Breath Control and Hypoxic Training is Underestimated in the Pool
Much of the focus in swimming gets put on drills for body position and stroke technique. These are very important because small variation in hand and head position can make a massive difference in speed and efficiency. However, I feel that there is little attention (especially among multi sport athletes) on breath control and hypoxic work.
When I say breath control I am referring to consistency and symmetry of breathing. I am not preaching that every good swimmer must be able to bilaterally breathe. There have been many Olympians that only breathe unilaterally (to one side). I do, however, believe that it's important to routinely do swim sets where the focus is either on a consistent breathing pattern (Every 4th/6th or 3rd/5th). Our body is more efficient when there is a rhythmic pattern of consistency and the only way to build a pattern is to practice it.
When I say hypoxic training I am referring to sets that limit the number of breaths. From my experience, hypoxic training serves two purposes.
First, it helps your ability to improve how you exhale water under the water and how much you exhale at a time. Our form and ability to stay on top of the water is much better when we are not breathing so we always want to limit the number of breaths that we take. Improving our oxygen intake and carbon dioxide removal will lead to fewer overall breaths and better swim form.
Secondly, hypoxic training is mental training to help teach your brain to relax and not panic. When your head is under water, the better that you can talk to your inner self and say, "Relax, everything is going to be okay," the better your muscles will relax and use less oxygen and therefore need less oxygen. Hypoxic training is often done at slower speeds to really work on relaxing the body and focusing on mental relaxation. It can, however, be used prior to hard/anaerobic training where fewer breaths and max speed are the focus.
Finally, a few tips from my own experiences with breath control and hypoxic training. First, start off slow and give yourself sets that are obtainable. Having success with this initially is very important. Nobody looks forward to holding their breath, but feeling successful initially will help you build confidence and be more likely to challenge yourself in the future.
Secondly, realize that the first repetition is always the hardest with hypoxic training. They will get easier as your mind realizes what is going on and is able to relax.
Thirdly, breath control and hypoxic sets can be a good time to focus on form to take your mind off the feeling of needing to breathe. Using cue words such as "elbow up", "relax", or "head down" can stop or prevent your mind from going into an anxiety cascade.
Here are some examples of both breath control and hypoxic sets that you can begin to incorporate into your swim training.
Breath Control Sets
6X50yd (2X breathe every 3rd/5th/7th by 50) 30sec RI
6X 50y (2X breathe every (2nd/4th/6th by 50) 30sec RI
200yd Breathe every 4th or 5th stoke
100 w/fin breathe every 3rd stroke :30RI 100 w/fin breathe every 5th stroke :30RI 100 breathe every stroke on weak side MOD effort :30R 100 breathe every stoke on strong side HARD effort :30RI
6X50yds with below order of breathing by 25. B- Breath
1st: 3B : 3B (25yd w/ 3 breaths : 25yd 3 breaths)
2nd: 2B: 3B
3rd: 2B : 2B
4th: 1B : 2B
5th 1B : 1B
6th 0B : 1B
10X 25yd with 3osec RI (1st 4 1breath, 2nd 4 No breaths, Last 2 underwater without breath)
**** IMPORTANT: With any hypoxic work, progress gradually and within your own comfort and tolerance. Some of the above sets may be too difficult and unsafe if not gradually progressed towards. Listen to your coach on the appropriate type of set for your current level of experience and fitness***
Aaron Scheidies is a USAT Level 1 Certified Coach and licensed Physical Therapist. A graduate of Michigan State University with a degree in Exercise Physiology, Aaron has coached World Champion Paratriathletes as well as IRONMAN World Championship qualifiers.
Contact Coach Aaron at aaron@teamMPI.com