Freediving is one of the most serenely beautiful water activities. But it also holds inherent risks. Take the time to learn proper breathing techniques.
Types of Freediving
Freediving has its origins not in sport, but in survival. Ancient cultures learned to freedive to catch fish. Many of these cultures still practice this form of hunting today, though most modern spear fishermen hunt for sport instead of sustenance. People also freedive for recreation, physical fitness and underwater photography. Apnea diving is highly competitive. There are two basic forms of apnea diving: static and dynamic. Static apnea is a stationary, timed breath-holding competition that's generally conducted in a swimming pool, while dynamic apnea competitors must travel horizontally or vertically on a single breath. Within both categories there are a number of subcategories. For example, dynamic apnea can be conducted with or without fins, and with or without guide lines on which the athlete can pull themselves down to depth.
Whether you're freediving for dinner, for fun or to win, there are strong physiological considerations. The human body is designed for breathing on land, but, like other mammals, reflexes kick in when we go underwater. This is a natural phenomenon that allows the body to function on greatly reduced oxygen while in the water. In fact, humans can survive longer without oxygen in the water than they can on land. When this phenomenon, known as the "mammalian diving reflex," kicks in, certain biological responses change. Our heart rate drops, blood vessels constrict and red blood vessels, which carry oxygen, are released. Most important, the residual volume of the lungs is reduced. This prevents the lungs from shrinking at deeper depths.
The principle danger of most recreational freediving is a syndrome called "shallow water blackout." A diver loses consciousness as a result of cerebral hypoxia. It's thought this occurs because of lowered carbon dioxide rates in the bloodstream. The human body uses the level of CO2 to determine whether it's time to take another breath. When this level is artificially controlled by hyperventilation or other deep breathing, it can cause the breathing reflex to be significantly reduced, leaving the diver susceptible to blackout. There is usually little or no warning, and this condition can occur even in experienced freedivers, often resulting in drowning. That's why experts recommend always freediving with a buddy. Shallow water blackout is not the only risk associated with freediving. Sinus or ear "squeezes" can occur, causing an extremely painful rupture. Don't forget to equalize as you descend.
Breath Hold Techniques
Any discussion of breath-hold techniques should begin with what not to do. Do not hyperventilate before freediving unless you are under continuous supervision by rescue personnel during the dive. Hyperventilation artificially lowers the amount of carbon dioxide in the bloodstream, which tricks the body into thinking it has more oxygen available than it does. This can be effective, but it is also the leading contributor to shallow water blackout. Recreational freediving doesn't require feats of athleticism. The most significant skill you'll need is the ability to relax. That's why the best freediving instructors will teach ease, grace and comfortability. Most people feel the urge to move quickly while holding their breath underwater. The problem is that vigorous movement requires more exertion, and more exertion requires more air. Move slowly, gracefully and deliberately, and you'll find yourself able to stay down longer without taking a breath.
Breath holding and depth diving are, like most athletic achievements, largely a product of conditioning. Begin slowly, increasing the time and depth of your dive gradually instead of trying to go too far too soon. Freedivers train on land using a variety of methods, including exercises and the use of devices designed to increase lung capacity. An "apnea walk" is one such exercise. Breathe in deeply, then walk as far as you can without taking another breath. You will find the length of your walks increasing with practice. Breathing exercises similar to those used by singers can help improve your breath-hold ability. Many forms of yoga also offer quite a bit of breath work; all of these can increase lung capacity. Devices are available to help increase the capacity of the lungs. These generally consist of a mouthpiece with a valve that can be adjusted to increase the level of resistance. This develops the muscles responsible for lung inflation, which in turn helps to lengthen your ability to stay underwater.
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