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How to Increase Lung Capacity for Swimming


Swimming can certainly feel exhausting. A lot of that fatigue comes from oxygen deprivation. Even if you breathe frequently, your body is always demanding more air! It makes sense, though, since swimming is such an extremely cardiovascular sport. This guide is packed with tips for breathing easier during your swim sets.

Breathe Correctly

The first aspect of your stroke you should analyze is your breath. When breathing in freestyle, fully exhale before you turn your head to take a breath. Also, think about if you feel like you’re taking in enough air. For more tips on proper breathing, check out the related iSport guide on How to Side-breathe.

Kick Light

Kicking lighter than normal can help conserve oxygen. Your quadriceps — or thigh muscles — are the largest muscles in your body. Therefore, they demand the most oxygen. Taking it easy on kicking will help you save oxygen.

Breath Control Sets

The purpose of breath control sets is to aid in proper breathing, good technique, and augmented lung capacity. There are two common ways to approach a breath control set. You can hold your breath for a long duration, or you can practice a low-frequency breathing pattern.

No-breathers

No-breathers can help increase your lung capacity. Swim a 25 of freestyle without taking a breath. Remember to kick lightly as you do this. The less you kick, the easier the no-breather will be. Also, take it easy. If you try sprinting the 25, then you’ll be expending your oxygen quickly. Instead, find a steady pace during the set.

Hot Tip: Exhale Slowly
Exhale slowly as you swim your no-breather. This will help avoid oxygen depletion during your lap. Blowing air out too quickly might force you to take a breath before you want/need to.

Completing the entire lap without a breath can be difficult. If you can't make it the whole way, see how far you can go before taking a breath. As you repeat the 25, try to make it further on your next lap. Give yourself plenty of rest between each lap. 20-30 seconds will allow your lungs to get a break before you make the next attempt.

You’ll start to feel better and better on each repeat as you do this set. On your first day, start with a set of 10 x 25. Then increase your number of repeats every few days. If you do this set for a week, you'll likely be surprised at how much better your lungs will feel. This will carry over to your other sets as well.

Butterfly

Believe it or not, some people find it easier to do no-breathers butterfly. You can get into a nice rhythm and use your body — instead of your oxygen-burning legs — to move through the water. If you feel comfortable with your stroke, try holding your breath for some 25s of butterfly.

Under Water

Hot Tip: Do Some Bobs
The burning sensation that you get in your lungs is from lactic acid. To clear out the lactic acid between sets, bob up and down in the water. As you dip under the water, blow out all of your air. As you reach the surface, take in more air, and repeat. This will help get rid of that burning feeling in your lungs between repeats.

Another way to practice breath control is to swim laps under water. There are many variations that you can do under water: Kick in a streamline, perform breaststroke pull-downs, or even make up your own method. See if you can complete the whole lap under water. If you can’t make it, see how far you can go without taking a breath. Repeat these 25s after catching your breath.

Breathing Patterns

Get into a breathing pattern during a set. There are two ways you can approach this type of set. You can challenge yourself by trying to breathe every five, seven, or nine strokes. This will help build your lungs while you get into a pattern.

Alternatively, you can breathe every three strokes and focus on balancing out your stroke. Try to smooth out your swimming, which will in turn help you with your breathing.

Be Careful

While doing any of these sets, be extra careful! Do not push yourself so hard that you pass out in the water. Be aware that a burning feeling in your lungs is normal while practicing breath control. You produce lactic acid in your body when you hold your breath, which causes that burning sensation.

However, if that burning feeling becomes severe, you should take in some air! Further, you should always take a break if you’re feeling light-headed. Passing out in the water is highly dangerous. Always practice breath control at a pool where you can be supervised.

Build up Slowly

If you’re unsure how far you can swim while holding your breath, take it easy the first few times you practice. With a bit of patience, you’ll feel better in the water. It won’t be long until you’re no longer gasping for air during sets!

