Ten tips to build your aerobic capacity

Do you lose your breath and get ‘puffed out’ after swimming just a short distance?  Do you want to be able to go further than you have gone before – not just while swimming but during all physical activities?

Or maybe, like a lot of athletes, you can run or bike for an hour, non-stop, but you can’t swim for more than a minute or two without needing a rest?  You’re not actually tired, you don’t have muscle burn, you’re just ‘puffed out.’ 

More than other sports and physical activities, you need to develop excellent aerobic / lung capacity for endurance swimming. And using swimming to develop aerobic capacity – the ability of the lungs and body to absorb oxygen and transport it to your muscles quickly – will help in other activities.

You build aerobic capacity by swimming long distances but this is difficult when you have to keep stopping. Swimming only works as a fitness activity when you have developed good aerobic capacity. You can speed up the process by trying these ten aerobic training tips. Some may not apply to you but at least some will definitely be worthwhile thinking about and trying: 

  1. First – go back to basics. Every now and then playa round in the water, diving down, blowing bubbles. Forget about inhaling. Your body knows how to do it without thinking. Just make sure you are breathing in deeply and quickly when you do emerge to get air.
  2. Exhale and relax – You only need to consciously think about getting your exhale correct. But are you actually thinking about it? Or are you focused on: ‘When am I breathing in again?’ Sit on the bottom of the pool or sea and exhale. When you have no air left in your lungs, stay down for a few seconds before coming up – to reprogram your body to not to be impatient about inhaling. 
  3. Once you can breathe out a steady stream of small bubbles for ten seconds, then make sure you can emerge to quickly breathe in and submerge again and repeat the ten second exhale. Just because you can do it once doesn’t really count. You have to be able to come up for air and go back down again, sit on the bottom again and make your exhale last ten seconds again. And again. And again.  
  4. Master bi-lateral breathing. Breathing on both sides means you have more control, more confidence and more choice about when you breathe. There’s no reason why you can’t inhale on both sides of your body while swimming, except in your head. Your head controls your body and all its movements. Take control.
  5. Keep your head down and exhale for three freestyle strokes for four full 25m laps. Then try going for five strokes, then seven strokes. This is difficult. Try swimming a whole 25m lap with no inhaling. The longer you can go without breathing in the better you are getting at using the oxygen you have in your lungs already. Don’t overdo this. Don’t get light-headed. 
  6. Even when you are doing a lot of strokes without inhaling, avoid holding your breath as much as possible. When your head is in the water, you need to be exhaling as much as possible – so a long slow steady stream of bubbles from your nose (mainly) is the key to all this. 
  7. In the open water the general rule is we inhale more often than in the pool but we need to be more confident about our aerobic capacity in the choppy sea than in the flat calm pool. If you want to swim in the open water, these skills are twice as important for you. Don’t breathe everything out, keep a little air in your lungs when swimming in the open water. But be able to keep your head down if needed.
  8. Swimming fast in intervals with an elevated heart rate will build your aerobic capacity a lot faster than long slow swims – but you won’t feel it initially because you’ll be having interval breaks. Keep an eye on the timing clock – improvement is incremental so may not notice without checking your times. But most importantly, occasionally go for a long swim – longer than you think you can manage and you will surprise yourself. You may have developed good aerobic capacity without really testing it out. Then you’ll really be getting fit, feeling the muscle burn because you’re at the edge of your aerobic system’s ability to supply the muscles and your anaerobic system is taking over. 
  9. There’s a wall in swimming similar to The Wall you hit when going for a long run. It can be harder to just push through it in swimming (without stopping) because, you know, you’re in the water and you want to keep moving and not drown. That wall will dissipate (have faith in yourself) and keep going. When you are puffed out, your anaerobic system is ready to take over.  
  10. The better you get at all this, the better you’ll be at all aerobic sports and activities, not just swimming. Developing your lung capacity with these swimming exercises will make you a better runner, cyclist, sportsperson and human person. Swimming is the best way to build your aerobic capacity. Once that’s done your body starts to build strength and anaerobic ability itself when you workout. All sportspeople, footy players, netballers, runners, cyclists, couch potatoes, armchair experts etc, should be going for a regular swim and they will, after the Coach Jason revolution, when it will be mandatory.

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