In most sports, we don’t have to work very hard to get oxygen. But in swimming, specifically in freestyle and butterfly, we have to lift or turn our necks to get air—and the very act of doing so slows us down.
Cycling or running at maximal exertion requires between 50 and 60 respirations per minute. If you are swimming anywhere from 800 yards to 2.4 miles, chances are your stroke rate is 50 to 60 strokes per minute. A swimmer taking 60 strokes per minute and breathing to one side on every stroke cycle (1:2 ratio) takes only 30 breaths per minute, far below the body’s chosen rate. If you are an alternate breather, breathing first to one side, holding two strokes, then breathing to the other (1:3 ratio), your respiratory rate is even slower at 20 breaths per minute.
Well, you must reason that if you train with this sort of oxygen deprivation, your body will learn to compensate. It’s true that altitude training over weeks does improve the ability to get oxygen to the muscle more efficiently, but there is a limit. Besides, who has time to do that?
Using a 2:3 breathing pattern (explained below), I predict that your swim will either remain the same or improve slightly because the compromise between improved physiology and increased frontal drag from the extra breaths is almost a wash. However, you will feel so much better getting out of the water—your bike and run will see the benefit. Read on for a few tricks to take in more oxygen.
Get More Air
1. Breathe by turning your head back and to the side, not straight to the side. You will find you don’t need to turn the neck as far (the rule is one goggle out of the water, one goggle in). Lift your mouth to the breath side to gain another inch of breathing room. Breathing in this manner will slow you down less and also help you avoid swallowing nasty sea or lake water.
2. Learn to breathe on both sides. Awkward as it may feel at first, within a few weeks, you’ll become comfortable doing so. There are some rough open-water days that you may only be able to breathe safely to one side, so it’s nice to have this option. You also get to see the view on both sides.
3. Once you have gotten comfortable breathing bilaterally and have mastered the 1:3 pattern, try going to a 2:3 pattern (see diagram above). That means you will breathe on two successive strokes in a row, hold one stroke, then initiate another two breaths in a row starting on the same side you took the last breath. At a stroke rate of 60, that equates to a respiratory rate of 40—not quite what your body self-selects, but closer. It is not so important that you don’t get a full breath each time. You just need a good air exchange of fresh oxygen in and carbon dioxide out.
Gary Hall Sr. is a three-time Olympian who now directs The Race Club (Theraceclub.net) in Islamorada, Fla.