how can swimmers exert so much energy with little to no breathing?

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Sorry if the question isn’t clear. But, I’m curious to know why other athletes focus on breathing to bring oxygen to their muscles.

In: Biology
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Swimmers do need to breathe a lot, but they learn to manage it. They catch their breath while turning their head.

However, swimmers also work very hard to be efficient with their oxygen and benefit from added lung capacity. Michael Phelps has 12 liters of lung capacity, which is about twice as much as the average person. A few large breathes and he’s way ahead of all of us.

I used to swim competitively.

Part of our training was “anaerobic” drills – learning to do as much as possible with only the air in your lungs. An example: Swim as far as possible underwater on a single breath. In a 25 yard pool, we had several swimmers who could do 2 full lengths of the pool and a few who could do almost 3 lengths without a breath.

Another part of the training part of competitive training is learning to swim as *efficiently* as possible. No wasted motion. Most people would be surprised at how inefficient their swimming strokes are. Breathing during a stroke actually increases inefficiency.

Combine these two things and you get a swimmer who can do a lot, efficiently, while taking very few breaths.

Also, look at the swimmers after they finish their event. They are breathing heavily to reoxygenate their bodies. They starved their bodies of fresh oxygen to swim as fast as possible and then have to spend several minutes breathing heavily to get back to an equilibrium point.

It really depends whether you’re thinking sprint type events or long distance. Anyone can “overdraw” their energy in the short term using anaerobic respiration – very high output for a short time, your body will produce an excess of lactic acid and the process is not as efficient as normal (aerobic) respiration. Highly trained athletes can do this for much longer periods.

For long distance swimming, the swimmer is breathing hard but is, in that sense, breathing normally. Again with athletic endurance training, the body becomes more efficient at many things. In fact many athletes train at high altitudes just to get their bodies used to dealing with lower oxygen levels.

Just to add a cool side-note: as a competitive swimmer I can confirm that our bodies become overall better at using oxygen, as others have said, we train to hold our breath and do as much as possible with as little oxygen as possible. I was one of those swimmers who could do 100+ meters underwater on a single breathe.
If I didn’t have this training, I would have died (according to specialists and general medical staff)
I broke my leg and developed a DVT which hit my lungs and filled them with clots. I presented to the ER with deathly low oxygen. The nurse taking my obs genuinely believed she couldn’t read my blood oxygen levels as they were in the death range (I don’t know what that is, but she saw me after I was admitted and told me how scared for me she was) I was admitted instantly and after a few scans was found to have black lungs (no blood could penetrate my lung tissue due to the clotting). After 18 months clearing the clots out, and a lot of lung testing/ examinations/curious doctors – they found that swimming had improved my lung capacity to the point that training without oxygen saved my life. I was able to function normally without the use of my lungs basically. As wild as that sounds!

TLDR: swim training developed my lungs/body to survive with minimal oxygen when I was sick. Didn’t die because of training.