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Mike
2 months ago.
Join the discussion...
Mike
2 months ago.
Hi, I was wondering how do I take better breaths before I touch the wall and then push off?
Nic
9 months ago.
Hi, each time I try to breath every 3 strokes/bilaterally I end up with headaches after 30 minutes doing so.
If I understand properly you suggest to challenge myself with breathing every 5-7-9 strokes over a 50m lap, recover some 30 seconds and repeat say 10 times. In doing so I should able to improve and reduce recovery times? What would be a reasonable target which should allow me to swim say 2km without feeling breathless?
Is doing some bobbing before starting the above exercise advisable?
Thanks a lot,
Nic
SwimOutlet
9 months ago.
Hi Nic!

It seems you have an issue getting rid of the carbon dioxide in your body. Remember that headaches happen from a lack of oxygen to your brain combined with too much carbon dioxide. Below are essential and foremost information to have proper breathing during swim:

Why breathing out is just as important as breathing in
Even before the development of scientific studies and advanced laboratories for metabolic analysis, swimmers became aware of the following basic facts:

Breathing in while your face is underwater is NOT the best respiratory strategy, and
Air is absolutely necessary if you’re planning to swim more than about 50 yards.
These two obvious truths made it necessary to create swimming strokes that allow the mouth and nose to exit the water to access the air. Nearly everyone understands that part, and no one has trouble inhaling while their heads are turned.

But it’s underwater where the magic really happens.

The CO2 Reflex
Most people think that they feel out-of-breath when they aren’t getting enough oxygen. The reality is a bit more complicated.

As your body uses oxygen, it creates carbon dioxide (CO2) as a waste product. As CO2 builds up within you, your body senses it and tells your brain that you need to breathe. Your breathing urges are driven by excessive CO2, not by a lack of oxygen. Getting rid of the CO2 helps relieve the out-of-breath distress.

Swimmers who don’t exhale properly will quickly feel winded because of this reflex, even though they probably aren’t really suffering oxygen debt. This is why many extremely fit triathletes may feel that they can only swim a few lengths of the pool before needing a long rest break—they’re holding their breath.

A word of caution: Hyperventilating (taking a series of deep, fast breaths before you swim) purges your CO2 reserves, which eliminates the safety mechanism of the breathing reflex. This can cause shallow water blackout, a condition in which your body runs out of oxygen and you pass out and drown without ever recognizing that you’re in danger. You should never hyperventilate before swimming and you should not attempt to swim long distances underwater.

Tips for Land Animals
Distance runners and cyclists would never dream of holding their breath during a competition, yet our instincts are to clamp up and stop breathing when our faces are in the water. To become an effective swimmer, we must fight this instinct.

Go for a hard run or bike ride, and pay attention to your breathing. You’ll most likely find that air is always moving either in or out, and that you inhale and exhale for very close to the same duration.
Apply that same breathing pattern in the pool. This means that you’ll start blowing out as soon as you finish inhaling, and that you’ll more effectively get the CO2 out of your lungs before turning for the next breath.
Some people find it helpful to count “1, 2,” or to silently think the words in and out to create the habit of rhythm. Experiment to find what works for you.

It's also important to blow at least some of the air out your nose to maximize the airflow and avoid getting water in your sinuses. This is especially critical when exhaling while you're upside down during a flip turn or on a backstroke start. Getting water up your nose is a memorably unpleasant experience.

Many experienced and elite swimmers are able to achieve full exhalation primarily through their noses. For less experienced swimmers, this takes practice—the important thing is to exhale completely so that you're ready to inhale during the breathing phase of the stroke.

Alternate Breathing
Many coaches urge swimmers to breathe on every third arm instead of constantly breathing on the same side. This has two primary benefits:

It makes your stroke more symmetrical and helps you recognize stroke anomalies.
It makes it easier to switch breathing sides in a race, so you can see your competitors or avoid chaos in open water.
For an alternate-side breathing pattern, you’ll have to slightly change your inhale/exhale timing ratio to an “out-out-in” count—but you should still keep air moving at all times.

