Free Diving – Breath Holding - Healthy or No?

Below is a re-post about breathing technique, originally posted on the US Free dive list in 2000.

How would you experts describe the proper breathing technique?

"I think it's a highly personal thing that is shared, thus far, only because we are constrained by basic, common physiological limits. What our psychological limits are remain to be seen. Remember the sub-4-minute mile: in 1954 Roger Bannister ran it--what was thought to be simply beyond human capabilities. And then, within one year 37 others did it; within 2 years, over 300 had done it). And then there's the paradigm-shattering Bob Beamon super-leap in the '68 Mexico City Olympics (29-feet, 2 1/2 inches - beating the existing world mark by nearly two feet!). It has happened in other sports:  quantum breakthroughs that somehow potentiate the next level of achievement by others, and within a short time frame. There seem to be subconscious subcultures that invisibly govern huge territories in the mindscape. Surely there must be keys to this territory.  

There's got to be a breakthrough point out there for us too; something that will shatter the psychological barrier and pull us all along in it's slipstream. Safety and consciously, I hope, but also inevitably. It is a dangerous game though; we should make no mistake. And if it never happens, then surely what we have now is enough. After all, following the paradigm shift, there will simply be another to await. For me, for now, the game is fantastic and it is plenty. Let's smile within our arena and bask in the richness of the game we have discovered!

Re-post follows:

I've recently been asked by a tank diver friend about just how we do it: hold our breath for "so long." Certainly, we all do something specific and, perhaps, different from one another. Much of what I do I found hard to explain to him. I've since been trying to be more consciously attentive to exactly what I do: physically and mentally, both in preparing for the dive and during. I wonder how you all experience and think about just what it is we actually DO when we do what we do.

My attempt to explain it to him follows. What's your way?

The Prep:

Start relaxed, floating on the surface. Notice any tension in my body and "let it go," like preparing for a meditation. Get to baseline breathing rate and  once established, and fully recovered from the previous dive, I take several progressively deeper breaths, "breathing from the stomach up thru the chest" ala yoga exercises. Maybe 3-5 breaths like this. Then, about 5-7 very deep and more closely spaced breaths. The final, is the deepest and is held. Care is taken to NOT increase heart-rate thru anticipation of the dive or other mental stimulants (control the limbic "primitive" brain).  

The Descent:

Release snorkle, pike, raise leg, begin to drop. A few strong slow kicks to get to negative and then, depending on the type/depth of diving, glide down to depth or kick a bit more to get thru the top portion of the dive and down to depth. Mentally, as a natural low-level anxiety emerges, the game begins. The relationship towards the fear of air starvation becomes a game.

It is "out there" in the consciousness, and I physically smile at it like an old aquantence, neither friend nor enemy. 

The Hunt:

Depending on what I'm hunting, of course, the down time, scanning, and positioning are different. What does not change is the sense that I have a limited time and that my breath-control strategy must match the hunt.

Typically, I try and strike a balance between mental alertness and a calm that is all-pervasive. It's sounds contradictory but it somehow works. Eyes are alive, head turns slowly, legs move just enough to maintain balance. I notice the "feel" of the coolness of oxygen in my blood. I focus on the wealth of it, as if here, of all places on Earth, I have all that I need.

I also feel a kind of physical drowsiness that I maintain, even when tracking and shooting a fish. The guiding principle: don't "electrically spike up"

i.e., keep the neurons firing slowly, the electrical impulses steady (I'm a believer in lateral line sensitivity to this in our prey fish).  

The Ascent:

Ultimately, my control of, or relationship to, these feelings begins to erode. It "becomes" time to go up. Small contractions may begin in my gut/diaphram and throat. I may even hear an internal groan or two in my lower throat. I begin to smile and to redouble my relaxing "non-effort efforts." Anxiety, tension, and wasted movement are the tricksters that conspire to rob me of oxygen (and life). I smile at them, search for that relaxation, and rise. Kicking slowly, trailing my gun. Streamlined. I focus on the beauty of the light above (I'm often in kelp and it's akin to cathedral lighting in an old church) and I move towards it. If it's an easy one, and I feel I'm overreacting and not properly "in my head" I'll actually stop before the surface and wait a few seconds: training and reminding myself not to lose it, reinforcing that I've got more than I need, in most cases, and that panic is death. If it's a tough one and I feel I'm anywhere near the edge I will close my eyes for that last "shallow water blackout" interval (10-20 ft from the surface) and start doing math problems(!) to stay mentally alert but relaxed. The concentration, I think, keeps me from the risk of a passive letting go. (As a former ocean lifeguard, I've seen passive drowners: people who just let go and die. It's a very strange and real thing, and may be a potential within us all.)

The Recovery:

Once on the surface, I wait a moment (training, again) before I take that first breath. I take it and exhale immediately. Then I take another, which I hold for a few seconds before slowly exhaling. An old martial arts instructor of mine, who was a 4-time gold medalist in Tae Kwon Do in the Korean Army, used to drill us hard on breath control at just the time when we were heaving for air after an intense workout. I used to think him a sadist; but he was a master. Yes, there is a moment of dizziness on that first pause before releasing, but it soon fades and you can return to normally breathing and heart rate surprisingly soon. 

The Afterglow:

After a typical ( 2- to 4-hour) dive like this, my lungs feel expansive for days. I miss it all within a week and I know that I've got to get back to that place where it seems I have all that I need."  


From Mike:

Interesting. It makes a lot of sense.  I read  Pippen's heart rate is around 60 usually and goes up to 100 when he hits the water and then down to 40 during descent. 

Having read the preceding and studied breathing for 30 years I suspect that there is a distinct cross over where the length of time one can hold one's breath (conditioning) must be balanced against the oxidative stress and resultant potential for shortening the life span including but not limited to shallow water black out: you may be fitter but you probably won't live longer.

One key factor is lung size. Average lung volume is 4-6 liters but some can have up to 10 liter lungs making way longer breath hold times possible

Depends on your priorities and Mother Nature's Gifts.   Our Breathing Improvement Program