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The importance of good breathing habits in Freestyle

7 December 2022

Swimmers who maintain efficiency and produce stronger finishes in 200 metre freestyle races, have a better understanding of their own breathing habits.

The energy system used for this type of event is largely anaerobic, where oxygen is less used. However, it is important that gas exchange happens in the lungs to push out metabolic waste in the form of carbon dioxide (CO2), which otherwise reduces swimmers performance through early onset fatigue. 

Sports science has given us information on Maximal Lactate Steady State (MLSS), where most of the metabolic waste (Lactic Acid) is removed out of the working muscle tissues by blood. The heart rate is regulated by the CO2 concentration in the blood. As the workout intensity increases, the amount of CO2 in blood increases, which signals the heart to beat faster and pump the blood carrying CO2 quicker to lungs where CO2 is pushed out. It is said that 4.3% of exhaled air has carbon dioxide in it.

To learn how to breathe during a race, swimmers will be required to practice during training for several years. HC coaches have observed that through the swim training phase, competitive swimmers are seen exhaling half heartedly when compared to inhalation. Due to this habit, swimmers often do not empty their lungs fully. This lowered ventilation can cause buildup of CO2 in the lungs, which in turn reduces the gas exchange between blood and lungs. CO2 retained in the blood fails to remove excess CO2 from muscle tissues. This accumulated CO2 in muscles becomes Lactic Acid, which further hampers muscle functionality and brings in fatigue.

During training consider the following:

1. Clean and fully exhaled to allow for a better oxygen flow to your muscles during exercise to reduce fatigue. With efficient breathing training and correct breathing patterns, swimmers  can optimize oxygen uptake in muscles. This is due to Metabolic Reflex: a physiological function that regulates a persons ability to perform a physical exercise.

When threshold is reached, your breathing muscle sends a signal to your nervous system and brain. As a reaction, the brain sets off a command which reduces the diameter of blood vessels in the active limb muscle. Once your breathing muscle tires, the effect is the same. Isolated respiratory muscle training makes them stronger, faster, and more efficient. 

2. Increase lung capacity by keeping head down into the wall and out of the streamlines. Vital lung capacity is the amount of air exhaled after maximum inhalation. For swimmers, increased lung capacity will mean you can execute better underwater during training and competition, which is a critical part of fast swimming. Having better range of motion in diaphragm, reduces the air remaining in the lungs, you can go longer between breaths while swimming. HC coaches write sessions around swimmers improving their lung capacity, free speed, head down off first stroke out of breakouts and 25m sprints without a breath are just some skills brought into sessions to improve swimmers outcomes. 

3. Sprint work, holding breath for short periods, based on swimmer’s abilities and coaches instructions. Specific breath-hold exercises will teach swimmers to find comfort in keeping their head down. Most often when swimmers  feel like they are running out of breath, the body is actually trying to exhale to get rid of the CO2 build up. However, CO2 actually helps with O2 absorption. Once swimmers become comfortable with their breath holds, their muscle oxygenation will improve. These improvements will result in better performance and speed. Building strength and flexibility in diaphragm & intercostal muscles will make sure

there is no wasted unnecessary energy on breathing.

4. Increase mobility to rotate and hold body position. The upper body is critical in swimming. Maintaining a proper range of motion through the joints and building strength will help you be more efficient in water. Most of the swimmers have thoracic mobility restrictions. Breathing dynamics are dependent on the movement of the thoracic spine . Improving your thoracic mobility and stability will increase the coordination of diaphragm breathing with each stroke.

5. Keep calm and focused. Mental health and general well being can also be enhanced while doing breathwork. Some of the most benefits for swimmers will be lower anxiety and strengthening of focus before the race. Using certain breathing exercises can help swimmers cope with anxiety and support them in focusing on the goal while slowing down their heart rate and diverting focus to their breathing.

Some training ideas to improve aquatic breathing are:

● Breathwork before and after swim sessions

● Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga which is a form of yoga which deals with movement and breathing.

● Teaching long deep exhalations from pre competitive levels or even learn to swim levels

● Respiratory Muscle training with personal equipment.

Niroop and HC Coaches