Some of the thoughts behind breath holding sets are that a controlled breathing swim practice set will have the same training impact as training at altitude, or the increased stress will have some other training effect (that mysterious "it hurts, so it is good for you" line of thought but if something really hurts, you should stop; exercise should not cause pain), resulting in improved swimming performance. Does holding your breath while swimming make you a better swimmer? Possibly, but probably not by simulating altitude training.
NOTE: We are not talking about hyperventilating to hold your breath; we are not talking about prolonged underwater breath holding that can lead to shallow water blackout! You need to pay attention to what you are doing. If you start to feel dizzy, light headed, or otherwise ill you need to stop.
A study on Blood Lactate and Metabolic Responses to Controlled Frequency Breathing During Graded Swimming in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 2005, 19(4), 772-776, authored by Sharon A. West, Micah J. Drummond, J. Mark VanNess, and Margaret E. Cicolella looked at relationships between controlled breathing during swimming workout sets and blood lactate, heart rate, and ventilatory characteristics (like expired oxygen and expired carbon dioxide) in swimmers.
The research project used tethered swimming and untethered swimming sets to deteremine performance parameters for 46 swimmers that served as research subjects.
- The authors found maximal efforts for each swimmer using both tethered and untethered swims.
- Each swimmer had a few days off to recover.
- The swimmers performed workout sets untethered or tethered at sub-maximal efforts of 55%, 65%, 75%, and 85% of the previously determined maximal effort with 2-minutes rest between each swim, using a self-selected breathing pattern usually one breath every 2-3 strokes.
- The swimmers performed workout sets untethered or tethered at sub-maximal efforts of 55%, 65%, 75%, and 85% of the previously determined maximal effort with 2-minutes rest between each swim, using a breathing pattern of one breath every 8 swim strokes.
- A variety of measures were taken during these swims.
- High intensity workloads can be simulated at moderate intensity swimming efforts by using controlled breathing patterns.
- Controlled breathing does not simulate altitude training or its resulting metabolic adaptations.
- Controlled breathing may result in a lower than expected heart rate response, meaning that if heart rate is used to measure level of effort, then the swimmer may appear to be working at a lower level of effort when they are actually performing at a higher effort level.
Here are a few examples of controlled breathing sets you could swim during your next workout:
- 8 x 25 @ 20-seconds rest, breathe 1, 2, or 3 times per 25.
- 10 x 50 @ 30-seconds rest, breathe every 4 strokes on the even swims (2nd 50, 4th 50, 6th 50, etc.), breath every 5 stroke on the odd swims (1st 50, 3rd 50, 5th 50, etc.).
- 6 x 75 @ 30-seconds rest, breathe every 3 strokes on the first 25, every 5 on the second 25, and every 7 on the third 25.
- 8 x 100 @ 30-seconds rest, breathe every 5 strokes on the first 50, every 3 strokes on the second 50.
- 1 x 500, breathe every 3, 5, 7, 9 strokes by 25, then repeat that pattern.
What does this mean? Maybe it means keep doing a few of those challenging, controlled breathing pattern sets, don't try to monitor them using the same heart rate levels that you might use for other swim sets, and know that they may help you be a better swimmer but not for the reasons you might think. Maybe they have a stronger influence just because they are harder? Maybe part of their overall training impact is psychological? More studies need to be done to find more answers.