This is a response to a forum post over on Beginner Triathlete about so-called “Hypoxic Breathing” swim drills, and originally appeared on my retired blog, exercisephysiologymd.comon January 17th, 2007
I’m a huge proponent of using terms that accurately reflect the underlying physical changes that occur on a biochemical level when training for triathlon swimming. The words I use as a coach transmit meaning to the athlete that may help reinforce what the benefit is.
That’s why the term “Hypoxic Breathing” does not belong in a swim or triathlon coach’s lexicon. If you ask swimmers, triathletes and many coaches what hypoxic breathing drills are, they’ll respond with answers like:
Holding your breath
Swimming Underwater (as far as you can)
Swimming a length while minimizing breathing
Swimming with increasing time between breaths, eg. every 3, every 5 or every 7 strokes
I want to address the first two responses primarily, but principals apply to the latter 2 answers as well.
Firstly, holding your breath prevents CO2 from escaping your lungs. Our body is constantly consuming oxygen and producing CO2 as a waste product. The CO2 builds up much faster than the oxygen is consumed, and needs to be released through the lungs. Holding your breathing causes the CO2 level to build up in your bloodstream. So these sets should really be called “Hypercarbic” sets. “Hyper-” meaning elevated and “-carbic” relating to the carbon dioxide level.
The build-up of Co2 in the lungs while holding your breath stimulates the brainstem and diaphragm to breath. This is the sensation you feel when you hold your breath without exhaling. The lungs start to burn and the urge to breath is irresistible. Breathing is usually involuntary, meaning we don’t think about it and when not thinking about it, don’t have control over it. Our brainstem, spinal cord, and diaphragm will keep the bellows moving no matter what.
But when we voluntarily decide to hold our breath, we are overriding the built-in mechanisms. We can continue to override those mechanisms even when the urge to breath crops up. When trying to stay under the water for a long time, some swimmers and divers will hyperventilate first, in order to lower the CO2 level and delay the urge to breathe. This means that the oxygen in your bloodstream drops lower and lower while the CO2 level takes longer to build up.
However, people have died doing these drills. There is no physiologic benefit from doing them. The name is a misnomer. If you want to swim uninterrupted without worrying about breathing, use a snorkel. The benefit of using a snorkel is that you don’t have to break form when breathing, and can focus on other parts of your swim stroke comes from not having your form break down when you roll (or don’t roll, or lift your head, or claw your way to the surface) to take a breath.
A far, far better solution is to have someone work with you to learn how to breathe properly. The number of strokes you take per breath is irrelevant. There is no right number. You need what you need. The body’s need for oxygen consumption and getting rid of carbon dioxide is dependent upon how much energy you are using and in what form you are using it (aerobic/anaerobic, etc). When I start my swim warmup, I will frequently swim 7 to 9 strokes without breathing only because I am swimming smoothly, I have not gotten my oxygen consumption up by working hard, I am not generating a lot of waste products due to the low effort. When I have the urge to breathe, I breathe. When I am doing long endurance sprints, I may breathe every 2 strokes. When I am rested and doing a single 25-yard sprint, yes, I can do it with no breaths. But not because I am forcing myself to do it. It is because 15-20 seconds of maximum effort requires little oxygen.
A novice swimmer who uses all the energy they have just to stay on the surface of the water will need to breathe every stroke because of the amount of energy they are using.
Do not play with the basic needs of your body.
There is a mantra in Emergency Medical Services:
Air goes in and out, Blood goes round and round Pink is good and blue is bad.
That’s all an EMT, Paramedic or Emergency Medicine nurse or physician needs to know in order to resuscitate a patient. If it’s good enough for these professionals, it’s good enough for the recreational swimmer.
Air goes in and out.
Don’t forget it.
Practice it daily. Frequently. You’ll get really good at it.
