Back to Basics: It's All In the Breathing

Thursday, January 8, 2009

To speed up my recovery from my long runs late December 2008, I decided to swim on the 3rd day of January 2009. I am not certain about the scientific explanation, but from my experience, relaxed swimming is better than massage in removing knots in muscles and any other aches I might have gotten after running. I suppose it has something to do with improved blood circulation. Yes, massage improves blood circulation, but mild physical activity circulates the blood more! Swimming engages the whole body and in the process well-oxygenated blood is pumped into the muscles. The blood will bring with it the oxygen and trace elements necessary for muscle repair, while carrying away with it lactic acid and other wastes produced by running. Oxygen is so important that if it is continuously supplied in generous amounts, a muscle group in theory can keep on contracting without getting tired. The heart as muscle is perfect example. Close to the lungs, the heart is assured of oxygen supply and will contract and beat in regularity. Now, if only we can all supply adequate oxygen to those quads and calves of ours, maybe we will all end up being ultra-marathoners!

Apart from muscle recovery, for my first swim of the year, I also aimed to change my breath count when I do the crawl (stroke normally used in free-style competitions). Yes, years after doing the crawl using a specific breathing pattern, I am changing my breath count. Crazy me! While my every two strokes breath count is ideal for my leisurely, meditative pace, it seems inadequate now if I intend to swim faster. While I may have succeeded in doing a sub-60 second 50-meter swim, I was stroking the water and flipping my legs like crazy! (Buti pa sa swimming, the nakaka-sub-60 ako. Kailan kaya ako mag-sub-60min sa 10K run ko?) While my furious swimming on a 2-stroke breath count may probably be done in a mini-sprint triathlon, this strategy will kill me in a sprint or standard distance triathlon.

The simplest way for me to improve my swim time is to breathe less often. In a 50-meter sprint, elite swimmers sometimes breathe just once or twice, or not all for the race duration! Of course there is a trade-off -- speed versus fuel economy. Yes, just like in cars. A 50m sprint with minimal breathing will be largely anaerobic - powerful and fast but cannot be sustained for long. For triathlon, my swimming has to be largely aerobic.

I decided to try breathing every 4 strokes. My transition from 2 to 4 stroke breathing was rather smooth. Of course every now and then my body would revert to its old way of breathing, but for most of my 50m practice laps I was doing well. The key was concentration. Whereas before I think of something else when I swim while my body automatically follows the breathing program I taught it, this time I have to teach my body a new algorithm and make sure it follows my new direction. Hopefully within a month's time, my body will be in autopilot again using the new breath count. Once the new breathing habit is ingrained, I shall train for distance.

(Next: Back to Basics: Maintaining Balance)


myironshoes January 10, 2009 at 3:34 PM  

In HS my coach quite suddenly started signing me up for the 400/800/1600m freestyle category. Changing my breathing pattern for the longer distances was hard. Very hard. I had to undo more than 10 years of training. And my coach insisted i do bilateral breathing when before that i was just trained to breathe on my right side! And not even to breathe so often!! It was hellish needing to relearn the basics! But it was all worth it! :-)
Yes, swimming is indeed the best way to relax and to stretch out those tired muscles. I try to swim once a week too just to get those naughty knots out. :-)

Rico Villanueva January 11, 2009 at 12:34 AM  

Agree, changing the breathing pattern is hellish. I spent about 2 hrs trying to complete 30x50m. I had to rest every single lap!!! Well, I hope it is worth it :-)

Rico Villanueva January 11, 2009 at 12:36 AM  

Hey, Mesh, join ka Speedo aquathlon!

JavyO January 13, 2009 at 12:07 PM  

Nice Going Rico.

I did the opposite. In order to speed up, I needed to take in more oxygen, thus breathe more.

In most of my swims I breathe on same side, every cycle. I used to breathe on alternating sides every 1.5 cycles. I find my rhythm now, and am more comfortable breathing every cycle now.

Good luck, and persevere on that stroke!

Rico Villanueva January 14, 2009 at 11:53 PM  

Hi Javy. So far my new breathing rhythm seems promising. But if in the end I do not get faster, I can always revert to my old rhythm. Should I decide to revert, I think I will swim stronger because of the experimentation I did (I wish!).

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