Aerobic vs. Anaerobic
The human body is equipped with two systems to produce energy for fast swimming, aerobic (requires oxygen) and anaerobic (no oxygen required). Both are used in tandem to produce ATP, the fuel for our muscles, but there are significant differences between the two energy systems that you should consider when choosing a breathing pattern for a specific race.
While the purpose of this article is not to describe these different energy systems in detail and how they work, it is to try to come up with the best possible breathing solution for the 100 freestyle. The reason that the breathing pattern in the 100 freestyle (and butterfly) is more controversial than for other distances is that for events shorter than 100 meters, the energy is predominantly derived from the anaerobic system. In events longer than 100 meters, the energy is predominantly derived from the aerobic system. In the 100 meters, the energy derivation is about half aerobic and half anaerobic.
We know that the fastest way to swim freestyle (or fly) for a short distance is without breathing. The motion required to take a breath in free or fly increases frontal drag and can slow the stroke rate, both of which will slow the swimmer’s speed. Therefore, in the 50 sprints, where most of the energy is coming from the anaerobic system, a swimmer should breathe as little as possible. In the 200 events and up, where the energy is mostly from the aerobic system, a swimmer should breathe as close to the physiologically ideal rate as possible. That rate, as determined by what athletes do on land during sustained exercise, when oxygen is available at will, is typically between 40 to 50 breaths per minute. That means a breath should be taken every cycle (two freestyle strokes), in order to keep close to that rate.
What about the 100 freestyle, where the energy is split equally between the two systems, the first 50 being mostly anaerobic and the second 50 mostly aerobic? What is the ideal breathing pattern?
For two primary reasons, we believe the breathing pattern should be (and is) different for elite males and females. Women typically train more aerobically than men for the 100 freestyle (have better aerobic systems). Men typically have larger muscle mass than women, which can produce more lactate, lowering the body’s pH sooner than in women.
Studying the Elite
Virtually all of the elite male freestylers breathe every cycle in the 100 free (SC or LC), while most elite women will breathe on the first 50 with a 1:3 pattern (one breath per 3 strokes, breathing to both sides), a 1:4 pattern (one breath every 4th stroke to the same side). Simone Manuel breathes 1:4 for one cycle, then 1:2 for the next cycle, which is equivalent to the respiratory rate of the 1:3 pattern. On the second 50, most women will increase their respiratory rate by taking extra breaths. Both male and female swimmers typically hold their breath for the final 5-8 strokes, increasing the stroke rate to the wall. Some elite swimmers, like Caeleb Dressel, do not breathe on the final stroke into each turn, in order to accelerate into the wall.
When one looks at respiratory rates, Caeleb and Nathan Adrian will swim the 100 meters LC with a rate of about 35-38 breaths per minute, though Caeleb’s stroke rate is about 10 strokes per minute faster than Nathan’s. Caeleb’s respiratory rate in the 100 yards is 30 breaths per minute, because more time is spent under water with the extra turns. His stroke rate in SC (125) is even faster than in LC (115). The elite women tend to hold around a 30 respiratory rate in long course, yet Cate Campbell, who has a slower stroke rate (around 92) and holds a 1:4 breathing pattern for the entire 100 LC, has a respiratory rate of 23…which is probably not high enough to prevent the pH drop.
The Best Breathing Pattern for You
What we like to teach at the Race Club for swimmers that do not have the aerobic systems of the elite athletes is to swim the first 50 more anaerobically with a 1:4 or 1:3 breathing pattern and the second 50 more aerobically with a 1:2 pattern. When the aerobic system improves with age and training, the respiratory rate can decrease. However, it should not go below 30 breaths per minute for women and in LC, 35 breaths per minute for men.
The 100 freestyle is not a sprint and requires a steady flow of oxygen intake, more so on the second 50 than the first, in order to maximize the performance. Have your breathing pattern determined and planned before the race, not during it. Otherwise, one will hold the breath too long at the beginning, when there is no feeling that breathing is needed, and will not be able to get enough oxygen at the end, when the pH drops too low.
Yours in swimming,