This is one of several articles describing different testing protocols for running. These tests are appropriate for triathlete as well as for runners. This test is for determining your estimated Threshold Heart Rate. If you’d like to determine your threshold running paces, visit the Running Pace Training Zone Calculator. Or return to our main Training Calculators Page.
20 Minute Protocol for Running Threshold Heart Rate
This is a twenty-minute field test protocol used to determine your “threshold heart rate” and pace. Knowing your threshold heart rate will help you both plan workouts as well as to measure progress in your training.
Field Test Warmup
A good running warmup serves several purposes in both training as well as racing. Your muscles need time to both warm-up physically as well as “wake up” neurologically. When you start an activity, your body recruits only the smallest amount of muscle to get the job done. Why? Because you are an efficient human being! The body only uses as much energy as needed to get a task done without wasting energy. In order to run your best and fastest, you need to keep stimulating the muscles involved in running with a good warmup. Your brain and nervous system will recruit more and more muscle groups in order to spread the workload. By recruiting more muscles you can run faster and determine your true abilities.
Suggested Run Warmup: 5-10 minutes brisk walking with muscle activation drills. 5-10 minutes easy jogging, with three twenty-second strides thrown in, 2-3 minute recovery between strides. Be sure to take a minimum three-minute recovery before beginning the test, so your muscles can recruit the energy systems needed.
Begin 20-minute effort at the maximum sustainable effort.
If needed start slightly below what you think you can sustain, but continue increasing effort without going harder than you can sustain for the duration of the test. You should finish knowing you gave it everything you had.
Your estimated Lactate Threshold Heart Rate (LTHR) is 95% of your 20-minute average heart rate for the test.
15 minutes easy cool down with stretching
Now you can do some simple math to determine heart rate training zones, either relative to your LTHR, or as a percentage. These zones are starting points. Each test will have some variation as heart rates can vary from day to day depending on several factors. Taking 95% of your 20-minute average HR is just an estimate for your “true” threshold heart rate which could be determined with a 60-minute time trial.
As long as you maintain the same conditions from test to test, the 20-minute test is excellent for maintaining your current heart rate zones and measuring progress from test to test throughout the season. Record in your training logs your 20-minute heart rate average, the total distance covered for the test and the average speed of the test.
The heart rate is used to determine training zones, and the average speed and distance are used to measure progress from test to test.
Steel City’s Running Pace Training Zone Calculator Our own running pace training zone calculator uses well established physiologic principals and a logarithmic regression that accounts for human fatigue rates. What’s that mean? It’s among the most accurate training pace estimators available on the internet.
McMillan Training Zone Calculator While we enjoy using our own calculator for customized training plans, in a quick pinch the McMillan Training Zone Calculator is one of the best out there. Like ours, Greg McMillan’s calculator is based on human physiology, and also accounts for variations in muscle fiber type (sprinter vs endurance). Have fun with this one!
Running World Pace Calculator
Running World gets our vote for one of the top calculators because they use the same reference material that we do! it’s laid out so that you can enter 2 different previous race times to get your estimated goal race pace. This one is Steel City Approved!
Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
The Triathlete’s Training Bible, Joe Friel
Training and Racing with a Power Meter, Hunter Allen & Andy Coggan
Swim coaching manuals from the early 1900s up through the mid 1990s and later have traditionally focused on drills that include kickboards, pullbouys and high volumes swimming as a means to improve. Coaches who learned to swim during this time period are now in their 40s & 50s and responsible for coaching youth, high school and collegiate athletes, as well as mentoring younger coaches. That’s why you hear of “traditional instruction” as opposed to more modern and efficient swim instruction. Coach Terry Laughlin of Total Immersion brought more modern skills to the lay public through his swim camps and books on self coaching. Inspired by Bill Boomer, new ideas of learning to float and be supported by the water, rather than struggling to stay on the surface, became common place. Efficiency in swimming skyrocketed when these balance, posture and streamlining ideas began to spread beyond coach boomer’s personal contacts.
