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.
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.
This interview originally appeared in a live Facebook interview with Kirsten Sass and is transcribed here.
The Fresh Freestyle coach crew and friends were excited to chat with amazing athlete Kirsten Sass yesterday, the day after her age group AND overall female win at the ITU Long Course Triathlon World Championships this weekend in OKC USA.
We were grateful for her to spend an hour answering any questions we had. In case you are not on FB or missed the chat here are some excerpts from the conversation.
Qu: Congratulations Kirsten! What will you do today as part of your recovery?
Kirsten: Thank you! Well – it will not be the most ideal recovery day as most of it will be spent driving home! I will just try to get out of the car periodically and do some moving around. 😉 Probably a nice easy swim tomorrow will help more than anything!
Qu: Thanks for taking the time to answer questions! I have one more: what is your go-to recovery snack after a training session?
Kirsten: A lot of times it depends on how intense the training session was. If first thing in the morning I try to just eat a good breakfast within 30-45 minutes of finishing. If I just need something to tide me over, my all-time favorite snack is a banana with almond butter.
Qu: Wondering how you balance everything between the kids and training? Spending 40 hours working every week and 3-4 hours a day with the kids how do you fit it all in and have energy to make it to the weekend? What are the most important tips for getting it all in and who are the most important members of your Team?
Kirsten: Great question! None of that would be possible without the support of my amazing husband. I tend to get up early, (sometimes REALLY early) and that is when I try to do my most important training session for that day. I then am able to spend some time with the kids before school; I start work around 7, so my husband takes them to school. I generally finish work around 3 so I can get an afternoon training session in if needed, and still have the late afternoon/evenings for family time.
Qu: What does your typical week look like in training?
Kirsten: Well, it depends a lot on what I am training for. It has been rather interesting the past month getting ready for a sprint draft legal race, an olympic distance tri, and a long course that was almost an Ironman distance. Typically I try to get in a good quality tempo/interval session of each discipline, a longer distance of each, and a recovery/skills based session of each. Then, depending on how that goes and how my time is, I may add in some additional sessions. Biking is my favorite, so I typically try to do a group ride in there somewhere.
Qu: The weekend before sprint and international races in Cozumel, this weekend long course in Lake Hefner OKC, two very different swims. Was there anything you did differently in the 2 environments?
Kirsten: Great question! They were two very different swims. The swim in Cozumel was relatively calm, but with a very strong current. I was actually fortunate to find a swimmer of similar ability and stay with her (hoping that would help some with the current). The swim yesterday was pretty amazing. It was very windy, and the water was really choppy. I have done ocean swims that were more calm. White caps, rollers, almost felt like body surfing and getting caught in undertows at places. Difficult to sight due to the waves. And there were shallow areas where people were actually walking. So – a little bit of everything! I found that I just really had to relax and try to ‘become one with the water’ – not fighting it but letting the chop carry me if needed. I also resorted to a flash-back from my early days of triathlon . . . when I first started I had a race where the swim was a mass start and I got a little panicked. I noticed it was a beautiful sunrise and just tried to take it in every time I took a breath. After the race I was talking to my dad and some friends, and they teased me about looking at the sunrise. Then they realized I had the fastest swim split of the group . . . . 🙂 Well, yesterday I spent a lot of time looking up at the sky – because I was more likely to actually be able to get some air by doing that! The one thing both swims had in common though, was really not expending a lot of energy trying to ‘push through’ or ‘fight’ the water, but to trust my form and training, and swim efficiently. I felt great getting out of the water yesterday!!!!
Qu: I’m doing the half in Cozumel next week. Could you share any tips or strategies as to how you adjusted your fueling and hydration plans to deal with the heat and humidity?
