Improving your breath holds for surfing

So as the summer (yeah I hear you, what summer??) draws on and thoughts turn to the hope of bigger swells and off shore winds for you surfers I thought I’d post a quick article on some basic and easy techniques to improve your breath holds. As an avid spearfisherman and free diver I have often been asked by my surfing friends how I can hold my breath for so long and is there some magic trick I use? In short no – it’s all about training unfortunately!

To start with these are only my thoughts and experiences having spearfished for many years and done a basic freediving course when I was living in the UK….yes we do get in the water over there, and yes it is bloody cold!!

Important!!

Freediving / breath holding training are inherently dangerous and so if you are keen to learn more about improving your breath holds there are some great courses out there that will teach you the skills to do so safely. Remember – NEVER dive or train in the water alone and KNOW YOUR LIMITS!!!

One thing that is brilliant for surfers is training to improve your carbon dioxide tolerance, aka CO2 Training. One of the main things that makes you want to breathe is the build-up of CO2 within your body. If you can train to tolerate CO2 better, you can stay down for longer. The body is designed to have a whole bunch of survival mechanisms and they kick in very early. For example on a static breath hold (just lying there not moving) I get the urge to breathe after about 1:30 minutes, but I can actually hold my breath for over 4 minutes – it’s all about learning to tolerate CO2.

Classic CO2 table

Do this one at home on the bed or lounge in front of the TV – you should not be moving around, just staying still. The idea is to do a few breath holds and to gradually reduce your recovery time. What this does is it gradually builds up your CO2 levels which is your trigger to breathe. In between breath holds you have time to recover and to re-oxygenate, but you’ll still have a build-up of CO2 as this takes longer to breathe off. As you go along, the breath holds should get harder and harder as your CO2 levels build up. Important: The idea of the CO2 table is not to hold your breath for the longest time, but to hold it at about 60% of your max effort and gradually reduce your recovery time. So if you’re capable of a 3 or 3 and a half minute breath hold, I would use 2 minutes as a rough starting point.

A Basic Table:

Breathe for 2 minutes; Hold breath for 2 minutes

Breathe for 1:45; Hold breath for 2 minutes

Breathe for 1:30; Hold breath for 2 minutes

Breathe for 1:15; Hold breath for 2 minutes

Breathe for 1:00; Hold breath for 2 minutes

Breathe for 0:45; Hold breath for 2 minutes

Breathe for 0:30; Hold breath for 2 minutes

Breathe for 0:15; Hold breath for 2 minutes

Apnea Walking 

There’s a bunch of different ways of doing this, the way I usually do it is based on counting number of steps rather than time. Start walking at a normal pace. Take a deep breath in and hold it for a certain amount of steps (try around 30 and adjust up or down.) Once completed, breathe for the same amount of steps (e.g. 30) Take another breath and walk again for a set amount of steps (e.g. 30) Breath for 30 steps etc. etc. Do this for a while (10-20 breath holds, or approx. 20 minutes), but make sure you don’t breath hold for too long because if you black out you’ll hurt yourself when you fall……. plus you want to be training high CO2 levels, not low oxygen levels.

CO2 Tables and Apnea walking are pretty good staples for training for a lot of freedivers but there are lots of other training ideas that will help you too; O2 tables – these allow you to cope with low oxygen levels. Anything that teaches you to relax – yoga, Tai Chi and meditation are all good at allowing you to hold your breath longer. Having a good old fashion base fitness is also a must – cycling, rowing, running etc. can all help you achieve this.

Nick Williams

About the Author:

Nick is a passionate physiotherapist with a background in elite Rugby.  His focus is evidence based practice for optimal injury recovery and performance.

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