By breaking down swim skills into small manageable components and then reassembling, your swimming stroke can be transformed into one that is smooth, enjoyable and faster than you have experienced. The secrets of speed already lie within your own body and our job is to help you experience and understand how to apply this in your swimming.
Learn to Make Swimming your Favorite Activity
Most swimmers contact me because they want to swim faster…or they want to enjoy swimming more in order to pursue healthy physical activity. Whether you’re a rockstar triathlete or a retiring school teacher or any where on the spectrum of swim speed, you’ll learn to enjoy the PROCESS of learning to swim better. We make swimming a mindful activity that infuses you with energy, helps you escape from the daily buzz and stress of your life, and incorporates whole body movements in a non-impactful, endurance and stress-reducing pursuit. AND you’ll swim faster as a result.
Make Swimming The Best Part of Your Training Day
Many triathletes and exercisers dread the process of getting up for the gym, getting ready, changing and going to do a ‘work out’ for any variety of reasons. Maybe you’re nodding your head right about now?
By focusing on the process of swimming and getting your mind in the right place to practice gentle movements you’ll find yourself more energized as you learn to swim better.
Through this regular practice you’ll not only become a better and faster freestyle swimmer, but you’ll also begin looking forward to the pool as the best part of your training day.
Who Should Take Swim Lessons from Steel City Endurance?
Triathletes of all levels
From learn to swim and complete your first triathlon, to crossing the finish line to qualify for Kona, both beginner AND elite triathletes can make improvements to their swim. For the elite athlete, the basic laws of hydrodynamics can get challenging to manage as your speed and skills improve. It seems counter-intutiive, but to maintain progress and get faster at swimming, you need an experienced eye to help show you what you can’t feel or see on your own.
Steel City Endurance has a very non-intimidating approach that will ease you ito the water at your own learning speed, helping you gain confidence for your next trip to the beach or snorkeling vacation you’ve always dreamed of. Improving your relationship with the water helps you be more confident AND safer around any water activity.
Masters Swimmers & Swim for Health
You’ll find yourself passing your old lanemates wondering what you’ve done differently and looking to YOU for instruction once you learn the fundamental mistakes that are holding you back. If you’ve got joint arthritis or need to swim for your cardiovascular health, being able to swim easily and without stressing your neck, shoulders and back is vital for you to continue a healthy lifestyle with swimming.
Sign up the Lessons or Clinics that are Right for You
Sign up for one on one or small group lessons. A minimum of three one-hour, or six half-hour lessons are recommended to allow you to completely transform your stroke for beginner, intermediate and fearful swimmers.
Included is video evaluation above and below water, with expert stroke analysis. Technique development tailored to your current level of ability, clear instructions on how to structure your practice before your next less. Lessons are 55 minutes long.
Bring a Buddy
Sign up with a swimming buddy to improve your ability to practice proper swimming between lessons and on your own. Learn what to look for in your parters form so you and your buddy can self-critique when swimming without an instructor. Minimum lesson length is 1 hour.
Is Training by Heart Rate Better than Training by Effort?
Do you use a power meter or heart rate monitor for every cycling workouts? Do you know your training zones by heart? Do you regularly execute a threshold test set every 4-6 weeks throughout the year as your fitness improves? If so congratulations are in order…or are they?
Executing a workout well often means hitting prescribed training levels such as a target heart rate or power zone. But an even more powerful training skill to master is nailing the effort level without out prescriptive guidelines. Instead of having a pre-determined target to hit, you ride (run/swim) by effort following the guidelines of the workout and tuning in to your body’s response and signals.
How long can I sustain this effort?
Can I work at this level of dis-comfort for another 4 minutes without fading?
Can I repeat this focus level for another three sets of the same activity?
Is this recovery level easy enough that I can do another hard effort for the next eight minutes?
Nailing the workout intention when using effort alone means you’re in tune with how your body is responding to effort that day. But it takes practice!