Kirsten: So, living in TN I am pretty used to hot and humid. Cozumel is a different kind of hot and humid. The sun just feels ‘stronger’ somehow if that makes sense – we have decided maybe because it is closer to the equator. Definitely try to arrive a few days early to adjust, and hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. Electrolytes will be key. Have something to drink while waiting for the start. Drink early and regularly on the bike. Take in water/electrolytes every aid station on the run. Wear a cap and fill it with ice at the aid stations on the run – or if a visor is more your speed then be sure to dump some cold water on your head every chance you get. Hydrate and stay as cool as possible!
Qu: What is your favorite thing about the sport of triathlon?
Kirsten: Hands down, my favorite thing about triathlon is the community. While an ‘individual’ sport, the support I have always received from my fellow competitors never ceases to astound me. There is something about sharing that experience of testing your limits and pushing yourself above and beyond – it creates this environment of unity that is hard to recreate. I think that is why I have especially enjoyed racing the World Championship events this year so much – being part of Team USA exemplifies that in so many ways. It is a most amazing experience – and I would highly encourage everyone to do a World Championship event if given the opportunity. Very, very inspiring.
Qu: And your second favorite thing?
Kirsten: After racing yesterday, I realized what I also love, and why I continue to race as much as I do, is the challenge. I train hard, I make choices in what I do and don’t do, because I love it. You go to a race, and the conditions are challenging. Especially with the longer races – the challenge increases. Suddenly it is about much more than just the physical. There is nutrition, hydration, and most of all, psychological. You can do the training – can you put that training to work in a race? Can you continue to push once the going gets tough? There is always something in a race that doesn’t go according to plan. Can you get through that and just keep moving forward? Can you adapt and overcome? Can you acknowledge that voice inside you that says you need to slow down and recognize whether you really do or if it’s just saying that? I was telling a friend of mine that it is like why I love doing Time Trials – the ‘race of truth’. There is no hiding, no drafting, no easy-way-outs – it is you and your ability. When you are able to do your training justice, and push through, and go beyond what you might have thought was possible – well it is just an incredible thing. It is what keeps driving me, and why I hope to continue doing these races as long as I am able. And – I would be remiss to fail to acknowledge the roll of all those spectating and cheering on and off the course. That truly makes a difference – and many a time has gotten me to continue to push when the mind said to slow down.
Qu: When did you start triathlon and what was your swimming background prior to that?
Kirsten: I started doing triathlons in 1999. Growing up my swimming background was a backyard pool and Girl Scouts (side-stroke, hahaha) at the lake. When I went to university my roommate challenged me to try swimming because ‘it was a good form of exercise’ – so we went to the university pool – and it was ALL I could do to make it 25 meters. I looked around at everyone else swimming with apparent ease, and knew that I should be able to do that – so I started swimming. I met a girl who was there frequently who turned out to be the coach for the university triathlon club, and she invited me to start swimming with them. She was a Total Immersion Swimming coach at that time, and started teaching me drills and technique based swimming. My father had also discovered Total Immersion, and when I went home for the summer, continued to help me work on my swimming. Then he signed me up for my first race. And that is how it all began… And, although swimming continues to be my biggest challenge in triathlon, I truly love it. I love the feeling of when the stroke comes together, and everything just flows smoothly. I love doing an open water swim in the early morning when the lake is like glass and the sun is just coming up. I love the challenge of trying to ‘find faster’, while balancing form and efficiency. I love the ‘more intense’ – longer, interval-type swims, and I equally love the ‘just get in the pool and enjoy swimming’ swims. There is always, always, something to learn and more to gain….
Qu: One of my favorite things to ask you about is your nutrition…can you share a typically race day’s nutrition strategy, and maybe also a typical or favorite non-race-day meal?
