First off: always have someone watching your when you attempt to hold your breath for a long time.
Coffee with a World Class Freediver
Couple of years ago me and my family were in Coatia. The sea there is ideal for surfing, jet-skiing, swimming and of course scuba diving. After strolling through nearby towns we found a diving center run by an always happy guy called Kristijan Curavic. During our introducion talk we found out that the guy was a record holding breath-hold diver, which caused me and my brothers to go: "Cool! Can you teach us how to hold your breath longer?". Chris looked pensive for 10 seconds and said "Yes sure, how much are you paying?".
Three days later we find ourselves in a private section of a shisha bar, lying on the floor with empty stomachs. It was graduation day for the newly created Curavic course. Score: everyone managed about 3:30 minutes, with my little brother managing to squeeze out 4:00 minutes. That same weekend we dove to 20 meters depth with nothing but a wetsuit to keep us warm, and goggles to see where we were going. Crazy? Sure. Fun? YES. Current personal record: 4:10
We might have taken a 3 day course, but so far all the people I've taught for about 5 minutes can swim at least 25 meters under water effortlessly. And yes, that includes smokers.
I'm not responsible for anything you do as a result of this article :)
Holding your breath longer - The Theory
This section deals with why the techniques in this post work. You could skip it, but it helps you craft your own routines. Plus, let's face it, you would just go on facebook with the time you gain by skipping this. Note: I am writing this from memory and what other people told me, most of this should make sense, though some of it I never actually checked.
The theory is based simple on the principle that you should decrease the amount of oxygen you use, and increase the amount you have.
Most of the body's energy expenditure comes from the BMR or basal metabolic rate. Sounds fancy, but that is just the energy your body uses to keep itself warm, your heart beating etc. Why is this important? Well, energy consumption costs oxygen. There are parts of your metabolism that work without oxygen, but as a rule you won't feel particularly energised or alive without breathing...
This is where the majority of oxygen loss happens. We have the two parts of your expenditure: the base and your active movement. Apart from the above mentioned body heat and heart beats every voluntary move you make costs oxygen. Long story short, you can hold your breath longer when you sit still than when you are running. Sound logical? Well most people don;t take it to heart. As an example they swim as fast as they can under water, which is much harder than swimming as a calm pace...
So what things can you control about your energy expenditure? Well, the list is not at all short:
- Body heat
The only part of your body that really needs to be warm is the inside. Your core temperature needs to be in order, the outside is less relevant. Therefore you don't really have to worry about swimming slow in cold water.
- Heart Rate
Calming down the heart rate often involves exercises that calm the entire body down. The heart uses about 9% of the body's energy in rest. Muscle 22%.
Pretty much same story as the heart. Breathing slowly will cause the body to relax and decrease oxygen use.
Accounts for a great deal of your energy use, we will go into the mental aspect of freediving in the next section.
- Muscle movement
Moving around costs oxygen, not just temporarily but for minutes after that as well. The solution to muscle energy use is simple, just don't move.
The brain is under your control for a great deal. Again, we'll go into this later.
As mentioned before these things can often be controlled in a single exercise. We exercises are discussed later, but when you do them remember that you are trying to decrease energy use in these two levels.
Holding your breath means your body will not get new oxygen, obviously. So it is important to have maximum oxygen content inside your body before you start. There are three locations that can hold oxygen:
- The lungs
- The Blood
- Tissue (e.g. muscles)
These three have different speeds at which they get saturated with oxygen. Filling up the lungs is easy. Saturating the blood takes more time. And allowing oxygen to dissolve into your tissue from the blood takes even more. There are a lot of factors at play in this system. For the sciency readers keep in mind things like hemoglobin saturation curves etc. For the rest of the world however, let's keep it simple.
Basically there is a constant balance between: LungsBloodTissues. Filling the lungs with more oxygen per second than usual will push the oxygen down the equilibrum. Just keep in mind that the further down the balance you go, the longer it takes.
What we want here is a little energy expenditure per meter as possible. We will go into the specifics a bit later, but things to keep in mind are staying calm and moving is little as possible.
The Divers Reflex
This is awesome. When water hits your face, your body automatically changes its energy expenditure to allow for longer time under water. Your heart rate decreases, blood vessels in the extremities contract and so on. The reflex is strongest when cold water hits your face. This is a thing to keep in mind and gives you an extra edge under water compared to being on the land.
The mental aspect
The brain was quickly mentioned, but there is more to the mental aspect than just the physical brain. One of the biggest factors if your mental attitude when you hold your breath. This is very clear when you ask people to hold their breath while staring at a clock, they will do much much worse. To prevent mental blocks as the are called, consider the following:
- Do as little as possible to have expectations in advance
- If you have expectations, make them favorable
- Think of reason why you are awesome at this
- Don't stare at clocks
- Avoid thinking of how long it has been since you started
One of the most important things to me is this: when you think you can't hold your breath any longer, you ga go at least a minute or two more, probably even more. The thing is that you are just not used to the feeling. Your body is telling you it would like some air. Know your limits, but know where your limits are not. Try fighting or ignoring the response to want to breathe on land, worst case scenario your body makes you faint and you have a reset moment. Just for the record: this has NEVER happened to me. In essence the lesson is "listen to your body, you don't have to agree with its suggestions".
