Improved Swimming Performance

1. Apnea training effects on swimming coordination

French researcher Lemaitre found that breath holds could also improve swimming coordination. After breath hold training, swimmers showed increases in VO2 peak as well as an increase in the distance travelled with each swimming stroke.

The researchers concluded that their studies indicated that “breath hold training improves effectiveness at both peak exercise and submaximal exercise and can also improve swimming technique by promoting greater propulsive continuity.”2

Lemaître F, Seifert L, Polin D, Juge J, Tourny-Chollet C, Chollet D. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Sep;23(6):1909-14. Apnea training effects on swimming coordination.

2. Reduced Breathlessness and Higher Tolerance of Carbon Dioxide

In addition to studying the effects of breath hold training on swimming coordination, Lemaitre and colleagues also investigated the effects of short repeated breath holds on breathing pattern in trained underwater hockey players (UHP) and untrained subjects (controls).

Twenty male subjects were recruited, with ten members of a national underwater hockey team allocated to the UHP group, and ten subjects with little training and no breath hold experience allocated to the control group.

The subjects performed five breath holds while treading water with their faces immersed. The breath holds were spaced five minutes apart and performed after a deep but not maximal inhalation. The underwater hockey players were noted to have reduced breathlessness and higher concentration of CO2 in exhaled breath after the test (ETCO2).

Lemaître F, Polin D, Joulia F, Boutry A, Le Pessot D, Chollet D, Tourny-Chollet C. Physiological responses to repeated apneas in underwater hockey players and controls. Undersea Hyperb Med. 2007 Nov-Dec;34(6):407-14.

3. Swimmers Training Using Breath Holding after an Exhalation

This study used an innovative technique of pulse oximetry to investigate whether swimmers can train under hypoxic conditions through voluntary hypoventilation (VH). Ten trained subjects performed a front crawl swimming series with normal breathing (NB), VH at high (VHhigh) and low pulmonary volume (VHlow).

Arterial oxygen saturation was continuously measured via pulse oximetry (SpO2) with a waterproofed forehead sensor. Gas exchanges were recorded continuously and lactate concentration ([La]) was assessed at the end of each test. In VHlow, SpO2 fell down to 87% at the end of the series whereas it remained above 94% in VHhigh during most part of the series.

Ventilation, oxygen uptake and end-tidal O2 pressure were lower in both VHhigh and VHlow than in NB. Compared to NB, [La] significantly increased in VHlow and decreased in VHhigh. This study demonstrated that swimmers can train under hypoxic conditions at sea level and can accentuate the glycolytic stimulus of their training if they perform VH at low but not high pulmonary volume.

Woorons X, Gamelin FX, Lamberto C, Pichon A, Richalet JP. Swimmers can train in hypoxia at sea level through voluntary hypoventilation. Respir Physiol Neurobiol. 2014 Jan 1;190:33-9.

4. Hypoventilation Training at Supramaximal Intensity Improves Swimming Performance

Purpose: This study aimed to determine whether hypoventilation training at supramaximal intensity could improve swimming performance more than the same training carried out under normal breathing conditions.

Methods: Over a 5-week period, sixteen triathletes (12 men, 4 women) were asked to include twice a week into their usual swimming session one supramaximal set of 12 to 20 x 25m, performed either with hypoventilation at low lung volume (VHL group) or with normal breathing (CONT group). Before (Pre-) and after (Post-) training, all triathletes performed all-out front crawl trials over 100, 200 and 400m.

Results: Time performance was significantly improved in group performing breath holding after an exhalation in all trials [100m: – 3.7 ± 3.7s (- 4.4 ± 4.0%); 200m: – 6.9 ± 5.0s (- 3.6 ± 2.3%); 400m: – 13.6 ± 6.1s (-3.5 ± 1.5%)] but did not change in CONTROL.

In breath holding following exhalation group, maximal lactate concentration (+ 2.35 ± 1.3 mmol.L-1 on average) and the rate of lactate accumulation in blood (+ 41.7 ± 39.4%) were higher at Post- than at Pre- in the three trials whereas they remained unchanged in CONTROL.

Arterial oxygen saturation, heart rate, breathing frequency and stroke length were not altered in both groups at the end of the training period. On the other hand, stroke rate was higher at Post- compared to Pre- in breath holding following an exhalation group but not different in CONTROL.

Conclusion: This study demonstrated that VHL training, when performed at supramaximal intensity, represents an effective method for improving swimming performance, partly through an increase in the anaerobic glycolysis activity.

Woorons X, Mucci P, Richalet JP, Pichon A. Hypoventilation Training at Supramaximal Intensity Improves Swimming Performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2016 Jun;48(6):1119-28

5. Hypercapnic-Hypoxic Training Program – 10.79% increase to VO2 max.

The Effects of Hypercapnic-Hypoxic Training Program on Hemoglobin Concentration and Maximum Oxygen Uptake of Elite Swimmers. The above shows a significant increase to hemoglobin in the group that practiced breath holding after an exhalation. Furthermore, there was a 10.79% increase to VO2 max.


6. Improved swimming performance

Triathletes and elite breath-hold divers show an adaptive response to hypoxia induced by repeated epochs of breath holding.

After apnea training, the forced expiratory volume in 1 second was higher (4.85 6 0.78 vs. 4.94 6 0.81 L, p , 0.05), with concomitant increases in _ VO2peak, minimal arterial oxygen saturation, and respiratory compensation point values (W and W_kg21) during the incremental test.

Apnea training enabled the swimmers to better support breath holding during the 50-m sprint, and consequently, stroke organization was less disturbed. After apnea training, fatigue appeared later and the disturbing effect of breathing on arm coordination disappeared. These ‘‘skilled’’ swimmers decreased their SR and increased their SL and IdC, showing greater propulsive continuity between the 2 arms after this specific training.


Running economicaly

Along with VO2 max, another performance measurement that is highly regarded by athletic coaches is running economy. This is defined by the amount of energy or oxygen consumed while running at a speed that is less than maximum pace. Typically, the less energy required to run at a given pace, the better – if your body is able to use oxygen efficiently, it is indicative of a high running economy.

There is a strong association between running economy and distance running performance in elite runners, where running economy is regarded as a better predictor of performance that VO2 max. For this reason, sports scientists, coaches, and athletes are keen to apply techniques that can improve running economy, such as strength training and high-altitude training. However, a third and far more widely accessible method of boosting running economy is to practice breath hold techniques, which have been proven to improve respiratory muscle strength and endurance.

Improved Running Economy

Eighteen swimmers, comprising of ten men and eight women, who were assigned to two groups. The first group was required to take only two breaths per length and the second group seven breaths.

Researchers found that running economy improved by 6% in the group that performed reduced breathing during swimming.

See: Lavin, K. M.; Guenette, J. A.; Smoliga, J. M.; Zavorsky, G. S. Controlled-frequency breath swimming improves swimming performance and running economy. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports 2013 Oct 24

Improved Running Time

15 middle distance runners (600- 3000m) Breath holding was practiced over six weeks. Runners participated in official athletics competition before and after.

  • First group- normal breathing +.03% improvement to time
  • Second group- 15 to 20 minutes of breath holding on the exhalation once per week: +1.27% improvement to time
  • Third group- 15 to 20 minutes of breath holding on the exhalation twice per week: +1.33% improvement to time

The results showed that all the runners who trained with breath holding on the exhalation twice a week improved their performance over distances ranging from 1200 meters to 3000 meters. The velocity improvement was 1.33% on average.

*Fortier E, Nadeau. Peterborough, Canada. (Cited in the book: Hypoventilation Training by Xavier Woorons from Paris 13 University)