Failing is a Step Closer to the End Result
The first time you execute a workout like this, you may, in fact, you will fail miserably. You’ll start too hard and won’t complete all the efforts. You’ll finish too easily and not hit the desired intensity. You’ll look at your heart rate tracing after the fact and see a line that looks like the profile of the Hilly Billy Roubeaux instead of even like the Sahara desert. In other words, your efforts were all over the place, rather than steady, even and repeatable.
You’re thinking, “But coach, just give me a power target and I’ll hit it”.
Success in triathlon is not always about hard work. It’s more often about being in tune with your body on a consistent basis and relying on that instinct you’ve developed on race day. Power training is fantastic, but there’s no substitute for your intuition about your own body’s performance.
There’s a recipe for developing this instinct. Given any specific task, complete the workout in a “practice” mode. You’re not trying to build fitness, nail a heart rate zone, get anaerobic, VO2 max-ish, or wherever the effort falls on a physiologic scale.
You’re trying to tune your instincts to hit the intention of the workout. ie “go hard for an hour”, “run easy for exactly 30 minutes”, “execute three evenly paced efforts with 2 minute rest at the maximum of your ability”.
Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Training
It may be hard to see how it’s different to hit a power range for three eight-minute efforts, versus doing the same effort without targets and going just by feel.
The first is “prescriptive”…your efforts are given by your coach or your spreadsheet of training zones. But your spreadsheet doesn’t know your body’s ability on that specific day, and your coach won’t know unless you are in a daily training environment or communicate intensively on a daily basis.
In the second example, the power is “descriptive”. You or your coach look at your power levels, effort or heart rate zones AFTER you complete the workout instead of before or during.
You improve your ability to understand your body while executing a practice session, rather than a workout. While practicing, you’re also developing the specific fitness needed to improve your fitness and master the pace, master the effort and tune into your body.
On race day, it matters less what your power or heart rate targets are…it matters more if you’re operating within your body’s ability to cross the finish line having used your energy wisely and finishing in the fastest time you’re capable of.
Fitness Follows Mastery
Once you master the workout you can learn to push your abilities while still maintaining the practice intentions. Maybe it takes you three ‘practice sessions’ to do an evenly paced 3 x 8 minute effort with 2 minutes rest. “But Coach,” you protest again loudly…”If you’d just give me a target, I can do it right the first time!” Right…but that’s not the point.
Building fitness is easy. Anyone can prescribe hard workouts. Online training simulators like Trainer Road, Zwift and Sufferfest can help you do testing sets, tell you how to crunch the numbers (or do it for you) and give you back more training sets to do. That’s algorithmic.
But coaching is an art and racing well requires practice…not just fitness.
Practice executing specific workouts by listening to your body. Repeat these efforts to do it “better”…more evenly paced within the workout guidelines. See what your heart rate and power were AFTER the effort is done. Are your efforts even or ‘hilly billy’? Is each effort similar to the previous or do they get less intense as you get more fatigued? Or is the first effort even and the second and third efforts ragged?
Practice Perfect the Push Performance
Photo: Nils Nilsen, Triathlete.com
Reread the workout guidelines and see if you executed it well. If you did, congratulations! You now have a baseline. Next time you try it, see if you can push just a little bit more. If the workouts are well designed, you’ll be building the fitness you need, but more importantly, building your reservoir of body sensing, pacing and confidence in racing.
“Training is about teaching yourself to understand your boundaries and then slowly pushing those boundaries up. You need to know how to feel those and where they are!
I say go out and try to get in touch with your perceived exertion and your body rhythm at least a few times a week in all the disciplines of our sport. Most of the time in training, especially when I go to a new town, I often test myself by doing the following. I leave the hotel room for a run and check the clock before I leave.
