Breathe in to boost performance!

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Training the inspiratory muscles can improve swimming performance. Competitive swimming is one of the ultimate challenges for breathing. Swimmers competing in 100m events breathe very little. For example, they may breathe as little as eight times during a race that lasts almost a minute - taking one breath in the first 25m, three in the second, three in the third and one in the final 25m!

“When they do breathe, swimmers have to inhale as much as possible in the shortest time possible so that they can return their bodies to the optimal position for generating propulsive force”, explains sports scientist and respiratory physiologist, Dr Alison McConnell. “This creates an enormous strain on the inspiratory muscles (muscles used to inhale) and it is no surprise to find that swimmers experience significant fatigue of these muscles”.

McConnell continues, “Our research has shown that swimming just 200m at 90-95% of race pace is sufficient to induce a significant level of breathing fatigue (a 20% fall in strength) in competitive swimmers. The situation is worsened by the fact that when you are lying horizontal in the water, your breathing muscles are up to 16% weaker than when you’re upright - this means that they are less able to generate the forces needed to breathe in quickly. I was very surprised that such a profound fatigue occurred after such a short time (2 minutes 40 seconds), and when I calculated the number of breaths that the swimmers took during the 200m, I was even more surprised - it was only 70 breaths. This conveys a very strong message to me that swimmers are at great risk of developing breathing fatigue”.

But why should this matter?
“Breathing sends very strong signals to the parts of the brain that tell you how hard you are working. It’s well known that when muscles fatigue, the sense of effort associated with using them increases, and this, in turn, makes your overall sense of effort greater. Furthermore, research has shown that fatigue of the breathing muscles reduces blood flow to the other exercising muscles and this can slow you down by reducing the flow of oxygen to those muscles”, Alison explains.

So what can be done?
“Our research on rowers and Swimmers has shown that if you make the inspiratory muscles stronger by training them, you reduce the extent of the fatigue that is induced during heavy exercise - in fact it almost disappears completely. This research also showed that the performance of rowers and swimmers increases by up to 3.5%!

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