Swimmer’s Guide To The Medulla Oblongata

Breath in. Breath out. Simple.

Or not?

Breathing is necessary of course, everyone needs to breathe, but you don’t have to spend time considering when or how.  Except during swimming.

Breathing is one of the autonomic activities that is governed by a part of our brain at the top of our spinal cord called our medulla or also the medulla-oblongata. (I prefer medulla-oblongata because it makes me seem intelligent). Automatic at all times, even when you sleep, but importantly; not when you swim.

So there is something very important going on that many swimmers and coaches don’t pay any attention to: an autonomic system that isn’t allowed to be autonomic.

The medulla-oblongata controls all automatic things like sneezing, blinking, vomiting and the respiratory rhythm to name a few. It is everything about us that is unconsciously ticking over in the background of our lives.

The respiratory cycle and sequencing are still being studied and remain an area of study that is not completely understood. But basically our cortex is given a signal by the medulla-oblongata to breathe faster when we experience stress like when our blood becomes more acidic during exercise.

When your medulla oblongata senses stress it tells our cortex to activate intercostal muscles, which are between your ribs, to speed up pumping your lungs so you can add more oxygen to your blood.

So swimming creates an unusual stress on a human, that impacts, what Bill Boomer called, the primal part of your brain.

Impacting the primal part of your brain can not be treated lightly. In fact, in low oxygen environments, it causes panic by a gasping reflex which is caused by a tiny part of the medulla-oblongata called the pre-Bötzinger complex that specifically deals with respiratory modulation.

This area of the medulla-oblongatta produces two types of breathing rhythms: in normal levels of oxygen we have a smooth easy rhythm but under stress a faster rhythm happens.

So stress, including exercise, has a trigger to speed up normal breathing, then peculiarly, in a swimmer, the ‘speed up’ breathing message has to be ignored due to your face in the water.

An ignored ‘breathe more’! message will set off the mechanisms of panic and gasp reflex but also alter mood. Since the medulla oblongatta also regulates a person’s mood many stress-related autonomic systems would start to activate. Many people find swimming exceptionally stressful and the breathing aspect is likely why. Most successful swimmers learned very early in their lives when they had better neural plasticity (ability to learn new things).

This then implies two steps: that the physiological demand of swimming creates stress by blood acidity and the Pre-Bötzinger complex immediately responds by increasing breathing rhythms. BUT in swimming this response can not happen immediately complicating things with additional stress.

These mechanisms are an area of research that is not currently thoroughly understood.

Neurology of the respiratory systems is obviously complex and I don’t assume to understand it as an expert would. Even experts agree there is a great deal remaining to understand about this system. However my swimming experience and coaching experience has given me some degree of understanding that may help.

To decrease stress a swimmer must forcefully exhale and not just hold their breath. This permits a proper inhalation to follow the exhalation (as per normal). The purposeful exhaling makes a normal response to exercise and keeps all of your subconscious mechanics ticking over.

Holding your breath during a stressful event will quickly escalate to become an urgency to gasp. This gasp reflex is the feeling of the Pre-Bötzinger complex being stressed and changes a calm mood-state into panic. Panic or gasping are not mechanisms that are helpful during a race.

For example, I learned about the usefulness of controlling exhalation in the late 1980’s. I was firstly a backstroke swimmer that had switched to freestyle to exploit a gap in the market because Canada had at least five backstroke swimmers in the top twenty, so my coach and I decided to turn to 400 free. However I was still called up to swim on relays as a backstroker from time to time with our club. I’d recently seen a Canadian swimmer called Sean Murphy swim a 100m backstroke just outside the world record by hundredths. He did an emerging new thing that exploited a fast underwater dolphin kick for most of the first 50m of the 100 back. I was keen to try since I had a very good dolphin kick.

During the 50m backstroke leg in the 200 medley relay (Long Course) I tried to kick the majority of the distance underwater like Murphy since there was no 15m underwater rule yet. In preparation for it, in the warm up, I realised that it was too hard to hold my breath that long during maximum dolphin kick effort. However I had discovered in the lead up to the 87/88 season, in my 400free short course, that proper forceful exhaling helped the oxygenation of my blood in the early parts of my race. Additionally I used a slow exhale on turns which subsequently made them the strongest part of my race crushing my competition off the walls.

A 10m underwater phase is significantly different to a 45m underwater phase so I tried in my warm up to exhale for 45m. I found that if I held my breath past the 15m false start rope (when underwater on your back you can see the things above the surface if the surface is smooth) and then exhaled very slowly to get to 45m (or even better: 44m). Then I’d come up just before the flags, completing the race with normal backstroke stroke-count to the wall.

When I popped up at around 45m and sprinted into the touch beside A-team backstroke swimmer Mark Tewksbury, he was incredulous and thought I’d somehow cheated. It was the ultimate complement.

Since those halcyon days I’ve taught breathing skills to swimmers with some great success. I called it humming while you swim. Good breathing skills are important in all distances!

Even if you don’t care that the Pre-Bötzinger complex part of the medulla oblongatta tells your cerebellum to activate a faster rhythm of breathing. And that this is subsequently complicated by submerging in water… simply get your swimmers to exhale consciously so that you don’t put too much stress on one of the most primary aspects of being alive. It makes swimming far easier.

Simple. Breathe in and breathe out.


About Coach Gary

I competed in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul representing Canada and coached in the 2000 and 2004 Olympics for Great Britain. I have a degree in History and a minor degree in Psychology from University of Calgary. I have travelled extensively and have been very lucky to see so much of the world while representing Canada and Great Britain at swimming competitions. I am very proud of the fact that I coached a swimmer to become number one in the world in the fastest swimming race in 2002. I pride myself in my ability to find new and interesting ways to teach swimming. I am an accomplished artist specialising in sculpture, I have another blog called 'swimmingart' where I publish some of my swimming drawings. I have three young children; all boys. I have recently taken up painting and yoga....but not at the same time. You can see my new paintings at: https://www.artgallery.co.uk/artist/gary_Vandermeulen
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