I then say to myself, ok I am going to go and run for 1 hour. When I come back I try and see how close to that hour I actually was. I take no watch with me nor do I set any preconceived pace. I run freely and try and feel my way to understanding just how long I have been running by my surroundings and my pace and effort. Funnily enough, the fitter I get the better I am at getting very close to the hour.“
Ride “Blind” and Benefit
During your next training session, try putting black electrical tape over your power meter or heart rate monitor. Turn off Zwift and Trainer Road and go old school while listening to tunes, or watching a scenic youtube video. Learn to “practice” rather than “workout”. You’ll tap into a new set of skills needed for triathlon speed, success and enjoyment.
Last week I rented a small SUV while I was at the Long Course World Championships in Oklahoma City, OK. Normally I rent compact or economy cars because they’re less expensive and I don’t have a need for a lot of cargo room. But invariably, by the end of my trip my back and neck are tired and sore from the low, molded seats that these cars usually come with. So on the spur of the moment I upgraded to an SUV. My back was really really happy with that decision! But I had two close calls while driving on the highway, trying to switch lanes and noticing that there was a car in my blind spot.
I’m used to the blind spots on my own vehicle, and therefore know where and when to look and for how long before I switch lanes. I was a bit surprised to have this happen twice…once on my right and once on my left in this rental SUV. It didn’t take more than one occurrence though, because as soon as I knew there was a blind spot and where, I knew to look for it before switching lanes.
Improvement Requires some Type of Feedback
Normally in order to locate your blind spots you need some type of external feedback. Hopefully it’s not a car accident that becomes your first warning a car was too close to you. Typically I look in my mirrors, rear view, then side view, then finally I turn my head to check for anyone there…in that blind spot that I’m used to. IN this new car, I had to look further back and for a second longer. But once I knew it was there, it became routine to check and I had no further close calls over the weekend.
Applying “Blind Spot Reduction” to Triathlon Training
How does this story apply to triathlon training? WE all have blind spots in our own preparation for the sport. Whether it’s a fitness blind spot (Doing only long slow distance and no intervals?), possibly a sport balance blind spot (you like running the most, so you skip all your bike rides?), or often a technique or skill blind spot (not sure when to shift gears, or how to smooth out your swim stroke?)
A blind spot means we can’t see it. We need some type of external feedback to identify it. So chances are, unless you train often with a variety of friends, hire a skills or technique coach, or sit down with someone to review your training and preparation you may not know where your blind spots are.
I can guarantee one thing, though…if you can locate them, they will almost automatically improve! Just like my rental SUV story. Once I knew they were there, they became a non-issue.
How to Find your Own Blind Spots (Hint: If you already know about them, it’s not a blind spot!)
If you become aware that you preferentially skip bike rides to go for a trail run, then maybe you’ll be more inclined to get in an extra trainer ride this winter or sign up for a spinning class. Pay for it ahead of time or buy a punch card, and you’ll be more likely to go.
Even if you enjoy swimming and feel skilled, seek out a qualified swim coach in your area, or someone who can do video analysis from good quality submissions…and get some outside feedback on your stroke.
How to Specifically Ask for Outside Help
Take a swim or run clinic. Ride with a different group of people. Join a local tri club’s weekly fitness session. All of these are ways to get objective feedback especially if you ask for it! How do you ask for feedback? Just pick out someone who seems confident and comfortable, or perhaps there is a coach attending and let them know your concerns. Ask questions like:
Can you watch me shift during these rolling hills and let me know if I’m using my gears appropriately?
My right shoulder gets sore when I swim longer than 1/2 mile, especially when I am forced to breath left. Can you take a look at what could be contributing?
I can’t seem to increase my pace when I try to run intervals. Can you let me know if you see anything that could be causing an issue?
You don’t have to know the answers, and you also don’t need to Know what your blind spots are. You only need to be aware that all of us have them. Blind spots are even easier than weak spots to address, because the simple act of becoming aware of them opens up all sorts of avenues to create lasting improvements.
I’d love to hear from you. What kind of blind spots have you discovered in the past? How did you address them?