Benefits of Hypoxic work for Triathletes

Swimming is a unique sport because it primarily takes place in a low oxygen environment. . . water. Because of that, we can’t always take a breath whenever we want, and even if we do turn our head for a breath there might be a wall of water there instead of the delicious oxygen we crave. Because we might sometimes miss out on a breath it’s smart to be trained to know what to do or how to react when you miss a breath.  Hypoxic means without oxygen, but you’re not completely without oxygen when you these sets.  Other common names for these sets are breath control or breathing pattern work.

Types of Hypoxic Sets and how triathletes can use them

Breathing pattern for a fixed distance swim.

A breathing pattern means “take a breath after this number of strokes”.  3, 5, 7, 9 by 50s for a 200 is a pretty common protocol. That means breathe every 3 strokes for a 50, then every 5 strokes for a 50, then every 7 and every 9. Elite swimmers who have a very efficient stroke or big lungs can probably sustain breathing every 13-15 strokes if swimming easy enough. I know I was asked to do 11 from time to time but always on an interval.  With no interval I probably could have done 13-15.  Sometimes a swimmer will be asked to hit a certain pace on a certain breathing pattern.  A common set is to hold a pace 5 to 10 seconds slower than threshold pace but breathing every 5 or 7 strokes.  It forces a swimmer to find the most efficient (oxygen conserving) way to hit that pace target.  Then when the swimmer goes back to a regular breathing pattern the better efficiency will carry over to his or her faster paced swimming (hopefully)

I’ll frequently give my atheltes a breathing pattern of 3, 5, 3, 7 by 50s for a 200 and tell them just to make the breathing pattern and MOST of the time a triathlete will say “I can’t do that, I have to breathe every 2 or 3 the whole time”. I frequently hear this before they’ve ever attempted this breathing pattern. I tell them they MUST make the breathing pattern the first priority and intensity and technique secondary. Typically the best way to get them to hit the tougher 7 pattern is to tell them to kick less because kicking less is the single best way to reduce oxygen consumption. Most of my athletes are surprised that they CAN hit the breathing pattern if they relax, take big breaths, exhale slowly, and don’t let their stroke turnover get too slow (because a faster turnover means they get to breathe more). I like breathing pattern work for triathletes because it helps them find a slightly slower but MUCH more relaxed intensity. It won’t FEEL relaxed to them – they’ll feel like they have a high HR the whole time and they’ll feel the desire to breathe caused by the buildup of CO2 in their blood, but their actual aerobic output (wattage) HAS to be lower than it would be if they were breathing every 2 or 3 strokes.  If I gave an athlete 3x 200s like this the first one would be very hard for them and they might miss the “every 7” part of the 200, but on numbers 2 and 3 they’ll be far more likely to make the pattern the whole way.  I rarely use a pattern of more than every 7 strokes with my triathletes.

You might also be wondering what is a unilateral breather supposed to do on a set like this? For those swimmers I’ll make them a deal. Instead of breathing 3, 5, 3, 7 by 50s, they can breathe 2, 4, 2, 6 by 50s but only if they take every breath on their weak side. Most will say “I can’t breathe to my weak side”, but what they really mean is “I’m not yet proficient in breathing to my weak side and it feels weird”. There’s nothing magical about bilateral breathing itself – it’s the more equal rotation from side to side that it fosters that is important. When I would swim in a triathlon I’d breathe anywhere from every 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6 strokes because the effort is sub maximal. When I raced in college I’d breathe every 3 strokes once off the wall and then every 2 strokes for the remainder of the lap and I needed every one of those breaths.

The reason a triathlete needs to learn to breathe on his or her weak side is to prevent under rotation to that side. I ask them to practice breathing on their weak side during practice except for the hardest part of the main set where they are welcome to go back to breathing just on their strong side and as often as they want.  It only takes a couple thousand breaths on the weak side to make it feel almost as good as your strong side. A couple thousand seems like a lot but think about how many times you breathe during an hour long practice. Some athletes with some kind of body asymmetry or perhaps an old shoulder or neck injury will have a harder time learning to breathe on their weak side but it should still be possible as long as they are not in pain.  If weak side breathing is not possible for an athlete then he or she will need to find another way to ensure he or she is not under-rotating their shoulders to the weak side.  The good news is there are other drills to achieve this.

Breathing pattern work

  • forces an athlete to find a lower intensity at which to swim
  • rewards a more efficient stroke in order to conserve oxygen
  • helps an athlete learn to tolerate the sensation of needing to breathe
  • potentially increases lung volume from bigger breaths
  • strengthens the diaphragm and intercostal muscles from taking a bigger breath in the same amount of time


25s or  50s without breathing.

