Should You Breathe MORE or LESS for Sprint Swimming Races?

I got this question as a direct message on Instagram and it sparked a huge wave of conversation in my head and I felt the best thing I could do was address is head on. We all know that when you’re in Sprint Swimming Races, the common theme is just to go as FAST as possible – but does breathing more or less actually help you? Let’s discuss all of this and more in our latest blog!

Let’s get started!

The innate answer from most swim coaches to this question is just to breathe as little as possible during Sprint Swimming Races, which does make sense – but let’s discuss where there are some fallacies in this answer:

1.) Sprint Swimming Races have gotten SO MUCH FASTER!

I remember one of my long-time coaching mentor, Harvey Humphries, telling me one time on deck that he couldn’t believe how much faster the swimmers have gotten over the last decade – and he was a coach at University of Georgia for over 38 years! In true Harvey fashion, he said, “The pool hasn’t gotten any shorter – but the swimmers just keep getting faster and faster.”

Harvey Humphries + Family & Friends at his Hall of Fame Induction at the 2022 ASCA World Clinic in Las Vegas, Nevada

And it’s true. Swimming itself has gotten so much faster over the last decade. Records people claimed would never be TOUCHED from the suit era have been broken, so what does that mean exactly? We are learning how to more efficiently train our swimmers. This includes all aspects of the training pie: recovery/sleep, nutrition, and dryland + your general pool training.

Science has also progressed in a great way too, helping us better understand how to train and maximize the use of our energy systems – so we can output speeds that other people claimed was never possible.

2.) Our Bodies are in BETTER SWIMMING SHAPE!

Because we better understand how to train swimmers effectively – we are producing athletes that can sustain higher speed levels over a longer period of time. With this comes the argument of oxygen, if we are using predominantly our anaerobic energy system for Sprint Swimming Races – the amount of lactate we produce in a very efficiently trained swimmer vs. inefficiently trained swimmer is different. The swimmer who is trained less efficiently will start producing lactate sooner and have more lactate accumulated overall than the one who is better trained.

If this happens to sound potentially like you or where you are in the season, it would be advantageous for you to include more lactate threshold and lactate training sets into your season to push that ceiling higher on when your swimmers start and how much they produce overall. For help with periodizing a season plan, we have you covered. Click here for more information.

Where’s the why here?

The reason this is important is if you KNOW your swimmer struggles with sprint race AND produces a ton of lactate – you would want to advise them to BREATHE as much as possible at the beginning of Sprint Swimming Races, so it delays the lactate production and overall accumulation. If they don’t breathe a lot at the beginning, they are going to hit their threshold level very quickly and feel like a bag of rocks/lock up pretty badly coming home.

On the contrary – if you have a swimmer that is very efficiently trained and doesn’t deal with the production of lactate AS FAST in a Sprint Swimming Race, you can advise them to HOLD their breath or not take as many breaths at the beginning of their races because physiologically, they can handle it longer than their counter parts.

The second part of that advise is key here. Just because you’re dealing with a swimmer who may be world-class doesn’t mean they can get away with not breathing at all. With my advise, I’m talking about the breathing ratios between the inefficient vs. efficient swimmer is different. I’m still a firm believer that breathing on the front-half of Sprint Swimming Races is good for everyone, regardless of their ability level because it keeps the swimmer under their lactate threshold for a longer period of time and the race will hurt less for them when they’re finishing.

Also to set something straight in regards to lactate, I’m by no means saying an efficient swimmer doesn’t produce lactate – they still do. Lactate is correlated directly to the swimmer’s effort level and how their body is trained physiologically. So comparatively so, if you have two swimmers (one inefficient vs. one efficient) swimming as fast as they can, they will both produce lactate – it is just the timing and the amount that’s different

3.) Breathing Automatically MEANS MORE DRAG!

Wrong! If done well, you can actually keep your stroke rate high and get some breaths in – you just practice this style of breathing and approach the race with a race strategy. Have you ever heard about the Nathan Adrian breathing style? This is the term I coined for the quick breath we see nowadays that is shorter in duration and is disconnected from a swimmer’s Freestyle Pull. The positives of this breathing style is it helps keep a swimmer’s stroke rate higher and they achieve a more powerful pull from the bottom arm. The cons of this breathing style is it a faster breath, so there is less oxygen intake per breath – so it’s normally coupled with breathing every stroke like we see with most Men Sprint Swimming Races now.

So even though it is less oxygen per breath, it’s better than getting no oxygen. If you want more information on this breathing style and how to teach it, click here.

If you’re not doing the Nathan Adrian Style breathing, but are doing more of a traditional type of breathing: where the breath happens in conjunction with the stroke cycle. Then yes, that type of breathing can last too long in duration and also add extra drag if done too much during a swimming race. Are we noticing how there are no absolutes here?? 😏

4.) You Can’t SWIM FAST and BREATHE!

False – we’ve touched on this a bit above, but if you have swimmers who are breathing within a race at certain strategic points, they are purposely doing this to avoid the piano landing on their back as Michael Phelps would say. I feel in the race analysis world there is a lot of talk about absolutes, because everyone wants definitive answers, but the reality is – we are all looking at the average throughout a bunch of different components of a swimming race to create a specific outcome.

If breathing helps a swimmer sustain a higher speed for a longer period of time, they should definitely do it – because that maintains a better average – AND – it’s on that swimmer and their coach to decide where and HOW MANY BREATHS should be taken during their Sprint Swimming Race. After all, the amount of breaths you’d take in a 50 will be DRASTICALLY different than you take in 100 – which is one of the many reasons you should definitely stay tuned for next week’s blog post on how many breaths should swimmers take in a 50 Freestyle?

What’s the Answer: Should Swimmers Breathe MORE or LESS During Sprint Swimming Races?

If you read my blog, you KNOW I’m entirely against absolutes! What I saw to one swimmer may be completely different than what I say to the next, so whenever I give advise I look at the TRENDS and I communicate around what the NORM is! And for Sprint Swimming Races, the amount swimmers should breathe is completely dependent on how in shape their body is.

If your swimmer is someone who is at the beginning of a season and just started racing again, they should: breathe soon and breathe often. If your swimmer is someone who is at their taper meet and trained themselves at similar speed levels and distances to replicate what is about to happen in their races, they can get away with breathing less. I would still always advise EVERYONE though to take some breaths, as lactate (itself) doesn’t discriminate between athletes.

Woof – that was a good one.

See you next week,

Abbie Fish

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