lowdown on hypoxic training, The

Milak, Kevin

Hypoxic (low oxygen) training, developed by legendary coach Doc Counsilman, has significant value in helping swimmers learn to keep their stroke smooth and stable in the face of anxiety and physiological adversity.

Why do we swim freestyle, breathing on 3, 5, 7, 9 by 25s? Are we strengthening our muscles? Are coaches just keeping their swimmers disciplined? Is it just what the coach’s coach made him do when he was a kid, so now he’s perpetuating it?

This article discusses the origins of hypoxic training-the physiological changes associated with it, and the myths that have grown up around it.

Hypoxic (low oxygen) training involves the reduction or elimination of breathing while training. The development of hypoxic training is credited to legendary coach and scientist, Dr. James Counsilman of Indiana University.

The theory is that hypoxic training increases the ability of the muscles to work better when oxygen levels are low, such as at the end of a 200 meter race. It is also believed that reducing the number of breaths per lap will increase the swimmer’s speed, because changing the body position to take a breath tends to increase drag.

Hypoxic training was also thought to simulate training at altitude by restricting the oxygen supply in the blood and tissues during exercise. Both sea-level training with restricted breathing patterns and high altitude training share the term “hypoxic.” However, sea-level training does not affect the cardiovascular system past the alveoli (microscopic air sacs within the lungs where the gas exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen take place).

The lower pressure of oxygen at altitude brings less oxygen to the lungs, resulting in less oxygen to the blood and muscles. Normal hypoxic training at sea-level does not even come close to producing the effects seen at altitude.


Hypoxic training, as we know it, is actually the process of hypercapnia. Hypercapnia is the increase of carbon dioxide in the alveolar air, which tells the body that it needs to breathe. The feeling that we get when we have difficulty holding our breath while swimming actually results from the presence of carbon dioxide-not a lack of oxygen.

Hypoxic training can familiarize swimmers with this feeling. Many coaches have found hypoxic training to be a form of disciplining swimmers into developing good habits, such as not breathing on the first cycle out of a turn. Several situations during a race could require athletes to be familiar with these feelings, such as extended dolphin kicks off a wall or breaststroke pull-outs. To train regularly with oxygen restriction can condition the athlete to be able to keep technique skills in top form even after fatigue and “oxygen deprivation” have set in.

One way to be more successful in your performances is to work on your weaknesses. Many swimmers find that their weaknesses may include breathing out of their turns, rushing their breaststroke pull-outs or only doing one dolphin kick out of the wall on the last turn of the 200 back or 200 fly.

By incorporating hypoxic training into their routines, swimmers can prepare themselves for race situations by simulating the extremity of race conditions. One of the most difficult things to re-create in workout is the stress that the body experiences during a race. Although hypoxic training doesn’t change your body chemistry, it still has significant value in helping you learn to keep your stroke smooth and stable in the face of anxiety and physiological adversity.

There are some dangers associated with hypoxic training. Some swimmers and trainers have taken hypoxic training to the extreme by hyperventilating before doing a maximum distance “no-breather” swim. By combining hyperventilation with breath-holding, swimmers can effectively shut off the hypercapnia mechanisms that tell your brain you need to take a breath. The result: a swimmer could pass out…or even die.

Close Supervison

Hypoxic training can be an important part of training; however, it must be done under very close supervision by coaches. Lung capacity diminishes with age, so Masters swimmers using hypoxic training should be watched very carefully. Most programs nowadays use a one-on-one system to monitor hypoxic training (i.e., each swimmer training hypoxically is watched by a “buddy,” the coach or both!).

Although variations of hypoxic training are used all over the world, there is no definite proof that it conditions the muscles to function better. But it does appear to improve swimming mechanics (such as rotary breathing on freestyle and two-count breathing on butterfly), and to that extent, swimming speed. If hypoxic training is practiced, it is recommended that the distances be carefully monitored in a one-on-one structure and that coaches and lifeguards be particularly watchful.

There are different opinions regarding the value of hypoxic training, but many coaches see it as only beneficial to distances of 200 meters and below. However, in all events, this type of training could be an advantage. If training to stay long off turns and not breathing out of the wall in the 100 freestyle until after the first cycle is helping the swimmer to maintain momentum longer, how about during the 65th turn of a 1650?

Following are a few examples of how hypoxic training can be incorporated into normal workout sets (such as 20 x 100 meters on 1:30), other than “no-breathers”:

* Going a full two cycles (four strokes) off each wall before breathing.

* Allowing a decreasing number of breaths per 25 (first 25, four breaths; second 25, three breaths; third 25, two breaths; and only one breath on the final 25).

* Doing five dolphin kicks off the final two turns.

Kevin Milak, an assistant coach at Arizona Desert Fox (AFOX) in Phoenix, is the technical editor of Swimming Technique.

Copyright Sports Publications, Inc. Jul-Sep 2003

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved

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