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.
Whether you are looking to swim a sprint distance or an Iron distance triathlon, having a few “goto” 1000 meter or 1000 yard freestyle workouts will help keep you from getting into a rut when training. For the long course triathletes, do these 1000 meter/yard sets 2 or even 3 times through to cover the distance needed in your training.
Creating a Mini-Project Accelerates Your Progress
You can use these sets to create mini projects or tasks to challenge yourself. It is a great way to stay engaged with your swimming and take control over your own training plan.
For example, a 1000 yd improvement project may look like a sequence of 3 sessions cycled through for 3-6 rounds before retesting. You can use these 1000 meter/ yard sets as the main set, add a 500yd tuneup or warmup to swim exactly 1500m (a swimmers mile). If you are swimming in a yard pool, just add on a 150 yard cool-down for an imperial version of the swimmers mile (1650 yards)
If you are looking for a main set that’s longer, such as 2000 or 3000 yards or meters, you can repeat the main set, or combine two of these into one practice.
Suppose you’re looking for 2000yd main sets, you could take these three suggestions below, each at 1000 meters/yards and to them in any of 3 combinations (1 & 2, 2 & 3, 1 & 3). Rotate through these combos for a unique set of 3 main sets, each having a set that you do twice before taking a break from it. There are a lot of ways to customize this practice idea.
Here are sample 1000 meter practices sets for you to play with
Pre-project test set: favorite warmup, 1000yd TT with splits & stroke counts, cooldown
Swim #1: 5 x 200
Swim #2: 10 x 100
Swim #3: 5 sets of 4×50
For each of these swims you can choose some element to improve like…consistent SPL across all sets, or consistent tempo (use a tempo trainer). When you gain or if you already have good control, manipulate a variable…like 5 x 200 swimming the first 50 at one SPL, the next 100 at SPL + 1 and the last 50 at SPL + 2. This should result in a build within each 200.
Vary the rest intervals to create a bit of variety. Since the 200s are more aerobic, keep the RI short in that practice. Since the 50s *can* be anaerobic, maybe choose to swim descending 50s with 30 sec rest, rest 2 minutes and repeat that 4 more times.
Then you cycle back to the 5 x 200 set and have some comparison…choose 1 metric to try and improve.
After 3 cycles of this…whether you swim every day, every other day or 2 times a week…you go back to your 1000yd TT and by that time you should KNOW before you swim it that you’ve improved based on metrics from the previous sets.
Yesterday this interesting article in the Washington post discussed a study linking a decreased risk of falling to the activity of swimming. Men over 70 who had fewer falls also swam more than their counterparts. While the study does not identify a causal link, I have a few ideas that I think are worth sharing.
Swimming may help improve balance and neuromuscular response, for additional reasons that are not discussed in this article.
The horizontal orientation of swimming challenges the cerebellum & vestibular system in a different orientation than on land…without the risk of injury. Much like a baby learning to walk by falling, catching itself, trying again and again until it “learns” how to balance, a human body in the water is always falling towards gravity…without the impact.
Every time the body rotates or changes its orientation there is an up/down shifting of the body in the water due to gravity…much like the body is “falling”. But as soon as buoyancy equilibrium is found, the body returns to neutral buoyancy.
During these “falling” episodes, humans respond by kicking or flailing or sculling or lifting the head…they are in built reflexes. Overcoming those reflexes forces the vestibular system to deal with a new normal…an new sense of orientation.
Whether a swimmer realizes it or not, swim time is “play time” for the brain and new pathways are be established. Like a baby learning to walk.
A sense of “falling forward” when swimmers get to the positions that are better swimming positions, horizontally balanced head, shoulders & hips, is due to the vestibular system & cerebellum being used to a much more vertical orientation.
If this sounds like you, try this curious experiment. Lay flat on a bed and let your chin be off the edge so you are looking at the floor…do you experience any vertigo? And if you do so then look right and look left a bit…how does that feel? This is the position you should be in ideally in the water…body horizontal, head looking down & aligned cervical spine.
i Taught a swim lesson tonight and was able to get in a few hundred yards before, during & after the lesson.
I’ve been having trouble focusing on my form…it’s like I don’t want to go back to basics, or when I try some of the basic focuses, my stroke doesn’t feel smooth and connected…my breathing doesn’t feel smooth and I get frustrated.
Tonight I decided to do a stroke counting set of trying to start at 16 strokes and increase by 1 with each 25.
By mere fact of trying to attain a specific stroke count, which gave purpose to my swim, I suddenly felt connected and smooth in the water. My first 25 was 15 strokes! I tried to increase the tempo just a hair and hit 15 strokes again. 3rd 25 was 17 strokes and the 4th was 18.
I’ve got no clue what the time was, but at the end I was slightly out of breath and had a “sensation” of a 1:40 100.
I just got back from a quick 5 day trip to San Francisco Bay visiting a friend and 2nd cousin. My cousin Steve is having a great start to his cyclocross season (they just started their CX season out there) and podiumed in his age group, 45+. I hope that some of those genetics found their way to my legs!
While I was there, we took a trip to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. If you love the ocean, you really need to make this a destination someday. It’s on the site of a former sardine cannery right on the pacific ocean. In fact, it’s so close to the ocean that the aquarium pumps in water from the bay as part of it’s exhibits. I learned something really amazing about Tuna and similar fish during the Aquarium Visit. Tuna use a form of propulsion called thunniform swimming. In this type of swimming, the propulsion comes mainly from the tail and very little movement occurs from the fish’s body. As a result, the area just in front of the tail fin has a unique streamlined shape specialized for side to side movement! A small ridge pointed to each side allows the part of the tail that articulates to move left & right while slipping through the water….leaving the large crescent shaped tail fin to propel the fish forward.
Look carefully at this video…it’s short, but notice the narrowing of the body immediately in front of the crescent shaped tail. If you look closely, you’ll see the horizontal ridges in this narrowest part that I’m talking about!
If reducing drag is so important for tuna, which are naturally designed to swim, how much more important is it for us lanky humans…with dangling arms & legs to work on reducing drag as well? This made me think about importantit is for us as humans can improve our swimming by spending most of our time focusing on drag reduction.
The problem is that frequently our brain tells us things that aren’t true about what our body is doing in the water. We are not designed to live, breath and swim underneath the water and therefore GOOD swimming feels very unnatural to us…our brain simply doesn’t know what it should feel like. As a result we tend to learn one way and that way sticks. The sensation that we are working hard feels “right” to us.
Learning to reduce drag immediately makes swimming feel like less work and our brain tells us that we must be doing something wrong…so as a natural tendency, most of the time we actually convince ourselves that what we are doing is wrong…and we revert back to what felt like we were working hard. After all if it feels hard, it must mean we are building strength and power.
We need to be willing to step back and look at what is really happening under the water and what allows us to slip easily forward. If you feel yourself pushing hard against the water, something is probably not right. Post a link to your swim video in the comments and i’ll take a look at it for you!