Science / Breathing Exercises for Swimming

Breathing Exercises for Swimming

by Patrick McKeown

The Dry Land Training Protocol Nobody’s Talking About

As a competitive swimmer, you want to know how to swim faster. Whether your goal is technique or strength training, the end point is the same. In competitive swimming, better IS faster.

But many swimmers have yet to tap into the power of breathing exercises, despite evidence that they boost swimming, speed and endurance.

Breathing exercises for swimming 1

How to Swim Faster

The basic principles of fast swimming focus on technique:

  • Optimizing your body position in the water
  • Refining your kick,
  • Focusing on your arm movement and stroke technique
  • Improving swimming coordination
  • Reducing drag

But think quality, not quantity. Swimming workouts to build speed shouldn’t include “garbage yardage.” Overtraining does nothing to boost your VO2 max. You’re more likely to develop a shoulder injury or chronic fatigue. You’ll hit a speed plateau.

To avoid this trap, your swimming workout plan must include a dry land protocol.

What “Dryland” Training is Best for Swimming Endurance and Speed?

Dryland training for swimmers involves stretching and strengthening the arms, legs and core. It improves form in the water and protects against injury. It enhances balance, posture, alignment and movement, leading to better all-round swim technique. Many swimmers use cross-training to boost their average swimming speed and VO2 max.

But the missing link is a dry land protocol of breathing exercises.

Land Based Respiratory Training and Breathing Exercises

Breathwork training on dry land is not yet commonplace among swimmers. Which is odd, because it’s supported by plenty of evidence. It involves breathing exercises to strengthen the breathing muscles. It delays respiratory muscle fatigue. It supports airway health and oxygenation. It doesn’t need much extra training time. And even if you only use it as part of your warmup, it can improve elite swimming performance.

Breath holding to simulate training at high altitude benefits speed and endurance. It provides an edge in sports including competitive swimming. Breath holding can be used to achieve hypercapnia and hypoxia.

What About Breath Holding During Swimming?

There are many advanced ways to control your breathing in the water. But breath holding while swimming is never a good idea.

You may read articles about holding your breath like a free diver. It sounds exciting. But unless you’re training as a free diver, don’t go there. There’s nothing exceptional about dying face down in a 4-foot-deep pool.

Think it won’t happen to you? Strong, confident young swimmers have died practicing competitive breath holds. The Journal of Military Medicine reports many such incidents. For instance, the two young men who died in 2011 after practicing intentional hyperventilation and underwater breath holding. At least 20 swimmers were in the pool, and lifeguards were in attendance. But both men were found underwater. Another 17-year-old boy died after practicing hyperventilation and breath holding on his own.

In some well-known breathwork methods, hyperventilation is performed before breath holding. Its purpose is to reduce levels of carbon dioxide in the blood. This prolongs the breath hold. Carbon dioxide provides the primary stimulus to breathe. Breath holding causes hypercapnia – high CO2 levels in the blood.

Hyperventilating before the breath hold delays the hypercapnia-induced drive to breathe. This allows you to stay under water for longer. But as these cases show, it is dangerous. During a breath hold, the cells continue to extract oxygen from the blood. You may not feel the need to surface until your oxygen levels are dangerously low. The result, shallow water or surface blackout.

 What is Shallow Water Blackout?

  • Hyperventilation involves exhaling at an increased rate. This reduces levels of CO2 in the blood.
  • During the breath hold, blood oxygen levels drop (hypoxia).
  • Normally, CO2 would increase in the blood, prompting the desire to breathe. The brain would signal to your respiratory muscles and you would surface, ending your breath hold.
  • If you hyperventilate before breath holding, CO2 is too low to signal the need to breathe.
  • Combined with low oxygen, this can cause unconsciousness.
  • Once you have blacked out, your body reacts by initiating a breath. If you are underwater, this will be disastrous. Your lungs fill with water and you drown, unless immediately assisted.
  • Even if you are rescued, secondary drowning can occur. This is when water is inhaled causing inflammation in the lungs. This can happen days afterwards. The air sacs in the lungs swell, preventing oxygen from getting to the blood.
  • The best advice – no matter your skill level or competitive nature – is never to practice breath holds in the water.
  • The Oxygen Advantage® method does not use hyperventilation. Even so, keep your breath holds out of the pool.

Breath holding on dry land is a valuable way to improve swimming speed.

Breath Holding Outside the Pool Enhances Endurance and Performance in the Water

There is a positive way to link swimming performance and hypoxia. Your swimming training program should include a dry land breathing protocol. Exercises fall into two “pillars”. Functional everyday breathing and intermittent hypoxic/hypercapnic training (IHHT).


Functional Breathing and Swimming Performance

Is Hypoxic Training Beneficial?

In the same way it benefits runners and cyclists, this is a secret powerhouse for elite swimmers. IHHT strengthens your diaphragm, providing it with a strong, load-added workout. It reduces your sensitivity to CO2, so you can breathe light and slow. It improves your blood oxygen carrying capacity, for better swimming stamina.

IHHT makes breathing easy. Which means better performance. And as we said at the beginning of this article, when it comes to swimming, better ALWAYS means faster.

What the Scientists Say about Breathing Exercises for Swimming


French researcher Lemaitre found that breath holds could also improve swimming coordination. After breath hold training, swimmers showed increases in VO2 peak as well as an increase in the distance travelled with each swimming stroke.

