Swimming doesn’t feel like a natural sport for us as athletes as the rhythm of natural breathing is changed as we enter the water. We tend to automatically hold our breath causing us to tense up and create the feeling of needing to breathe. The sensation we are feeling is the buildup of CO2 not the lack of Oxygen which creates the urgency of needing air. It takes practice and continual awareness to make sure we are breathing correctly so we maintain proper balance and don’t deplete too quick.
When we are racing different distances, our breathing can become a bit more technical particularly when considering anaerobic (no oxygen) and aerobic (oxygen) type required distances. When swimming we use these two systems to produce fuel for our muscles.
When swimming aerobic sets the goal is to improve cardiovascular fitness and muscle oxidative capacity. This training occurs at 65-75% of your maximum heart rate. Anaerobic training occurs when we are exercising at 90-95% of our maximum heart rate. In this state, our body is using the anaerobic glycolysis system to generate explosive energy. The byproduct of this system is lactic acid. The goal of the anaerobic sets is to train our muscles to buffer the lactic acid.
The 100-meter free style event seems to be the distance of question. Swim distances under 100M use the anaerobic system, meaning the fastest way to finishing the distance is to not breathe. Anything over 100M falls into the aerobic system, where a swimmer breathes as close as possible to our natural state. This natural state breathing rate is determined by looking at how an athlete breathes during sustained exercise on land. This generally corresponds to breathing every second stroke in order to maintain the desired oxygen levels.
So back to the 100M freestyle. How should we breath for this event? This event is generally split between the first 50M being anaerobic with the second 50M being aerobic. It splits this way as the body can only sustain the anaerobic energy source for short periods of time – generally 30 seconds.
The question is how do we breathe most efficiently for this event while hovering between these two fuel systems. When studying elite racers there appears to be a difference in breathing pattern for men vs. women. Women seem to have better aerobic systems and train more for it, while men’s muscle mass can produce more lactic acid causing the bodies PH system to lower faster, resulting in oxygen deprivation. This generally results in elite women breathing 1:3 or 1:4 pattern for the first 50M and then taking extra breaths on the second 50M. While men tend to breathe every stroke through the entire 100M.
It is thought for recreational swimming that we swim the first 50M more anaerobically with a 1:4 or 1:3 breathing pattern and the second 50 with a 1:2 breathing pattern. This will set us up to sustain speed for the last 50 meters and avoid PH build up which causes stroke deterioration.
The 100M free is not an all-out sprint therefor a sole anaerobic system cannot be relied on. This event requires a steady flow of oxygen to improve performance and create sustainability for the duration of the event through oxygen availability.
Something to consider when you are racing the 100M free event.