Hypoxic Training - Good, Bad or Just The Wrong Terminology?

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You may have heard swim coaches use the term Hypoxic Training and wondered exactly what it meant. The literal definition means to swim with fewer breaths per length and so limit the supply of oxygen to your body. The traditional thinking was that oxygen deprivation helps promote your aerobic development - a theory we don't subscribe to at Swim Smooth.

If you have tried a hypoxic set yourself (e.g. breathing every 5, 7 or 9 strokes) you will know that after a short distance you become quite desperate for air and things rapidly become a battle to abstain from taking a breathing for fear of invoking the wrath of the coach! But push too long and too hard during such exercises and there is a risk of blackout, which is obviously very dangerous indeed.

This has been in the press recently here in Australia following a near-drowning incident with a junior swimmer during a coached squad hypoxic set, begging the question should you avoid all controlled breathing sets?

We would say no... Our philosophy is that conducting controlled breathing sets over short distances for the purpose of technique development can be hugely valuable but we never deliberately target oxygen deprivation (or CO2 build-up) for training purposes. Compared to classical hypoxic training our sets give a much lower stress on the body.

One contributing problem here is that coaches commonly refer to reduced breathing sets as 'breath holding' - which is very misleading (and possibly dangerous in its own right). As we shall highlight below, you should never hold your breath when you swim - you should always blow out into the water!

Controlled Breathing & Stroke Technique

Even at the elite swimming level, if a stroke flaw is going to occur it is most likely to occur when going to take a breath. Cross-overs, over-rotation, scissor kicks, pushing down on the water during the catch and loss of stroke rhythm are all issues triggered and exacerbated when breathing:

Ron presses down on the water whilst breathing, lifting him
up at the front and sinking his legs at the rear.

Whilst an elite swimmer suffers a lot less from these issues, if any swimmer were able to swim down the pool without breathing in at all, they'd automatically side-step these potential flaws and so swim significantly faster and more efficiently. Going many strokes between breaths is fine if you're a 50m sprinter racing for less than 30 seconds but if you're swimming anything longer then breathing regularly is essential to take on sufficient oxygen.

So how do we work to overcome stroke flaws whilst breathing? One key way is to swim short distances at moderate pace breathing less frequently, perhaps every 5 or 7 strokes. These are short enough to be perfectly safe but give you plenty of opportunity to learn good motor patterns without the distraction of breathing so that when you do go to breathe they are much more likely to stick.

Note the key here isn't oxygen deprivation but stroke technique development over short distances. The use of fins (kicking gently) and pull-buoys may also reduce your oxygen consumption and make these sets easier to achieve.

The Wrong Terminology?

When you read information about reduced breathing sets, coaches often make the mistake of referring to them as being challenging because of their "breath holding" element. Ironically that is the exact opposite of what they should be - you should never hold your breath when you swim!

Whenever your face is in the water you should exhale in a long continuous stream of bubbles, getting rid of the CO2 you produce. By holding your breath underwater the levels of carbon dioxide in the lungs and blood stream start to increase which triggers the urge to breathe in, a condition called hypercania. This can be very stressful indeed and quickly worsens with reducing frequency of inhalation. By exhaling into the water your CO2 levels immediately drop.

Blow out smoothly and continuously through
either your nose or mouth.
In addition CO2 is in itself is poisonous to the body with symptoms ranging from headaches to nausea to eventual black-out. Do you get a headache from swimming? If you don't exhale well into the water then it's quite possibility a CO2 headache.

The problem with the term Hypoxic Training is that it has become synonymous with holding your breath underwater. We propose a change in terminology to call these sets Exhalation Control which accurately describes what they should be about. If you are breathing every 5 strokes you should exhale the same amount as you would over 3 strokes but exhale slightly slower to cover the longer duration.

Whilst we're here, it's also worth mentioning that holding your breath underwater is bad for your swimming in another way. It increases the buoyancy in your chest which lifts you up at the front and sinks the legs. If you have a poor body position then the very first thing you should work on in your stroke is your exhalation technique.

The Benefits of Exhalation Control

Performed over short distances, exhalation control exercises are a very effective way to develop your stroke:

- Allowing you to develop good exhalation technique and appreciate how much air you have in the lungs to exhale. As we posted two weeks ago on the blog, breathing every two strokes is simply not enough time to exhale properly.

- Allowing you to focus on aspects of the stroke such as alignment and the catch phase without being ‘interrupted’ with the process of inhalation.

- Giving you time to recognise what a smooth, fluid stroke feels like and equally how inhalation interrupts that rhythm.

- Bringing you confidence that if you do miss a breath during a rough open water swim, that you can simply complete another stroke and rotate to breathe to the other side without panicking.

- Regaining your rhythm and focus in your longer, continuous swims when you feel you may be starting to daydream.

