Underwater Breath Holding

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Scuba Diving Articles - Scuba Diving Techniques
Tuesday, 23 February 2010 19:57
With the recent breath holding world record set at a new high of over 19 minutes, a lot of people are wondering how it is that a human can go without oxygen for so long. Our guide will give you a quick-start into the world of breath holding.

Breath holding and free diving

Breath holding is one of the most important aspects of becoming a good free diver. Free divers explore the water without carrying an air supply with them. Usually, just a the absolute basic diving equipment (fins, mask, snorkel and weights).

An average free diver can hold their breath for around two minutes before needing to surface. While you may be holding your breath while reading this article, it's interesting to note that it is actually easier to hold your breath while diving due to the mammalian diving reflex. The mammalian diving reflex (essentially triggered when cold water is splashed on the face) causes the body to cut the circulation rate and thus reduce oxygen use, allowing the person to hold their breath for longer.

So what causes the urge to breath in? Quite a lot of things actually. When you're deprived of a fresh source of air, a lot of alarm bells start ringing in your body. Interestingly though, it is not the lack of oxygen (O2), but the build up of carbon dioxide (CO2) that causes the urge to breath. Professional free-divers sometimes hyper-ventilate before diving, trying to dump as much carbon dioxide out of their lungs as possible. This method is strongly recommended against for those that are not professional divers and under supervision as it massively increases the chances of shallow water blackout, which is normally quickly followed by drowning.

How can I hold my breath for longer?

If you're going to incrase the time you can hold your breath, there's a few basics that you're going to want to do before you get training.

1) If you smoke - stop! Stopping smoking greatly increase the amount of oxygen you can absorb and how well your body performs.

2) Make sure you are in reasonable physical condition: This means cardiovascular work: running, swimming, bike rides. All of these exercises will increase the efficiency and strength of your heart and lungs.

3) Eat well & sleep well: Not meaning to sound like your mother, but exercising is pretty much useless unless your giving your body the fuel and rest it needs to perform.

4) Learn relxation techniques: Part of being a good breath holder means being able to control your body. Sara Campbell, a freediving record holder puts much of her success on yoga.

Sara Campbell

Breath holding training

One of the biggest challenges of breath holding is your body adapting and coping with the feeling of oxygen deprevation. A popular training technique is the apnea walk.

This consists of a preparation "breathe-up", followed by a short (typically 1 minute) breath hold taken at rest. Without breaking the hold, the participant then initiates a walk for as far as they can, until it becomes necessary to breathe again. Athletes can do close to 400 meters in training this way.

This technique allows the body to learn to cope with the build up of CO2 and trains your muscles to work under anaerobic conditions. It's also really easy to track your progress, as you simply need to record how far you can travel while breath holding.

Breath holding technique

Down to the nitty gritty now. Once your prepared, here's our guide to getting the most out of the air you have.

Step 1: Slowly inhale (5 seconds) and exhale (5 seconds) for a 2 minute period. This will clear your lungs of any low quality / CO2 rich air. Make sure you focus on pushing out every last bit of air!

Step 2: With a partner supervising: Inhale quickly around 80% of your lung capacity and hold the breath. It is important to be accompanyed at this stage, as it is possible to lose conciousness.

Step 3: When you get to the point you feel you need to breath, start exhaling slowly.

Step 4: Focus on moving as little as possible and staying calm, this will lower your body's requirement for oxygen.

Step 5: If you feel you need to breathe, come up for oxygen.

That's it! Lastly, I think it's worth saying again - never try breath holding on your own!


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