting lung" sensation, because of the low level of C02 in the lungs and blood. Without the C02 stimulus, the brain doesn’t recognize the need to breathe and you black out from hypoxia, a lack of oxygen to the brain.

In order to understand why breath holding poses a threat, it is necessary to know something about human respiration. A high level of carbon dioxide in the blood is what actually triggers air hunger, not the lack of oxygen.

When you are actually starving for oxygen a while after hyperventilating, your body doesn't notice it because the carbon dioxide levels are normal. Oxygen-starved, you may black out and drown before anyone realizes what is happening. This phenomenon is sometimes known as shallow water blackout.

Shallow Water Blackout

Shallow Water Blackout is most commonly associated with skin diving, but the more swimming coaches we speak with, the more we realize that underwater fainting is not at all uncommon in the world of competitive aquatic sports.

Carbon dioxide serves as a stimulus to breathing by informing the brain that the body requires another breath of air. This process occurs in any prolonged holding of breath, including underwater swimming.

Normally there is no danger because the carbon dioxide build up in the blood signals the brain that you need to take a breath by giving you the sensation that your lungs are going to burst if you don't get a breath.

The problem comes when a swimmer or diver manipulates the brain’s automatic breathing control device through hyperventilation. The blackout victim is in an extremely dangerous position at the point of unconsciousness.

Seeing him underwater will fool observers as the unconscious swimmer often makes seemingly coordinated movements even after the fainting. He does not appear to be in difficulty.

Irreversible physiological brain damage from a lack of oxygen is only minutes away, even if he's saved from death.

Three other factors make breath holding even more dangerous.

  1. Unconscious swimmers may make involuntary movements, preventing observers from realizing that they are in trouble.

  2. Low levels of oxygen in the blood may trigger the release of endorphins, so swimmers may experience a sense of euphoria rather than a sense of danger.

  3. Breath-holders are likely to be experienced, adept swimmers and as such may not be as closely watched by lifeguards as beginning swimmers.

Your Underwater Questions

Should we challenge our teams with underwater swimming?

Yes, possibly, at least the fit ones. You must warn your swimmers about pressure on the ears and the danger of hyperventilation. Monitor them while they swim underwater, otherwise you run the risk of suffering irreversible consequences.

Although the dangers of breath holding have been known for many years, education efforts have been spotty.

Training materials from the American Red Cross and the YMCA mention the dangers of breath holding, but many facilities still lack the appropriate sign posts.

Among the public there is very little awareness of the dangers of hyperventilation before breath holding.

Also be mindful of your ears. Balance out the pressure. Don't swim with a blocked nose.

How do I swim underwater?

Only do this under lifeguard supervision. Make sure your lifeguards know what you are doing and are ready to assist. They should dress warm, as they may not move about in the water as much as you do.
  1. Swim underwater with a calm stroke and a calm mind. Your clothes will slow you down, so don't expect to race across to the far side of the pool.

  2. Exhale as much of the air in your lungs as possible, and then inhale as much as possible.

  3. Slide beneath the surface of the water, holding your breath. Watch out for any air pockets in your clothes.

  4. Push off hard and streamline your body, with your legs together and your arms extended above your head. Point your toes and try to push your shoulders up to your ears.

  5. Pull your knees up towards your chest, kick out with legs apart, and then squeeze your legs together. This is the same as the breaststroke kick.

  6. Turn your palms outward and pull your arms all the way down to your sides. Bend your arms and cup your hands to push as much water back as you can with your pull. This motion is done at the same time as your kick.

  7. Glide as far as possible in your streamline position.

  8. As your legs begin to pull up for your next kick, put your hands together and extend your arms for your next pull.

  9. Relax and try not to concentrate on the time or distance spent underwater. When you need a breath of air, return to the surface.

How Do I Keep Water Out of My Nose?

It is very hard to do anything underwater while holding your nose. You can't do handstands correctly, flip easily, or do competitive swimming strokes.
  1. When you get in the pool, stand by the edge. Slowly dunk your head under the water while blowing out of your nose.

  2. Repeat that step until you feel comfortable going under water.

  3. Go under the water again, and push off the wall. Remember to keep blowing air out of your nose. If you get water up your nose, then repeat steps 2 and 3 again.

  4. When swimming horizontally, keep your head facing down to the bottom of your pool.
With time, when you swim faster, water going up your nose will be less of a problem. It is really at slower speeds this is an issue. If you can swim a lap without getting water up your nose, then you have achieved your goal!

Your body has certain, natural reactions to water that take time to adapt to correctly. Breathing so that water doesn't go up your nose will happen, but it may take a while.

Practice blowing air through your nose slower, and slower. Until, instead of a steady stream of bubbles you have just enough air pressure in your nose to prevent water from going in. Be patient.

Which clothes are best for Underwater Swimming?

Dress up warm in sportswear or casual clothes with a hood. You lose more heat underwater, mainly from your head (ca. 30%) so wear a hooded garment. The longer you stay under water, the more important proper dress becomes. We prefer an outfit like this:

  1. T-shirt
  2. Shorts or running tights
  3. Long trousers or jeans
  4. Warm turtleneck pullover
  5. Tracksuit top, hoodie, or anorak with hood

These clothes are both warm and comfortable in the water, but may slow you down as the hoodie soaks up a lot of water, a tracksuit and anorak less so. Wear all your clothes first in the bathtub to make sure they all fit well when wet, before you wear them in the pool for training.

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