Using Exhalation Control

Here's our tips on using exhalation control sets:

- Just like in your normal stroke, never ever hold your breath - just reduce the rate of exhalation the longer you go between breaths in, maintaining a smooth steady sigh into the water.

- Never be afraid to take a couple of extra breaths here and there - remember this is not an exercise in how big your lungs are but an opportunity to focus on elements of your stroke which would otherwise be lost to the interruption of breathing in.

- Don't push yourself, literally go with the flow and recognise that by placing the emphasis on your exhalation you will feel much more relaxed.

- Initially limit your exhalation control swims to 25m or 50m, resting between each for 15 to 20 seconds.

- A classic exhalation control exercise to try is to rotate through breathing every 3, 5 and 7 strokes within a length or every 2, 4 and 6 strokes to your least favourite side. After the longer count you’ll really appreciate the brief drop back down to your normal pattern.

- An exhalation control exercise only needs to be one more stroke than normal between breathing - you don't need to go crazy here. Even going from breathing ever 2 to every 3 strokes counts.

- Use a Finis Tempo Trainer Pro set to your normal stroke rhythm and breathing every 5 or 7 strokes notice how you lose timing when breathing - either getting ahead or behind the beeper. This is much easier to discern that when you are breathing every 2 or 3 strokes.

- Try using a pull buoy between your legs and see how that immediately makes the process much easier due to a reduced reliance on the large muscle groups of the legs to provide lift and push you forwards.

- Using paddles (particularly technique paddles such as the Finis Agilities) will give you greater feedback on your stroke technique when breathing every 5 or 7 strokes. Use paddles together with a pull-buoy for best effect.

Lastly…

Remember, when Swim Smooth recommends an exhalation control set we perform it over a short distance to work on your stroke technique, not to challenge your lung capacity or aerobic system. You shouldn't experience significant oxygen deprivation performing these short technique swims at moderate pace. If you have any medical conditions, always seek professional advice from your doctor before commencing. Stay safe and swim smart!

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Clearing Up The Confusion About 'Front-Quadrant Swimming'

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Newsflash: Marathon Swimming Legend Shelley Taylor Smith is running a series of special swim clinics in the Hamdan Sports Complex in Dubai on the 24th, 25th and 28th September. Don't miss out if you live in or close to Dubai - you might have seen Shelley on our Catch Masterclass DVD and she is an incredibly inspiring athlete, coach and mentor!

Hurry, the first 30 who register for the Pool2OWS clinic receive a personally signed copy of Dangerous When Wet - The Shelley Taylor-Smith Story: openwaterswimmingmastery.com/pool2openwater/dubai-september-2014/swim-clinics-for-dubai/



You might have heard of something called Front Quadrant Swimming which has to do with the timing of your freestyle stroke. It's widely recognised as being an efficient way to swim and something that you should use in your own stroke technique but there's a lot of confusion about what it actually means:

If you drew two lines, one through the swimmer's head and one at water level you would create four quadrants:


Front quadrant swimming simply means that there is always one of your hands in one of the front quadrants (1 and 2) at any one point in time. Or, put even more simply, when your hands pass above and below the water, that should happen in front of your head, not behind it.

Let's look at some examples. Here's elite swimmer Jono Van Hazel from Perth:


Jono is a classic smooth and as you can see his hands pass in front of his head with classic front-quadrant timing. Jono's got brilliant stroke timing which is one reason why he looks so smooth when he swims. Notice how when the recovering arm is passing the head the lead hand has started the stroke and is catching the water - it's not pausing out front and doing nothing (more on that below):


You can see more of Jono swimming here: youtube.com/watch?v=s3HhNlysFDs

Interestingly, even swimmers using very fast stroke rates normally still have front quadrant timing. Here's former triathlon world champion Tim Don swimming at a rapid 90 strokes per minute:


It's closer but Tim's arms are still clearly passing in front of the head. Also 7 Time World Marathon Swimming Champion Shelley Taylor Smith (see clinics above) who was also famous for using a high stroke rate:


Here's an example of a swimmer with the arms passing behind the head, breaking the front-quadrant rule:


Clare's arm is collapsing downwards whilst she is breathing giving her no support in front of her head and making breathing much harder than it needs to be. If you swallow water when you breathe this is likely to be the reason - try the one-two-stretch mantra here.

Taking It To The Extreme

The confusion with front-quadrant timing is that some swimmers believe it means a full catch-up at the front of the stroke, where the hands pretty much meet at the front:


To achieve this position you must hold the hand out in front of you with a long pause-and-glide whilst the other hand fully catches it up. This long gap between strokes (we call it Overgliding) is very inefficient as you simply decelerate in the water whilst trying to glide and then have to use the next stroke to get up to speed again. Pause-and-glide timing also leads to common stroke flaws such as dropping the wrist and putting on the brakes and the overglider kickstart.

This catch-up timing is technically still front quadrant as the hands do pass in front of the head but it is really taking things to the extreme - it is not what was meant by front-quadrant-timing when the term was created.

