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Taking the Hype Out of Hypoxic
By Terry Laughlin

The benefits are more in technique than physiology.

Swimming coaches have been fans of hypoxic (more accurately anoxic) training for about 20 years. If you've ever done a hypoxic set, you know it means making do with less air, since it refers to a low-frequency breathing pattern, usually every 3, 5, or 7 armstrokes, occasionally even less than that.

Coaches have favored hypoxic training for so long based on an assumption that you could simulate the effects of training at high altitude by breathing less often while swimming at low altitude. Studies of swimmers who live and train in places like Colorado (usually at 5,000 feet or more) have shown that they become highly efficient oxygen-processing machines. Among other changes, since it doesn't get as much oxygen, the body makes more hemoglobin, the element in blood that shuttles oxygen to the muscles. Since our blood generally uses only about 4 percent of the oxygen in the air we breathe, there is room to improve that.

Hypoxic training was supposed to accomplish much the same thing at sea level. But what really happens when you do hypoxic training is that you're breathing less often, not less oxygen, and this simply increases the level of carbon dioxide in the bloodstream. And the sole effect of that is YOU WANT TO BREATHE. Furthermore, the adaptations that result from breathing thinner air occur only from spending 100 percent of your time in that environment for weeks or months, not from doing a few hypoxic sets a few times a week.

Hypoxic training is particularly unsuitable for aging athletes since lung capacity is one of the functions that begins to diminish with age, and no amount of "breath-holding" will return or retain that diminishing capacity. It's important for Masters coaches - especially those who have not yet experienced the effects of aging themselves - to be reminded that the hypoxic effect of breathing every 7 for a young person might well be similar to that of an older person breathing every 3.

Nonetheless, coaches still like to give hypoxic sets. So what can you do? Actually, quite a lot, because while breath-control sets may not convey any TRAINING effect, they may still have a LEARNING effect. You just need to relax and look for creative ways to survive the ordeal. And that often means finding more economical (i.e., less oxygen-consuming) ways to move through the water. Here are several suggestions for getting the most benefit from your next hypoxic set:

  1. Instead of breathing every 3, 5, or 7 strokes by 50s, try breathing every 5, every 3, every 2 by 25s. Try to remain just as fluid on the last lap of each interval as you are on the first.

  2. If you normally breathe to one side, and if any hypoxic work is too much for you, swim the set breathing only to your opposite side. You'll be pleasantly surprised at how easy this will become after just a few laps, and at how it can help streamline your stroke once you return to breathing on your "normal" side.

  3. Since excessive or improper head movement is the stroke error with the greatest potential to hurt your body position and balance, one of the most effective and simplest drills to correct it is to swim short distances with the head held absolutely still. Try swimming 25-yard repeats, taking 0 to 2 breaths per length. For 50-yard repeats, aim for 3 to 4 breaths per length. On longer distances, try to breathe every 3 to 5 armstrokes, BUT GO VERY EASILY in order to swim without feeling distressed or tense. Tune in to how this smoothes out body movement and what your stroke feels like when you do so.

  4. You may find that when you do hypoxic sets, your body seems hungrier for air on the first repeat, but becomes progressively more comfortable with each repeat. This is because your body is adapting to the reduced oxygen availability by identifying and letting go of needless tension. Tension is nothing more than useless and involuntary muscle contractions that use oxygen without helping your swim faster. By relaxing and letting go of tension, you teach your body to use the oxygen that's available more efficiently.

  5. Hypoxic sets are most often assigned with pull buoys. That's because the largest (and oxygen-hungriest) muscles in the body are your quadriceps or thigh muscles. Stop kicking and it gets easier to swim further between breaths. But unless you anticipate being able to use a pull buoy in your next race, you're better off training your aerobic and nervous systems to perform without the aid of extra flotation. To take the load off your thigh muscles while doing hypoxic work, think of your legs as passive, and simply do less overt kicking. If you use hypoxic training, do it with the awareness that the benefits will be in technique, not physiology. While you're swimming further between breaths, concentrate on better balance, controlling your head movements, and learning to relax more while swimming.
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Terry Laughlin is director of Total Immersion Adult Swim Camps, and columnist for Inside Triathlon and for SWIM magazine. Terry is also a technique coach for United States Swimming's Olympic Development Camps.

Taken from Swim Sport