The Technique: how to hold your breath longer
This is what I teach my friends when they ask me to show them how to hold your breath longer. It takes about 5 minutes to explain, and the effects are immediate. Personally the longest I went with this techniques was 50 meters under water, must have been about 2:30 whilst swimming since I take my time when swimming under water. Kudos to Derk (you know who you are) for proving that this works on smokers as well.
There are two elements to this. The body and the mind. Both are quite simple.
I usually do this standing on the side of the pool, or sitting on the edge with my feet in the water. The idea is to move the body as little as possible. That also means no talking for example, when I do these exercises I look like a freaking poolside philosopher.
- Relax, try relaxing all muscles you can find from head to toe
- Make no or slow movements
- Tell people to not bother you before you start
The brain uses almost a quarter of the body's energy and thus oxygen. That really is a lot. When doing the preparation exercises, relax your mind. You don't have to go all Buddha, though you can if you want. Just try to limit your thoughts. The best way to do this is not to try and force silence, that is like asking someone to not to think of a big pink elephant. Instead put something simple and relaxing in your head. Maybe stare at the water of the pool, mentally play a relaxing song or focus on your breath.
- Relax, calm your mind by putting something chill in it
- Forcing silence on your mind often is counterproductive
- Do what works for you
The second element is increasing your body's oxygen in the three reservoirs. Lungs, blood and tissue. There are multiple techniques for this, after experimentation the following turned out the most productive for me and the people I've spent time in swimming pools with.
Calm deep breathing
This technique increase airflow in the lungs, resulting in more oxygen and less CO2 in the blood and tissues. Here are the steps:
- Sit/stand calmly as described
- breathe in slowly through your belly
- When your belly is full fill up your chest
- Exhale your chest
- Exhale your belly
- Keep doing this
How long do you keep going? Well depends. To cross 25 meters I use 5-15 breaths whilst 50 meters requires 5 minutes of preparation
Afterburner - Fire Breath
Once you've done your preparation exercise, right before you start swimming (I usually dive in from the side) you should take 3-5 sharp fast breaths. These are almost like deep hyperventilation breaths. The more advanced divers may use the packing technique after this, we will go into that one in the "body training" section.
NOTE While this was part of my original training I recommend against this as it can cause blackouts.
The swimming technique of your choice should be a calm one. How you move specifically is a matter of style, just remember to calm down. Sometimes I swim a bit faster at the end, especially if I'm having trouble, but in general swimming slower helps you swim further. Remember to calm down. Also keep in mind that you can keep going quite a while after you start feeling uncomfortable. Again, relax.
How long you can hold your breath is in part dependent on your body. Things like lung size and diaphragm flexibility are big determining factors. Luckily these can be influenced by exercises.
Your diaphragm is located below your lungs and is used in breathing. A flexible one makes holding your breath easier. It does so by diminishing how uncomfortable it feels when your body is telling you it would like some air.
The exercise it simple:
- Sit on your knees
- Hands on your knees
- Fully breathe out
- Close your mouth and nose fron the inside
- Expand your lungs while trying to breathe in
Do this exercise regularly to increase the flexibility. Per practice you should do it 3-5 times.
Increasing lung size
Yes that's possible. Kristijan (the teacher in Croatia) could more than double the amount in his lungs compared to a full breath. With this exercise you shouldn't go overboard though. Here it goes:
- Breathe in as far as you can (both lungs and belly)
- Close your mouth and nose
- Open your mouth while keeping your throat closed
- Close your mouth, creating a pocket of air in your mouth
- Breathe in the air in your mouth
This exercise is referred to as "packing", because you pack more air in your lungs. In the beginning begin by adding about 5 breaths and moving your chest around to stretch your lungs.
Note: most people go wrong at the point where you open your mouth to make a pocket of air in your mouth. It is ESSENTIAL to keep your throat closed during this time. if you do this exercise right, you can't keep all the air inside if you open your mouth and throat.
This part is multifuntional since it comes in handy in many skills. Train yourself to be able to relax. Try different techniques and find what workd for you. Some effective ones are:
- Progressive relaxation
Train your mental resistance to the feeling fo being without air. You can very easily do this by sitting or lying down, breathing out entirely and holding your breath (or holding your non-breath I guess...) for as long as you can.
- Use your head
- Never go alone
- Have one non practicing person keep an eye on you
- If you have any conditions take them into account
- Know your limits