The Fear Of Windmilling

The idea with front quadrant timing is that it is trying to avoid a full-windmill in the stroke where the hands are at near opposite positions resulting in the hands passing behind the head:


The key thing here is that even if you tried to do this deliberately you would find it very hard to do - it feels very extreme when you do it and it's unlikely you'll do it naturally, especially if you've been working on your stroke technique for a while.

Try It In Front Of A Mirror!

If you're finding thinking about what both arms are doing in the stroke at the same time a little mind bending, don't worry, it is! One of the best ways to get a feel for it is to stand in front of a mirror, bend forwards slightly and perform some practise strokes.

Try and reproduce your natural stroke as closely as possible and see how your hands pass each other. If they pass in front of the head (even if only slightly in front like Tim and Shelley) then you're doing fine!

Conclusion

Our central point here is that the danger of windmilling is much over-stated. In most instances where the hands pass behind the head the reason is related to breathing and poor awareness of what the lead hand is doing (as with Clare above), not because the swimmer is windmilling in the traditional sense.

A far greater risk is taking things to the opposite extreme and adopting a full catch-up style of stroke. This is a very inefficient stroke style and a very difficult habit to break once developed.

Instead, work on developing all aspects of your stroke technique in a balanced way including: breathing, body position, alignment, kick, catch/pull technique and rhythm. Do that and the resultant stroke is almost guaranteed to give you good front-quadrant timing without you directly focusing too much on it.

Swim Smooth!
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Breathing Bilaterally In Races - Harder Or Easier?

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Something that is commonly said by swimming and triathlon coaches is: Breathe bilaterally in training to keep your stroke balanced but in races just breathe to one side, you need the oxygen.

Certainly breathing bilaterally in training is a great idea to help keep your stroke technique symmetrical but will you be faster breathing to one side in races? Is it good advice or not?

Let's consider the most common scenario for open water swimmers and triathletes - racing in a wetsuit in open water:

How should you breathe here?

The irony is that swimming in a wetsuit actually reduces the oxygen demand for swimmers because the body is held higher (reducing drag) and the swimmer barely has to kick. This is true at all levels of effort, including race pace.

If you're not convinced by this, try bilateral breathing in the pool with and without a large pull buoy to simulate a wetsuit - how does it compare? Or even better, try swimming in the pool with your wetsuit on at your current race pace (no faster) - most swimmers are surprised to find they can breathe every three strokes pretty easily doing this, even at target race pace.

As well as reducing kicking effort, the extra speed from swimming in a suit lifts your stroke rate, meaning your breaths come around more frequently.

Breathing Every 3 Is Just The Right Length Of Time

It's interesting to take note that when you feel short of air it is not the lack of oxygen you are feeling but the build up of CO2. That's why it's key to exhale into the water whenever you swim to blow it out into the water - leaving you feeling much more relaxed with your breathing.

For most swimmers breathing every three is about the right length of time to get rid of the CO2 from their system, breathing every two just isn't long enough and causes an uncomfortable build-up in your lungs and bloodstream.

Breathing every three is breathing less frequently than when you cycle or run but the oxygen demands of distance swimming are lower than cycling or running because the you're using smaller muscle groups. Plus exhaling into air is easy, blowing out into water is harder and takes longer to achieve.

A group training session is a great time to practise
breathing patterns in open water.

Bilateral Breathing In Races

So it's surprising but true, once you get your head around it you will find it easier to breathe bilaterally in open water races than when training in the pool... and if you can you should because:

- Flaws appear in your stroke when breathing which reduces speed - so less breathing means more speed.

- Breathing regularly to both sides keeps your stroke symmetrical even within the duration of the race, helping you swim much straighter, as we have seen previously on the blog (here and here). In fact it's common for athletes to swim 10 or 20% too far by moving off course, losing them huge chunks of time.

- You can keep a strategic eye on what's happening to both sides of you, allowing you to pick up on more drafting opportunities or to spot break-aways.

Swim Smooth!
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The Secret Power Of Cake


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OK, so let's talk cake...

Your mission if you choose to accept it.

When you train seriously for a sport you make a lot of sacrifices. To get yourself into great shape takes time, dedication, hard graft and quite likely avoiding all the foods (and drinks) you really want to consume.

At Swim Smooth, that means cutting back quite considerably on our natural level of cake intake.

If you have reached the end of your racing season then don't be afraid to cut yourself some slack and reward all that hard work with some additional cake, just for a week or two. Soon enough you'll be back into your off season training and will quickly burn off those extra calories but in the meantime break those chains for a while - it's good for your soul.

It doesn't matter if you didn't quite hit your goals or got beaten by your arch-rival. You're recognising the effort you put in, not the outcome, which is an important and positive distinction to make.

Of course you may prefer to substitute cake for a juicy steak, ice cream or even a glass or two of red. Enjoy it for a short while - you deserve it.

Swim Smooth!

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