On of the things we are working on with our team this fall is the concept of assigning value. As swimmers we often associate fatigue or the discomfort that comes with training in a new and more challenging way with a negative value. The simple statement "Man this is killing me!" or "This is really hard to do!" is an example of assigning negative value.
We have been working on breath holding quite a bit lately. With the types of drills and sets we are doing our swimmers are pushing themselves into new territory. Not every swimmer has the skills to kick underwater dolphin kick for 10 or so meters. Those that do definitely need to increase their ability to do so on every lap of a race. Those that are not suited for this particular skill nonetheless need to be able to hold their breath just the same.
All swimmers swim faster when they keep their body in line. Breathing, except in backstroke, alters the perfect body line, the body position. In freestyle and fly in particular the less breathing you do the faster you will go. Michael Phelps is an exception to this rule. He breathes every stroke in fly (except that last one in the Olympics in the 100 race!) but has figured out how to keep his body extremely flat when he does. The fastest swimmers in the world swim the 50 free with 1-3 breaths depending upon yards or meters. All fast swimmers push the walls diligently since they are the fastest part of the swim and they typically do so without a breath. As a minimum their feet are past the flags (5 yards/meters) before they are breathing. Top flyers are under water 10 meters each turn. This goes for im'ers as well, in all four strokes.
So whether you are a racer with world ambitions or a fitness swimmer looking to take your swimming up a notch or two we encourage you to work off the walls, streamlining and holding your breath for a little longer than you probably are currently doing.
The way to do this is to make certain you are not assigning too much value to the need for air. (We are not advocating you hold your breath any longer than is prudent. If you feel dizzy or lightheaded in the least, then by all means breathe!) You can begin your practice with this concept by simply pushing off the wall and taking a couple strokes before you breathe. Or you can go for a little longer distance before you breathe; or a combination of the two. Even a fitness swimmer benefits from this because hypoxic training (training in the absence of oxygen) is widely believed to increase the number of mitochondria which in turn increases your ability to process oxygen.
The key to this, in our belief, is relaxing while not breathing. Simply take a breath and hold it with as little tension as possible in the rest of your body. Check to make sure you are not tensing your jaws, throat and shoulders. You can practice this sitting in a chair at home. Try it right now...breath in deeply and then just hold your breath for say 5 or 10 seconds without tensing the rest of your body. It is really pretty simple so long as you don't assign any value to the momentary and very temporary lack of breathing.
Let us know how it goes for you!