Thirsty (for knowledge) Thursday: Breathe MORE in the Pool

>> Thursday, May 29, 2014

An interesting article recently popped up on Triathlete Europe's website that was written by Gary Hall, a 3-time Olympian and coach. He writes about breathing while swimming and that we should breathe MORE.

Yes, turning to take a breath slows us down in the water, but Hall suggests that by breathing more, we will be breathing at a more comfortable (and NATURAL) rate:

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.

I'm a 1:3 ratio swimmer. Because I thought that was a good thing. He suggests a 2:3 breathing pattern (explained below as point #3). Hall says that by moving to 2:3, 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."

Here are his 3 final tips:

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 below). 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.

I've always done #2. I tried #1 a bit in the pool last week, and it seemed to make sense. But I haven't actually tried #3: the 2:3 breathing ratio. I might try it for a few laps in my swim today and see how I feel. I'm skeptical, but his points make sense.

Speaking of skeptical...

On a TOTALLY unrelated subject, Matt Fitzgerald just published some study findings 2 days ago that MAY prove that muscle fatigue is much more psychological than it is physiological. That is, it might be all in our mind. The theory is that we're programmed not to go too hard for too long to keep us from dying. I'm sure a smarter person than me can find some holes in this study, so here it is if you're interested in taking a look.


Erick 9:44 AM, May 29, 2014  

Hey Steve, check out this article regarding the fatigue study.

That site is fantastic if you're nerdy btw. Lots of analysis of marathons, TdF, barefoot running etc. Pretty good stuff.

addict 10:21 AM, May 29, 2014  

Unfortunately, I've read far more that agrees with the article than disagrees. The mind tries to protect the body before it gets close to failure. Push beyond that and you can find new limits. Unfortunately, I've only pushed that barrier cycling. Stronger, harder, faster--despite the brain!

Martin 2:07 PM, May 29, 2014  

Central Governor Theory - Dr. Tim Noakes (him of "Lore of Running" fame). I'm really surprised that you're skeptical.

Steve Stenzel 3:10 PM, May 29, 2014  

Thanks for the comments everyone!

And I tried the 2:3 breathing and I can't make it work for me. First, I like to take full breaths, and it will be some work to get me to do otherwise. Second, my form isn't that good (surprise surprise) so when I take a breath on one side and then go straight to take a breath on the other, there's a splash that I turn into from my stroke or putting my face back in the water or something. I'll try it again, but 2:3 might not work for me.

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