Hypoxic training, or specific sets where you control how much or little you breathe, has received a bad reputation over the past years especially in the triathlon community. But it potentially has the power to unleash massive swim gains and transform your form.
Breathing is one of the most common form issues that we at TSC deal with. This is why it gets a whole unit dedicated to correcting and improving it in our Tri Swim Pro program. Many beginner swimmers hold their breath underwater and then exhale all of it. And then try to inhale with every stroke. This breathing pattern causes the heart rate to rise, your muscles to tighten, shallow breathing (so less oxygen being consumed), and inefficiencies in your stroke since you will prematurely breathe.
The reason for this is mostly due to swimmers not being comfortable in the water. And the panic felt when they put their face into the water. To get over these breathing issues, we lead swimmers through a series of drills to help them become comfortable exhaling underwater, rotating to breathe, and breathing from the diaphragm at the right time in their stroke. This helps them swim relaxed. Most of the panic that swimmers feel is not a lack of oxygen but the brain feeling panicked. So if the brain can become comfortable with not being able to breathe, then the body can calm down.
Hypoxic training can take this familiarity with the water one step further. For the record, hypoxic training is not holding your breath. Rather it is controlling your exhale and becoming comfortable with not breathing every stroke.
An example set would be a 3-5 x 100 m where in the first 25 you breathe every 3 strokes, the second 25 you breathe every 5, then every 7 strokes, then 9 strokes. The key is to NOT HOLD YOUR breath. Instead exhale underwater gradually so that by the end of the number of goal strokes (3/5/7/9), your lungs are empty. You should always see bubbles in the water. As the number of strokes between breaths increases, you will have to exhale less and control the stream of bubbles more with each stroke. Try to stay relaxed throughout the set and focus on your breath. It is ok and encouraged to go slowly so that you can dedicate 100% of your focus on exhaling, breathing, and relaxing.
Another way to include hypoxic training in your workouts is before sprints and very hard efforts. When it comes to sprints between 25-100 m, the more you breathe the slower you will go. You are far more hydrodynamic when you are not breathing. So the less you breathe, the less drag you create. By including hypoxic sets before sprints, you will teach your lungs to use the oxygen it has and teach your mind that it will be ok if you go 25 m without a breath.
An example set that my college coach taught me, and one that we always did before Fast Friday, is to kick underwater 25 m without rising to take (or trying not to take) a breath. Once again don’t hold your breath. Instead gradually exhale and focus on the bubbles. It helps to wear fins for these sets. Include a total of 4 to 6 before sprints.
This is not for everyone, in particular not for beginners. Be sure you are comfortable breathing in stroke before including hypoxic sets. Once you have mastered the bubble and 6/3/6 drill, then including hypoxic sets might be the next step in making you a more comfortable and relaxed swimmer.