Kirsten: I discovered this amazing product called UCAN. It is a ‘super starch’ meaning it provides a steady energy source without spiking blood sugar (like sugary gels and such will do). It is my number one pre-race nutrition. I like the protein formula – it is a powder I just mix with water and drink about 45 minutes before I race. If it is a short race (sprint) then a lot of times that is all I need. For a longer race I will generally eat a few boiled eggs, some white rice, and a banana with almond butter early. Then still use the Generation UCAN just before the race.They also make bars which I used yesterday on the bike, and then for a half or full IM if I need something on the run my favorite is Justin’s Chocolate Hazelnut almond butter. As far as a non-race-day meal . . .I am lucky again in that my husband LOVES to cook. And he does it very well! I don’t do any grains – other than plain white rice. People are always surprised, but, although lacking in nutrients, it is easily digested and I generally just eat it after a training session. Otherwise I follow something similar to the Whole 30 – lots of fresh veggies, and lean meat. My diet also changes depending on racing and season. In the winter we will do more soups, butternut/spaghetti squash, etc, while in the summer it is more of the fresh vegetables in season, salads, etc.
Qu:It seems to be working well for you. Plenty of folks struggle with nutrition…how long did it take you to sort out your current strategy?
Kirsten: It actually started back in 2014 because I somehow committed myself to several Ironman distance races within a short period of time, and I knew nutrition would be paramount. I contacted UCAN, and also worked with a nutritionist for a while, because I really wanted to dial it in and did not have time or room for errors. I worked with her for about 6 mos – through the Ironman(s) and a little into the off-season just to make sure I knew how to continue on my own. Apart from that, it is still a bit of a continuous learning process. Sometimes what always worked in the past stops working, and sometimes I just crave something new. I really try to be in tune with my body, and trust my instincts if that makes sense….
What a great opportunity to get to know Kirsten, and learn a little about the life of a truly gifted and amazing athlete!
Thank you Kirsten for spending Sunday morning with us!
Photo removed at request of copyright holder, Associated Press. Image used according to Fair Use Doctrine.
You can learn something from 100m sprinter Simone Manuel or distance specialist Katie Ledecky, regardless of which one of these remarkable women is your hero.
Streamlining and drag reduction in the water helps us conserve forward momentum because water is 800 times denser than air. Anything you can do at any point in the stroke to become more streamlined, even as you’re trying to swim faster, will allow you to swim better, with less energy. Why? because slowing down is what humans do best in the water! Staying fast means paying attention to small details…for example, the “crossover effect”.
The Crossover Effect is Human
The Crossover effect occurs because of the way our shoulder joint is oriented, and the fact that we are used to operating in our daily lives with our arms reaching, holding, and manipulating objects directly in front of us. When we turn our upper body, we are usually still operating in the frontal plane, or the plane that divides your body into a front half and a back half. the shoulders lift the arms forward and typically our arms stay in front of us most of the time.
Picture things like typing, driving, cooking, cycling, having a conversation with someone (arms folded or hands in front pockets) as typical things we do. We carry this habituated position of the arms into swimming and as a result, while you don’t feel like you’re crossing your arms in front of you, the effect is that arms cross midline of your direction of travel.
This is a key point, and the reason it’s so difficult to correct…your arms are still in front of you when you crossover in swimming. The crossover effect is that you direct your energy diagonally instead of the direction you really want to go! How frustrating, right? Believe me, I know. But sometimes you don’t know you’re doing it until you see a video or photo of yourself, or have someone physically make that correction for you.
Olympians Eliminating the Crossover Effect (this is the slick arm trick)
Here are two examples from the 2016 Olympics, Katie Ledecky in the first photo, and Simone Manuel in the 2nd photo.
Photo removed at request of copyright holder, Associated Press. Image used according to Fair Use Doctrine.
Their arms are extended parallel to the lane rope, right? The arm is aligned, no crossover. The effect of arm aligned, is that momentum continues forward. However look at where their sternums are directed, and look at their body rotation.
Photo removed at request of copyright holder, Associated Press. Image used according to Fair Use Doctrine.
Now imagine those activities I mentioned previously…driving, typing, shaking someone’s hand. If Simone Manuel were autographing a gold medal photograph at this moment instead of swimming, her left arm would be pointed way over towards the right edge of the photo in a diagonal direction, right?
Her arms would be “in front” of her chest or directed to the right since her body is rotated to the right.
How does she do that?
