A fantastic benefit of swimming that is often overlooked is the great impact it has on our lungs.
Swimming is a great exercise for improving vital lung capacity. When you swim, you are constantly working your lungs as you take in air and expel it through your mouth and nose. In addition, swimming can help to improve your overall respiratory health by strengthening the muscles that support your lungs and airways.
Lung capacity can be tricky to understand, but working on improving your lung capacity will not only improve your swimming, but it will also be a great boost to your overall health.
In this article, I want to understand the reasons swimming is beneficial for lung health, and how we can maximize our swim workouts to get the most out of them.
What Is Lung Capacity?
In very simple non-medical terms, the lung capacity (or Total Lung Capacity) is the maximum amount of air that a person can inhale in one breath. It is the total volume of your lungs. [source]
Lung capacity will vary between individuals, and it is determined by the size and shape of your lungs, as well as the strength of your respiratory muscles.
Many factors can influence your lung capacity, including age, gender and body composition. [source]
Typically, the average total lung capacity is around 5.8 litres for adult males and is 4.3 litres for adult females. However, this figure will vary depending on what textbook you read. [source]
What Is The Difference Between Lung Capacity And Lung Volume?
Lung capacity and lung volume are two different terms that are often used interchangeably, but they actually have different meanings.
Lung respiratory volume is a complex topic and well beyond the scope of this article, so here is a very simple explanation, so as a swimmer, you can be aware of the common terms.
“Lung volumes are also known as respiratory volumes. It refers to the volume of gas in the lungs at a given time during the respiratory cycle.“https://www.physio-pedia.com/Lung_Volumes
“Lung capacities are derived from a summation of different lung volumes.“https://www.physio-pedia.com/Lung_Volumes
As lung volume is the total amount of air that is present in a person’s lungs at any given time, it is not possible to increase your lung volume through exercise, because it is determined by the size of your rib cage and chest wall muscles.
When we talk about increasing our lung capacity as swimmers, we are referring to our vital lung capacity, which is the maximum amount of air you can breathe in and out. [source]
Vital lung capacity is calculated from the following formula:
Vital Lung Capacity = TV + IRV +ERV
- TV = Lung tidal volume, which is the amount of air that is moved in and out of the lungs during each breath.
- IRV = Lung inspiratory reserve volume, which is the maximum amount of air that can be inhaled from the end-expiratory position.
- ERV = Expiratory reserve volume, which is the maximum amount of air that can be exhaled from the end-inspiratory position.
As mentioned, lung respiratory volumes and lung capacity calculations are complex and beyond what we need to know as swimmers. But we can use a simple device, such as the Airofit Pro Breathing Exercise Device to measure our vital lung capacity.
If you want to dig deeper into understanding the complex science of lung volumes and lung capacities, I recommend this excellent instructional video on lung function, which describes the topic beautifully.
Why Is Lung Capacity Important?
Healthy lungs will contribute to overall increased health, including:
- improved oxygen uptake, which can lead to better endurance and performance in athletes
- improved breathing and respiratory function, which can help improve overall health and well-being
- increased tolerance to high altitudes and improved airway function in those with asthma or other respiratory conditions.
A study that spanned 29 years concluded that lung capacity is a good predictor of mortality and a good tool to assess general health. [source]
How Do You Measure Lung Capacity?
There are many medical devices available for home use that you can purchase to measure your lung capacity.
These are typically called a “Peak Flow Meter” or “Spirometer” which are suitable for home use if you are a swimmer and interested in your lung capacity measurements.
A peak flow meter is a device that measures the maximum airflow rate that a person can exhale.
Typically, you need to take a depth breath and breathe as hard as you can into the device, which will then give you a measurement.
Here is a demonstration of how to use a peak flow meter at home from the American Lung Association.
For serious medical conditions, you need to get your lung capacity measured by a medical professional. [source]
How Does Swimming Improve Lung Capacity?
Swimming is a great way to improve your lung capacity.
The water resistance helps to build strength in your respiratory muscles, which will increase the amount of air that you can inhale and exhale in one breath.
Just like pulling a stretch cord or lifting weights to build muscle, as you exhale into the water, the resistance of the water causes your respiratory muscles to work harder and, as a result, to get stronger.
How Can I Increase My Lung Capacity For Swimming?
If you want to increase your lung capacity for swimming, there are some basic that you can do:
1. Swim Regularly
Swimming is a great workout for your lungs.
By simply swimming and pushing your activity until you are working hard, you will increase your aerobic fitness and improve the efficiency of your lungs.
2. Strength Train Your Respiratory Muscles
- Stand in the shallow end of the pool in a safe spot.
- Place your chin on the water.
- Take a deep breath.
- Place your head in the water until your nose is submerged.
- Exhale very slowly, counting as you go until your lungs are completely empty.
- Repeat this process six times.
3. Practice Deep Breathing Exercises
Diaphragmatic breathing is a good way to engage your diaphragm and increase lung capacity.
- Sit back or lie down and relax.
- Place one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly.
- Inhale through your nose for two seconds. You should feel your stomach move out. Your stomach should stick out further than your chest when you have inhaled.
- Breathe out for two seconds through pursed lips while placing light pressure on your abdomen.
4. Use An Airofit Breathing Trainer
Many users are claiming to see excellent results over just weeks. For example, a 25% increase in vital lung capacity in as little as four weeks.
This can be a fun way to work on your lung capacity, which will create a fantastic increase in overall health benefits, and not just better performance in the pool.
This device will connect to your phone and, through their app, will measure your current lung function and devise a personalised training plan.
What Is The Lung Capacity Of Olympic Swimmers?
With all this talk about increasing lung capacity for swimming, it might be interesting to look at Olympic swimmers and assess the lung capacity of a typical Olympian swimmer.
Studies have shown that swimmers possess significantly higher lung capacities. [source]
One particular study carried out in 1993 concluded that this was as a result of swimmers having achieved greater lung volumes by increasing the number of alveoli (tiny sacs of air) in their lungs, rather than the actual size of their lungs. [source]
The lung capacity of Olympic swimmers can vary depending on the individual swimmer. However, the vital lung capacity for an elite male swimmer is about 7.2 litres. This is significantly higher than the average lung capacity for the general population, which is about 5.7 litres. [source]
Michael Phelps is rumoured to have an exceptionally high lung capacity of 12 litres, however I cannot find any source which officially confirms this. This may be true, but more likely it is part of the amazing legend that is Michael Phelps, although there is no doubt that his lung capacity is far above the norm.
According to Scientific America who asked, “What Makes Michael Phelps So Good?”, they concluded elite swimmers will have much higher than average attributes, but we would not see freakish things like a 200% increase in lung capacity. [source]
Lung capacity is an important measure of respiratory health. It is determined by the size and shape of your lungs, as well as the strength of your respiratory muscles.
Swimming is a great way to improve your vital lung capacity and help you breathe easier during physical activity.
From overall health benefits such as more daily energy, lower heart rate, better endurance and performance, an increased lung capacity is great for our health and another wonderful side effect of this amazing sport.