Breathing with Economy
It seems logical to assume that it’s better to take as many strokes as possible between breaths to avoid any drag created by the breathing motion. Well, this might work for some sprinters, but after about 30 seconds of effort, your body switches to metabolic processes that require oxygen. If you want to maintain power past that point, you must breathe.

Although it’s a wonderful stroke aid to swim with a snorkel to perfect your alignment and posture, you really do need all the air you can get when it’s race time. If you’re swimming any sort of distance at all, you should not ever hold your breath. Instead, work with your coach to develop a smooth and drag-free breathing motion and good inhale/exhale rhythm.

Blow Away Panic and Keep Your Speed
There are times when you’ll feel especially out of breath, such as during the madness of a triathlon start, or coming off the wall from a flip turn. In those cases, rather than slowing down to rest, try blowing out a little harder to curtail the CO2 reflex. You’ll often find that you have more energy than you thought after you get rid of the “bad air.”
Michael j Zalusky
1 year ago.
Morning;

I am 61 and completed my first sprint aquabike recently. The swimming,ocean open water, was horrible. How do I increase my lung capacity? Intervals work well for my biking, does that work for swimming. I will start training again for the next aquabike soon. I will try your tip of 25 freestyle with no breath.
Thanks
Thanks
Ayan
1 year ago.
I can swim 1 mile throughout with 3-stroke swimming. I want to upgrade to swimming a mile thru 5 stroke swimming. I downloaded a breathing trainer app on my phone that has predefined Inhale-hold-Exhale-Hold exercises. What breathing tempo should I practice to upgrade from a 3-stroke to a 5-stroke ability?
SwimOutlet
1 year ago.
Dear Ayan,

A unilateral breathing swimmer can only choose a breathing pattern of every 2 strokes (3 seconds between breaths), or 4 strokes (6 seconds), or 6 strokes (9 seconds!).

For long distance, if you are a bi-laterial breathing swimmer, you can breathe on every 5 strokes (7.5 seconds between breathes).
Rene
1 year ago.
Hi, So I have sports induced asthma. Would the breath control help with that and is it a good idea to try breath control with asthma?
SwimOutlet
1 year ago.
Hi Rene!

According to studies, it helps. But we strongly recommend the low-frequency breathing method instead of holding your breath.
Andrew
1 year ago.
Hi there..
I battle with muscle fatigue in my upper body when doing swim training, to the extent that I can no longer actually complete lengths without having to stop to recover. I'm aware of the lactic build up but is there anything in particular that i should/shouldn't be doing?
Best regards,
SwimOutlet
1 year ago.
Hi Andrew!

A good way to hold off swimming fatigue is to change your stroke throughout your session. While there is some overlap, you use a number of different muscles with each stroke, particularly in the kick.
Backstroke is particularly good for catching your breath and steadying your breathing because your face and to some degree your chest are out of the water.
Don’t change your strokes too much because that can be counterproductive. Just rotate once you feel your technique dropping for one stroke.

As well as introducing a bit of variety in terms of your stroke, you can also switch between effort in your arms and your legs.
When you’re starting to feel tired, it can be easy to drift into focusing on your arms in front crawl as this is where you generate the most strength in the water.
Instead, ease your arms off and concentrate on generating some momentum from your kick for a couple of lengths, allowing your arms time to relax.

Minimise how much energy you’re using by holding your glide as long as you can. As well as being a more efficient technique, this is a good way to establish some rhythm and control in your swimming.
Count your strokes per length early on in your swim and then aim to go lower than usual as you’re starting to feel tired.
trevor
1 year ago.
Hi! I've been on swim team for about 6 years and because I'm a backstroke/freestyler, I've always mixed in backstroke with my free sets and vice versa to help take pressure of my different major muscles used in each stroke, while also doing some active recovery for heart rate and lactic acid drainage.