When the body is actively rotating in freestyle (or backstroke), the lead arm aligned requires you to have the sensation that your arm is kind of off to the side a bit, even sticking out. Visualize yourself in their rotated positions in the pool…now hold your arm above your head and visualize where the surface of the water and where the lane rope would be. Can you get your arm lined up with the lane rope? It will feel far off to the side.
Avoiding the crossover effect is one easy trick you can practice while standing in the mirror so that you start to develop your Olympian’s freestyle stroke!
In the meantime, don’t try to sign any autographs while swimming, things will get messy and you’ll avoid the crossover effect!
Last weekend I participated as a guest coach with Dinah Mistillis of Discovery Aquatics to help teach a two – day swim clinic. Dinah asked me to lead a 15 minute talk that was a condensed version of my “Every Day Skills for World Champions” talk that I gave in Minneapolis as keynote speech for the Total Immersion Coaches Summit in May.
For this open water clinic I chose three key skills to share with the dozen swimmers present on Sunday. My first key skill was “Plan a Map to Your Success.” In order to plan your way to success in swimming or triathlon, you need to know of course where you are now, and where you want to go.
In the context of open water swimming, recognition of problem areas might included open water anxiety, difficulty swimming in a wetsuit, trouble sighting in open water, that pesky left hand that smacks the water…this list can get really long! It’s easy at this point for swimmers to feel overwhelmed.
The reality is that each of these skill and mindfulness issues takes time to address. While Dinah and I were discussing this, she shared a quote with me…eerily this was the day before Muhammed Ali passed away.
It isn’t the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out; it’s the pebble in your shoe.
3x Heavyweight Boxing World Champion
In these swim camps and workshops, we typically have a set order of skills to present to our athletes, and we present them in a logical building order that allows each skill to build on the next. But even if the athlete is 95% competent in a foundational skill such as head position, for example, the review allow that athlete to find any pebbles or grains of sand that may be interfering with a better execution.
There are probably bigger pebbles or grains of sand as well, and at some point, the pebbles become rocks or boulders which are simply too big to be addressed in one lesson, one trip to the pool, and at times, even one training block or season.
I used this quote in our clinic and it was well received, and then I investigated the origin of the quote. It was used by Muhammed Ali, but it also appeared in military literature 50 years prior to his use of it.
It isn’t the mountain ahead that wears you out; it is the grain of sand in your shoe.
Back up your ideas with courage that will not back down, and there will be no way too long, no road too rough.
The reason most men and women do not accomplish more is that they do not attempt more.
My takeaway from this quote parallels what I’ve learned in my own journey of becoming a better swimmer, triathlete and coach: be courageous and one by one you’ll remove every obstacle in your way. It doesn’t matter how long it takes, or how difficult it seems, you and I have the skills and tools we need to improve bit by bit…one pebble out of the way a ta time. We can accomplish far more not only as triathletes, but as individuals than we think we can because we often don’t even attempt to do something more.
Coach Suzanne leading a skills clinic while wearing a walking boot!
It is important to monitor your progress through an injury so as to know where you stand. This is made much easier once you start monitoring yourself while healthy so that you have something to compare it to. When you are injured, monitor how you feel every day. In general, how do you feel doing different tasks, at different times of the day. At the end of the day, it’s up to you to monitor how you’re feeling and set goals for yourself.
Recovering from an injury requires dedication and hard work for a triathlete in order to get back on track
When one is injured,monitoring what aggravates the injury, how it is recovering, and what hurts or doesn’t hurt is important to track and look back on progress.
The best way to improve when one is healthy is by monitoring ones progress, which may be done through software like Trainingpeaks.com (not an affiliate link, although I do use them).
As I write this, I am edging my closer to a start line. My body is close to full health and as my fitness builds, soon it will be race time again. Nothing excites me more than the thought of battling with the best in the world. But how did I get here? How did I, and so many others, get through such a long period of injury?
Professional triathlete and current holder of the fastest half-distance time by a female 3:55:50