Hold Your Breath And Count To Five (Minutes!): Freediving Techniques For Surfers

Hold Your Breath And Count To Five (Minutes!): Freediving Techniques For Surfers

Photo rights expire January 15, 2016: Kimi Werner and Léa Brassy buddy up for a free dive in French Polynesia.

Matthew Burridge is an experienced spearfisher and surfer. This guy knows a thing or two about the importance of being able to use freediving techniques during a surf session. Being able to hold your breath for prolonged periods of time gives you more confidence to get out back because you are prepared to deal with dumps. He’s here to share his breath holding wisdom with us. And there’s no better time than January to kick start with something new. So, refresh, get surf fit and work towards new goals. Over to you Matt!

1669744_10152846294150619_2134940411789028187_oOver a series of three blogs I’m going to share with you proven techniques for extending your breath hold time. I am not going to teach you to freedive. I’m also not going to make any wild claims that I will help you to hold your breath for five minutes. But, by following these guidelines, and with regular practice, your breath hold time will extend. This means that you can surf better and safer.

Freediving: A Brief History

Freediving has been around since humans have been surviving off the sea. It’s used as a method of retrieving goods such as food, pearls and sponges from the sea bed. There are still a number of indigenous societies such as the the Bajau people in the Sulu Sea off the south west coast of the Philippines and the Moken people in the Andaman Sea off the south coast of Myanmar who, to this day, rely on freediving for their livelihood.

These populations are so used to life underwater that actual physiological changes have been measured within their eyes to enable better vision underwater. Unfortunately, I do not have this adaptation… so a mask is a necessity!

As a sport, freediving has been around since 1949. It started as a bet between Raimondo Bucher, an Italian spero, and a diver called Ennio Falco. Ennio bet Raimondo 50,000 lira that he could not dive to 30m, which he successfully did. I wish I got paid 50,000 of anything for diving to 30m!

The next 66 years saw the sport develop to the stage we see it today. Anyone can start freediving, but if you have any medical conditions I’d highly recommend consulting a doctor before you start. The safest way to learn to freedive is to attend a course. There are a number of course providers here in the UK all providing excellent tuition.

Surfing and Spearfishing

I started spear-fishing 19 years ago while travelling around Europe, and let’s be honest, I had no clue what I was doing. I had the wrong equipment, shot the wrong fish and couldn’t hold my breath for more than 30 seconds – but I loved it! It’s a sport that grabs you like no other. I have continued to spearfish in the UK every summer (and some winters) since.

However, it wasn’t until attending a freediving course 18 months ago that things really got going. Prior to the course, I could only hold my breath for around 2 minutes. By the end of the first day, I was up to 4:05 minutes and now my PB is 5:40 minutes.

I have also been surfing for 30 years and have had my fair share of “oh my god I’m going to die” moments in the impact zone. These hold downs are never nice and generally leave you shaken, and sometimes a little reluctant to take to the water again, which will ultimately affect your surfing progression.  However, my breath hold training has helped massively with improving my lung capacity, meaning it’s easier to deal with these -sometimes terrifying – situations.


So you want to hold your breath?

There are a number of factors when it comes to breath hold: lung capacity, CO2 tolerance, cardiovascular fitness and the ability to relax and remain calm. The latter being in my opinion the most important (unless you’re a 30 stone smoker!). Panic is a major factor in most drownings so being able to remain calm can mean the difference between life and death, literally.

When I take a dive for a fish I always spend a considerable amount of time preparing physically and mentally at the surface. This is known as breathing up. It allows you to relax and ensure that you are correctly oxygenated. If I am going for a deep dive, I can spend as much as 10 minutes preparing. However, when you get struck in the head by the lip and become nailed then you’re not going to have 10 minutes…  you’re going to have about half a second!

The first thing I would like you all to do is set a base time for your breath hold. This will allow you to measure your progress over the coming months. I am only ever going to get you to hold your breath on dry land. The reason for this is that when holding your breath for extended periods there is a chance that you could pass out. So, for the time being, always practice somewhere safe such as a sofa or bed. It’s also strongly advisable to have a buddy or watcher with you when you are going for your personal bests.

To start, get into your comfortable position, relax and breathe for 2 minutes. You need to breathe steadily and no deeper than normal. Definitely do not hyperventilate. This is a cardinal sin in freediving, which I will explain in more detail at a later date. After 2 minutes have passed, you need to take one deep breath and exhale fully, expelling as much of the air from your lungs as you can. Next, take as deep a breath in as you can, hold and start timing. Once you cannot hold your breath for any longer, take a note of your time and exhale fully and take some quick deep breaths to recover. How did you do? Don’t worry if you only made 30 seconds. It may not sound very long, but considering it’s three times as long as your average UK hold down, you’re off to a good start!

The urge to breathe comes from a build up of carbon dioxide, not a lack of oxygen. However, you also need to train your body to operate with low oxygen as well. The quickest and easiest way of doing this is through breath hold tables.

For the next two weeks, we are going to concentrate on CO2 tables. A CO2 table is a series of breath holds that are the same time in length, but your recovery time between each breath hold gets shorter each round.

An example for a person with a two-minute PB breath hold may be:

Breath Up (minutes) Breath Hold (minutes)
2.00 1.00
1.45 1.00
1.30 1.00
1.15 1.00
1.00 1.00
.45 1.00
.30 1.00
.15 1.00

You should complete one of these tables every other day. You can get some great apps for static breath hold – just look in your app store. You should be aiming for no more than 50% of your personal best for the breath hold in this table. So, after the first week, go for your personal best again and adjust the table accordingly.

Next time I will be introducing you to O2 tables, The Mammalian Dive Reflex and the dangers of hyperventilation.

This should keep you going for the next two weeks. Remember to stay relaxed, breathe normally and enjoy the head space.

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