So my question is: Why is it somewhat counter productive to change strokes too often during sets?
Additionally, you used the word "bobs" up above, I was curious if you could please describe how to do these a little bit more and explain what makes them so good for lung recovery.
SwimOutlet
1 year ago.
Hi Trevor!

It is counter-productive simply because it causes swimming fatigue. Now the bob or bobbing is the ability to exchange air, blowing used air out and inhaling new air. The most important aspect in the exchange of air is on the exhale because once the lungs are empty, the new air will automatically flow in. Our lungs have a natural vacuum that allows air in once they are emptied. In other words no real effort is needed, it will simply happen on its own. The inhale should be from the mouth and the exhale is from the mouth and the nose.
Trevor
1 year ago.
Ah okay, thank you. So for the bobbing, do you float laterally and let yourself sink to the bottom as you let air out and then come to the surface and take a breath?
SwimOutlet
1 year ago.
Hi Trevor!

It can be done by hopping and propelling forward or by doing what you can see on the video here - https://rachit91.github.io/swimad/strokes/bobbing.html
Emma
1 year ago.
Hi Julie Can I ask how your daughter has been since My 12 year old has just started with exactly the same as you describe and we are undergoing tests which all seem ok but she is struggling breathing and it’s really getting to her
Julie
2 years ago.
My 15 year old swimmer....she was in two meets recently. The first meet she swam the 200 yd Butterfly but could not finish...in middle of 5th lap she stopped because she could not breathe (get air) she felt like her throat was closing...she was in another meet this past weekend where she swam the 400 IM. She swam the 100 Fly and the 100 Back with no problem (she looked great) then in the first lab of the 100 Breast, the same thing happened...could not get air and felt like throat was closing. Though later in the meet (the day she swam the 400 IM) she swam and finished the 1000 yd Freestyle with no real issue other than she was trying to focus on breathing and rhythm. Her splits were pretty consistent through out too... We had taken her to allergist (ran tests) was given inhaler and other OTC meds to help. She is not asthmatic. I am not sure if it was 'anxiety induced' as these are hard races to swim or if it was sports induced asthma starting. She only swam both events one time before about a year and a half ago and finished both. thoughts???
Jessica
2 years ago.
I used to swim regularly an hour a week and that used to happen to me sometimes as well. What worked for me was holding my breath underwater before training for as long as possible and swimming more often. I now swim three times a week for an hour each and do breathing exercises before I swim. How often does she swim?
Maureen Stewart
2 years ago.
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swimoutlet.com
2 years ago.
Hi Maureen! Thank you so much for sharing your experience! We are happy to hear how well this herbal treatment is doing for you now and we hope that you continue to progress in your treatment. Good luck!
Fred Gilberts
2 years ago.
A CT scan in August of 2009 verified that I had Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis. My first symptoms were cough and shortness of breath. I was on prednisone and inhalers. My blood oxygen level was 50 and i was extremely short of breath, i was barely able to breath. I went through cardio pulmonary rehab, It helped but not too long before all the severe symptoms returned. December last year, a family friend told us about Rich Herbs Foundation and their successful lungs disease treatments, we visited their website ww w. richherbsfoundation. c om and ordered their IPF herbal treatment, i am happy to report this treatment effectively reversed my Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis and symptoms. I am back on my feet, i walk daily now and has made me able to walk my two dogs again without shortness of breath or sudden loss of energy. My activity level is up again.
swimoutlet.com
2 years ago.
Wow, thank you so much for taking the time to share your story! We are pleased to hear how well you are doing now and we hope that you continue to progress in your treatment. Good luck!
Nermin
3 years ago.
I exercise on a regular basis, TRX, spinning, yoga, weights, etc. I also started swimming for exercise. Took some lessons to learn to swim properly as I learned on my own. Problem is I barely swim once across the pool and I am out of breath. It is frustrating because with all the exercise I do and to be out of breath in half a lap, doesn't make sense. Is it that I need to improve my lung capacity? Checked with cardiologist and everything is good no issues. What do I do?
Thank you!
swimoutlet.com
3 years ago.
Kicking lighter than normal can help conserve oxygen. Your quadriceps — or thigh muscles — are the largest muscles in your body. Therefore, they demand the most oxygen. Taking it easy on kicking will help you save oxygen