These are as simple as they sound – swim the prescribed distance without breathing at all. These are typically done from a rested state and they’re a good time to work on technique as well because when you don’t have to turn your head to breathe you can focus on technique a little more than usual.  Having good technique and cutting through the water more efficiently also makes getting to the other side faster and reduces oxygen consumption along the wall.

I have my athletes do this to help them learn to sprint, as a confidence builder, a way to identify a breathing hitch in their stroke, and when performing a tough drill that makes breathing difficult. I don’t do this with novice swimmers who are already employing the method of “hold your breath as long as you can each 25 because breathing is difficult”. For those athletes I try to get them breathing “early and often” as they are learning. Once they’ve learned to breathe early and often and once they can swim a ~ 200 without stopping they too can practice 25s without breathing (again mostly to teach them how to sprint).

When we sprint the goal is to take as few breaths as possible – preferably zero if you’re doing a 25 from rest. Having a triathlete do easy 25s without breathing makes the idea of sprinting a 25 without breathing much more manageable. While the intensity of the sprint is substantially higher it takes substantially less time to get across the pool.  It can build confidence in an athlete just so they know that they CAN swim a whole 25 without breathing. If they can’t quite make it a full 25 they’ll treat the activity like a game until they can get it. Swimming without breathing can also hilight a hitch in their stroke that stems from poor breathing mechanics. Basically when they don’t breathe and the hitch is gone they notice the absence of the hitch. They don’t notice the presence of the hitch during their normal stroke and breathing pattern typically because they’ve done it thousands of times before. Lastly, some drills are worth doing but they make breathing more difficult. The point of the drill is not to make breathing hard but they just do. If the swimmer has a snorkel they could use that, but without one I might just tell a swimmer “don’t try to breathe a lot during this drill” because I know they won’t be able to perform the drill correctly if they’re trying to breathe.


Underwater work

For safety reasons swim programs are urged not to do underwater work beyond 25 yards due to the risk of shallow water blackout. Don’t worry triathletes this is not much of an issue swimming at the surface. You’ll breathe before you pass out trust me. Anyway, because the underwaters (the part of a race where a swimmer does dolphin kick off the wall) are becoming progressively more important from year to year the ability to stay underwater while holding ones breath has also become more important.

Triathletes tend to have poor “underwater competency”. Some swimmers are afraid of drowing when they’re first learning, but once they learn the basics of how to stay flat at the surface, they can’t submerge on purpose even when asked. During a race a triathlete is going to spend 99% of the time swimming freestyle at the surface and maybe only 1% of the time surfacing after jumping in off a dock or boat, or 1% of the time doing dolphin dives in and out of a beach or lake entrance. In order to learn how to do those dolphin dives properly a swimmer needs to at least be able to perform a dolphin motion or dolphin kick with some level of competency. I think the dolphin kick is BEST learned underwater whenever possible and so in order to do that an athlete needs to spend time underwater. Again, underwater is a low oxygen environment so that athlete needs to be comfortable holding his or her breath typically for half a 25 up to a full 25. When underwater the athlete also gets a better understanding of how their lungs affect their buoyancy.


Biggest benefit

The BIGGEST benefit of all this hypoxic work is fostering a more appropriate reaction when an athlete fails to get a breath of air when he or she was expecting it. In all my years of swimming I can recall zero times where I stopped during a race to cough because I choked on water. That doesn’t mean I don’t choke on water when racing. Choking on water is no big deal in a pool, but in a lake or the ocean doing so will give me the gag reflex the same as it would anybody else. The difference is that the elite swimmer will not stop swimming while gagging but a triathlete almost certainly will. The elite swimmer knows that the next breath is only a few more strokes / coughs away and he or she is comfortable with a prolonged sensation of needing to breathe.  The sensation to breathe is caused by the buildup of CO2, not the lack of oxygen so the elite swimmer knows he or she is not at risk of passing out from a few extra strokes before the next breath.  It’s just uncomfortable (but a lot of endurance sport is uncomfortable so I’m sure you can get used to it).

Let’s assume a triathlete is a decent swimmer but still has a bad case of race-day nerves that mostly present themselves at the beginning of the swim. While this athlete knows how to pace correctly their race day nerves drive their HR and respiration rate higher than would otherwise be desired. If that athlete had done a lot of hypoxic work in the pool they can better mitigate the sensation of “needing to take fast shallow breaths” due to race day nerves. Without that hypoxic training the same athlete might find themselves treading water as they calm down and catch their breath.  Hypoxic work will help you master the task of breathing while swimming.  It’s not physically demanding but it is a little uncomfortable.  I believe that the benefits are well worth a little discomfort.