The researchers concluded that their studies indicated that “breath hold training improves effectiveness at both peak exercise and submaximal exercise and can also improve swimming technique by promoting greater propulsive continuity.”

See: Lemaître F, Seifert L, Polin D, Juge J, Tourny-Chollet C, Chollet D. Apnea training effects on swimming coordination. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Sep;23(6):1909-14.


In addition to studying the effects of breath hold training on swimming coordination, Lemaitre and colleagues also investigated the effects of short repeated breath holds on breathing pattern in trained underwater hockey players (UHP) and untrained subjects (controls).

Twenty male subjects were recruited, with ten members of a national underwater hockey team allocated to the UHP group, and ten subjects with little training and no breath hold experience allocated to the control group.

The subjects performed five breath holds while treading water with their faces immersed. The breath holds were spaced five minutes apart and performed after a deep but not maximal inhalation. The underwater hockey players were noted to have reduced breathlessness and higher concentration of CO2 in exhaled breath after the test (ETCO2).

See: Lemaître F, Polin D, Joulia F, Boutry A, Le Pessot D, Chollet D, Tourny-Chollet C. Physiological responses to repeated apneas in underwater hockey players and controls. Undersea Hyperb Med. 2007 Nov-Dec;34(6):407-14.


This study used an innovative technique of pulse oximetry to investigate whether swimmers can train under hypoxic conditions through voluntary hypoventilation (VH). Ten trained subjects performed a front crawl swimming series with normal breathing (NB), VH at high (VHhigh) and low pulmonary volume (VHlow).

Arterial oxygen saturation was continuously measured via pulse oximetry (SpO2) with a waterproofed forehead sensor. Gas exchanges were recorded continuously and lactate concentration ([La]) was assessed at the end of each test. In VHlow, SpO2 fell down to 87% at the end of the series whereas it remained above 94% in VHhigh during most part of the series.

Ventilation, oxygen uptake and end-tidal O2 pressure were lower in both VHhigh and VHlow than in NB. Compared to NB, [La] significantly increased in VHlow and decreased in VHhigh. This study demonstrated that swimmers can train under hypoxic conditions at sea level and can accentuate the glycolytic stimulus of their training if they perform VH at low but not high pulmonary volume.

See: Woorons X, Gamelin FX, Lamberto C, Pichon A, Richalet JP. Swimmers can train in hypoxia at sea level through voluntary hypoventilation. Respir Physiol Neurobiol. 2014 Jan 1;190:33-9.


Purpose: This study aimed to determine whether hypoventilation training at supramaximal intensity could improve swimming performance more than the same training carried out under normal breathing conditions.

Methods: Over a 5-week period, sixteen triathletes (12 men, 4 women) were asked to include twice a week into their usual swimming session one supramaximal set of 12 to 20 x 25m, performed either with hypoventilation at low lung volume (VHL group) or with normal breathing (CONT group). Before (Pre-) and after (Post-) training, all triathletes performed all-out front crawl trials over 100, 200 and 400m.

Results: Time performance was significantly improved in group performing breath holding after an exhalation in all trials [100m: – 3.7 ± 3.7s (- 4.4 ± 4.0%); 200m: – 6.9 ± 5.0s (- 3.6 ± 2.3%); 400m: – 13.6 ± 6.1s (-3.5 ± 1.5%)] but did not change in CONTROL.

In breath holding following exhalation group, maximal lactate concentration (+ 2.35 ± 1.3 mmol.L-1 on average) and the rate of lactate accumulation in blood (+ 41.7 ± 39.4%) were higher at Post- than at Pre- in the three trials whereas they remained unchanged in CONTROL.

Arterial oxygen saturation, heart rate, breathing frequency and stroke length were not altered in both groups at the end of the training period. On the other hand, stroke rate was higher at Post- compared to Pre- in breath holding following an exhalation group but not different in CONTROL.

Conclusion: This study demonstrated that VHL training, when performed at supramaximal intensity, represents an effective method for improving swimming performance, partly through an increase in the anaerobic glycolysis activity.

See: Woorons X, Mucci P, Richalet JP, Pichon A. Hypoventilation Training at Supramaximal Intensity Improves Swimming Performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2016 Jun;48(6):1119-28


The Effects of Hypercapnic-Hypoxic Training Program on Hemoglobin Concentration and Maximum Oxygen Uptake of Elite Swimmers. The above shows a significant increase to hemoglobin in the group that practiced breath holding after an exhalation. Furthermore, there was a 10.79% increase to VO2 max.



Triathletes and elite breath-hold divers show an adaptive response to hypoxia induced by repeated epochs of breath holding.

After apnea training, the forced expiratory volume in 1 second was higher (4.85 6 0.78 vs. 4.94 6 0.81 L, p , 0.05), with concomitant increases in VO2peak, minimal arterial oxygen saturation, and respiratory compensation point values (W and W_kg21) during the incremental test.

Apnea training enabled the swimmers to better support breath holding during the 50-m sprint, and consequently, stroke organization was less disturbed. After apnea training, fatigue appeared later and the disturbing effect of breathing on arm coordination disappeared. These ‘‘skilled’’ swimmers decreased their SR and increased their SL and IdC, showing greater propulsive continuity between the two arms after this specific training.

See: Lemaître F, Seifert L, Polin D, Juge J, Tourny-Chollet C, Chollet D. Apnea training effects on swimming coordination. University of Rouen, Faculty of Sports Sciences, 76130 Mont-Saint-Aignan, France.

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