Get into a breathing pattern during a set. There are two ways you can approach this type of set. You can challenge yourself by trying to breathe every five, seven, or nine strokes. This will help build your lungs while you get into a pattern. Alternatively, you can breathe every three strokes and focus on balancing out your stroke. Try to smooth out your swimming, which will in turn help you with your breathing.

While doing any of these sets, be extra careful! Do not push yourself so hard that you pass out in the water. Be aware that a burning feeling in your lungs is normal while practicing breath control. You produce lactic acid in your body when you hold your breath, which causes that burning sensation. However, if that burning feeling becomes severe, you should take in some air! Further, you should always take a break if you’re feeling light-headed. Passing out in the water is highly dangerous. Always practice breath control at a pool where you can be supervised.
Stephan Tjaden
3 years ago.
Nermin,
Land workouts versus swimming workouts are a whole new ball-game. Proof: I used to be a runner (5-K) and could not understand why I was spent after only 25 yd. You must build the tolerance for swimming, you are using muscles in a way your body is not used to. There is some proof out there that swimmers will outrun their counterparts. I tested this theory last year; I beat my old 5k time by about 7minutes. This I believe is due to the intense exercise from swimming you are used to.

For breathing, in reality, when you are starting out, if you need to breathe every two, you need to breathe every two. I breathe every two for any amount over 100yd else 50yd and less every 4-6. You must train yourself to do this. It does not come easy. Persist until you succeed!
Gary
2 years ago.
You may still have a physical problem - perhaps there is too much drag in your stroke, or perhaps your chest doesn’t expand properly, preventing deep breathing. You might measure your chest (ribs) expansion while breathing deeply.
Jerry
3 years ago.
Speaking from a lifeguard's perspective, be sure to tell the guard on duty that you're working on lung capacity. We frown on "breath-holding" specifically because of the danger of swimmers passing out. If we know you're working on lung capacity, we can keep a special watch on you - just in case. (Please avoid doing this when the pool's swimmer load is heavy as we have a bunch of other swimmers to watch out for, too.)
Stephan Tjaden
3 years ago.
Jerry,

Agreed. I am the swimmer who does this and I've noticed if I forget to tell them I'm doing lung capacity stuff they immediately will focus their attention on you with a "Please let me know forehand" look on their face.
Adriana
3 years ago.
I am trying to work toward a 25m sub surface swim with a 3 minute break and then another 25m sub surface swim. What are your suggestions?
Swimoutlet.com
3 years ago.
Hi Adriana!
We suggest building up to this slowly and kicking lightly while swimming. Push yourself a little at a time until you feel more comfortable.
Stephan Tjaden
3 years ago.
Adriana,

I taught myself this with a Mono fin to start. Your body gets used to the motion and the heavy demand, then when you do it without it it is cake! Keep swimming!!!!!!
Haroutioun Markarian
3 years ago.
After my open heart surgery ,my lung capacity dropped to 65% ,Iused to swim 30 minutes non stop ,now after 3 minutes I am out of breath.Can I improve my capacity if I train swimming?The Pneumologist said I cannot improve the capacity.I am 84 but very active .
swimoutlet.com
3 years ago.
Hi Haroutioun! We're in no way qualified to offer up medical advice. You should always follow your physician's advice and follow their directions.
connie
4 years ago.
I am just learning to swim correctly and on my first day I traveled 25 feet on one breath, over and over again. Now I am obsessed with improving my breathing. Thanks so much. This information has been very useful!
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