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The Mechanics of Breathing during Swimming

LEAHY, MICHAEL G.; SUMMERS, MCKENZIE N.; PETERS, CARLI M.; MOLGAT-SEON, YANNICK; GEARY, CAITLIN M.; SHEEL, A. WILLIAM

Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: July 2019 - Volume 51 - Issue 7 - p 1467–1476
doi: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000001902
APPLIED SCIENCES
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The thorax undergoes unique conditions while swimming. Hydrostatic pressure from water immersion places an external load on the thorax and increases airway resistance, and the horizontal body position results in central venous engorgement and an associated reduction in lung compliance. The aforementioned factors likely increase the work of breathing (Wb); however, this hypothesis remains untested.

Purpose This study aimed to compare Wb during freestyle swimming relative to cycling and to characterize the differences in the cardiorespiratory responses to swimming relative to cycling in the same individuals.

Methods Eight collegiate swimmers (four men and four women, age = 22 ± 2 yr) performed an incremental swim test while tethered to a resistance apparatus. On a separate day, subjects performed an incremental cycle test. During swimming and cycling, metabolic and ventilatory parameters were measured using a customized metabolic cart, and inspired Wb was quantified using an esophageal balloon catheter.

Results Swimming and cycling elicited statistically similar levels of peak oxygen uptake (3.87 ± 0.92 vs 4.20 ± 0.83 L·min−1, P = 0.143). However, peak minute ventilation (E) (118 ± 3 vs 154 ± 25 L·min−1) and heart rate (164 ± 19 vs 183 ± 8 bpm) were significantly lower during swimming relative to cycling (both P < 0.05). Inspired Wb was higher at a E of 50 L·min−1 (+27 ± 16 J·min−1), 75 L·min−1 (+56 ± 23 J·min−1), and 100 L·min−1 (+53 ± 22 J·min−1) during swimming compared with cycling (all P < 0.05). Periods of interbreath apnea were observed while swimming (duration = 0.13–2.07 s).

Conclusion We interpret our findings to mean that the horizontal body position and hydrostatic pressure on the chest wall requires swimmers to generate greater inspiratory pressures to sustain adequate E during exercise.

School of Kinesiology, The University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, CANADA

Address for correspondence: William Sheel, Ph.D., 2553 Wesbrook Mall, Vancouver, BC, Canada V6T 1Z3; E-mail: bill.sheel@ubc.ca.

Submitted for publication June 2018.

Accepted for publication January 2019.

Online date: February 26, 2019

© 2019 American College of Sports Medicine