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Regulating Breathing for Your Swim if You Have a Predisposition to Heart Palpitations

carefully bending over to smooth wrinkles out of new Tuff pool

carefully bending over to smooth wrinkles out of new Tuff pool

I have been managing my heart arrhythmias during exercise for 25 years now, so it’s not just a matter of age.  

  • I do NOT take any medication.
  • I know what tends to cause the arrhythmias and I know how to adjust when they kick in.
  • There may have been an increase in frequency as I have aged, but I’ve never recorded exact numbers, so that is only a perception of mine.
  • Yet, I exercise fairly intensely and regularly without keeling over.

The most common problem for me is the racing, or galloping, heart beat.  When this happens, I am not in any pain, but I just don’t feel I can do anything else other than think about my heart.  If it goes on for very long, I feel like I don’t have energy to move.  I don’t feel out of breath, per se, but I’d prefer to not even change locations.

I also have periods where my heart seems to be making huge, irregular slow leaps in my chest, rather like it wants out.  This is not as distracting to my ability to move around, strangely enough.  However, this can sometimes transition to the galloping heart beat.

The episodes vary in intensity, but they have this in common:  they are frequently caused by a sudden change in pressure or exertion.  For me, this has been related to:

  • bending into a squatting position quickly (tested this a lot unintentionally chasing after my 7 kids when they were little)
  • loud sounds at the movie theatre
  • fatigue
  • swimming

In my opinion, that is a strange list, because I also do things like run vigorously, bike hard, garden with enthusiasm, play my flute, sing extensively.  These all involve deep breathing and prolonged aerobic activity.  Some of them include lifting and pushing.   Yet, they rarely result in my heart doing acrobatics in my chest.  Sometimes, when I am just sitting, my heart feels like it is considering a weird beat, but it doesn’t do it unless it gets a trigger that involves pressure.  So, yes, sometimes I end up being instinctively more cautious about my movements.  Still, I go around at a chipper speed much of the day, doing my household chores, grocery shopping, doing stair repeats to the basement, with no problem.

Swimming  involves a combination of pressure and exertion that my heart easily reacts to.  And it tends to cause both kinds of arrhythmias for me, starting with the leaping heart.  The exertion aspect is obvious.  If I am going to increase my stamina, at some point, I have to push myself in speed and distance combinations.  The pressure aspect is a little more subtle.  It has to do with how I breath.  This is what I have learned is important if I want to avoid delays in my workout or frantic life guards:

  • Slowly, gradually, in a controlled way, expelling my air when I am under water is extra important.  If I end up holding my breath, it puts pressure on my chest.
  • Swimming with my tempo timer helps me keep the pace that gets me air at the intervals that are important when I am completing sets for distance.
  • Moderately increasing effort for successive workouts is even more important for reaching my goals in swimming.  If I try to make too much progress in one workout, my heart is likely to go spastic.

When I am in the pool, I have only had the heart switch to the irregular beats at the end of a period of exertion, at the end of the lane.  I find this curious.  But as soon as I stop, after a vigorous set, the wacko beats can start.

  • Then, I have found I should just stand there and breath in a relaxed way.  Most of the time, it calms down with this.
  • If it goes into a rapid heartbeat, I will have to apply pressure to the chest cavity by bearing down.  I do this by actually holding my breath and tightening everything in the “trunk” of my body, like I am trying hard to push or lift something.

Even with these arrhythmias being an issue for me, I find swimming relaxing overall.  Sometimes, I’m even surprised to find myself remembering that I cannot actually breath under water.  The sensation of being in the water is fun.  I’m looking forward to my pool being functional for swimming against the current, but for today, I’m off to the gym pool once more.

Tuff pool just a few steps away from having the Fastlane put in!

Tuff pool just a few steps away from having the Fastlane put in!


  • rich breton

    Nice post!
    I’m curious how you distinguish a heart arrhythmia from something more serious like atrial fibrillation? The slow irregular hard ones sound dead on for afib from my limited understanding

  • Rich, from what I understand, “palpitations” and “fibrillations” are basically the same thing, although the symptoms can occur to varying degrees, such as how fast or how long. “Heart arrhythmia” refers to any heart pumping action that is considered “irregular in rhythm,” but that does not necessarily mean it is uncommon or life threatening. From there, the different arrhythmias are classified according to which chamber is involved and how it varies from “regular.” But there are also a lot of common used terms that overlap with medical terminology. Here is what Mayo clinic says about atrial fibrillation:

  • Simone

    This is a very interesting read, something which I completely relate to! Aside from loud noises like you mentioned, my palpitations tend to come on with sudden changes in pressure or exertion, like the other examples you mentioned. I don’t get them often, sometimes very rarely, but usually in the warmer weather I find. I’ve just started going swimming again, and I found my heart going crazy after only doing a couple of laps but after I finished swimming, I felt really good and my breathing felt much better! This is how I came across your post, as I wanted to see if anyone else felt the same as me. Thanks again!!

  • lauraimprovises

    It is helpful to know that other people deal with similar things, isn’t it? I will also mention the workout approach of building an endurance base gradually without stressing the heart anaerobically, as this might also help you. I wrote about it first over a year ago and am very happy with it:

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