Swimming at Altitude Forces New Thinking

Swimming at altitude provides a challenge above and beyond practicign other sports at altitude. You cant simply “swim slower” and take long deep panting breaths. Your breathign stroke must be seamless and flawless, and you must be able to take one every 2 strokes if needed due to the increased oxygen demands at altitude.

I’ve learned the true meaning of hypoxic training with swimming…has nothing to do with breath-holding sets (it never did, but that’s another essay)…and has everything to do with perfecting your technique.

**I’ll be shocked if anyone reads this to the end. But enjoy..

Singular Focus on Breathing

More time spent with singular focus on breathing. Drills were done not by distance but until I felt that I had “gotten it”, that I had felt the sensation I needed to move onward.

It’s a constant game of balance, playing with it, destabilizing, re-stabilizing, overcompensating and coming back into neutral (is it a new neutral?)

My breathing is better that its ever been, but it is now a conscious focus for me.

I calculate that in a 500 yard focused set (4×25+3×50+2×75+1×100) if I’m taking an avg of 16 SPL and breathing every 3 strokes, I’m only taking 100 breaths…50 to each side.

Considering the number of perfect repetitions it takes to make a new movement an effortless part of your movement repertoire, that’s a lot of swimming ahead of me. But that’s OK. It feels great, I’m continuing to improve (just when I felt I’d reached a plateau).

My fastest “altitude” 100 last week was a 1:40/100, and today it was 1:32/100 with open turns and a noticeable slowing and breakdown of form on the final 25. I’ve been here less than 2 weeks and full acclimatization usually takes me about 3 to start feeling ‘normal’.

IN any case I’m eager to return home and try out my improved breathing stroke.

This practice, I worked on breathing every stroke, just to get more repetitions of breathing in (increased number of breaths by 33%).

Drills with  Specific Focus on Breathing Focal Points – How I did it

Drills I started with:
-superman glide to skate with head nod
*notes – during the glide and the skate I experimented with the amount of pressure I exerted on the water with ny head vs. the amount of pressure the water exerted on me (yes, I know they are equal). But I was able to reduce the effort I was expending, relax my neck even more and still find my hips were horizontal and near the surface of the water.

With the head nod, I again held skating position with my head turned looking to the side of the pool, experimenting with how much pressure I was using to push down towards the bottom of the pool, and had the remarkable sensation of the water pushing back on my cheek once I relaxed my neck muscles. I truly felt as if my head was resting on a pillow…my head was another inch closer to the surface of the water. but I could have sworn to you in he past that I already WAS completely relaxed. Well I learned that I could relax even more and still maintain balance.

Amazing how swimming is a constant refinement of skills and balance and fine motor movements. I now have an entire new set of muscle movements to work into my muscle memory, which will require more drilling and practice and experimentation.

(all this and I’ve only written about the head nod…)

-skating to head nod to risky breath +/- sweet spot.
**I would typically start this drill rolling to sweet spot, getting my balance with head as low as I could comfortably get it and my mouth above the water, neck relaxed and then gradually rotate my body back towards the side, then bottom of the pool while still reaching air with my mouth.

As I refined this movement I rolled less to sweet spot and eventually maintained skating position as much as possible with a head nod then quick rotation of the neck just a hair extra to grab some air.

While practicing this I found that the positioning and timing of my kick/legs and feet made a big difference in how well I could maintain rotational balance (or rather, maintain my edge without rolling onto my back or rolling flat in the water).

The sensations that led to the best risky/sneaky breaths included a very slight muscle tension on the side of my neck as I rotated just a tiny bit to air…not a pain or stress, just a sensation of the left side of my neck stretching as I rotate my head ot the right ( assuming a right breath).

AS for my feet, again assuming the breath to the right, I felt a stretching through the top of my leg all the way down through and out of the top of my left foot, which ( I think) was slightly behind my right foot when viewed from directly above…a very slight “tripod” position with my head at the apex (turned to the right), my left foot to the left as viewed from above and my right foot to the right as viewed form above…not a splayed position, but simply relative to the mid-line of my body.

Were I to be swimming, rather than one-armed drilling, my lead arm would be reaching it’s most forward spearing position and STAYING THERE as a got my breath as the true apex of the tripod…out in front and not pushing down toward the bottom of the pool to buoy my head up.

Focusing on this full body stretch all the way down the front of my body, through the top of my left quad and top of the left foot and out the toes really helped me keep my head in alignment, in that supported ‘pillow’ position with almost no effort.

So, a lot of new sensations going on with just a little bit of drilling. You can see why doing “drills” as read from a workout list is really not that helpful without some sort of direction on what you should be looking for.

-Single arm swimming

**these have now become my favorite drills for a number of reasons. First, because I used to suck at them, and now I don’t. But there is so much to learn from doing them, especially doing them slowly. I was sad to seek a stroke doctor video that advised against them because he felt they were too complicated for the average swimmer without a coach on deck to guide them. Well that may be true. It wasn’t until my coral springs trip that I felt I was doing it correctly, but it only took 2 25s with coach feedback to stop feeling like I was going to drown. Now that I can perform the drill without having a panic attack, I can make best use of it in all sorts of situations.

Like breathing…
First I breath to the opposite side by extending the arm, focusing on the full body stretch through the top of the top foot, finding the ideal body rotation and then just a quick head nod to the opposite side to grab a bite of air (sometimes water though). When breathing to the opposite side, I time the breath to coincide with the slight bobbing back up to the surface of the air. I think the bob is caused by the recovering arm itself coming out of the water (which then pushes the rest of your body underwater a bit), and then as the arm enters the water, then buoyancy returns bobbing yo back to the surface of the water. If the rotation to the opposite side is timed with this return tot he surface, the breath is very seamless. In two armed swimming, the sinking should be less pronounced as the opposite arm acts as an outrigger. Nevertheless, being aware of the up and down movement of the body (and trying to minimize it with a low profile ‘zen’ switch style recovery) has to be beneficial.

-one armed swimming with same side breathing

** This is a different skill altogether and sometimes a bit trickier than opposite side breathing in my opinion.

First of all, because of the slight sinking that happens when the recovery arm comes out of the water, you have to be even more conscious of this. I felt at several times that the action of the arm recovering caused a wave to come back up towards my face, filling in the small bow wave that gets created by a horizontal head. I’m hoping this goes away with a higher velocity, but time will tell.

After practicing all of these drills with both arms, until I felt I’d optimized my improvement *for today*, only then did I proceed with full stroke.

The first 2 x 25 of full stroke I did breathing to the same side, every 2 strokes (once per cycle). Each side felt seamless. I thought that were I to have an attentive audience, I should have received a standing ovation for my performance. Alas, no one really cared but me.

Putting the stroke together

At this point I swam this classic 500yd set:


Each small increment in distance proves to be a test of skill…can I keep my newly found technique despite slight increases in fatigue as the distance goes up?

All in all I found today’s practice to be a great success.

I did a 2nd 100 at the top of the ladder, form somewhat lacking, but did it in 1:32s which I was happy with at altitude.

Afterward I spent another 20 minutes or so doing butterfly drills. First doing head lead and body lead dolphins on the surface, and underwater, with and without fins. Then did some arm strokes and finally a few lengths of full fly.

On the last length of fly, my thumb brace was halfway torn off due to the force of the water, torquing my thumb awkwardly, so I called it a day and exited the pool.

My thumb survived and overall a fantastic day in the pool.