Thousands of years before SCUBA or even rudimentary mechanical diving apparatuses, human beings plumbed the ocean’s depths with nothing but discipline and one giant, pre-plunge gulp of air.
To make a living and feed their families, ancient fishermen, pearl hunters, sponge gatherers, and shipwreck salvagers trained themselves to overcome the all-powerful urge to breathe so they could stay underwater for minutes at a time.
Today you can still find pockets of people who continue to practice the art of unassisted deep-sea diving. For example, the Bajau — sometimes known as the sea gypsies of Malaysia and Indonesia — are renowned natural freedivers. They’ll descend to depths of more than 65 feet and stay underwater for up to five minutes, fishing and collecting coins thrown into the water by tourists.
Besides these divers who brave the watery depths in order to make a living, there’s a small group of renegade athletes around the world who will freedive to 50x the fathoms of an average swimming pool…for fun.
Welcome to the sport of freediving.
In his book, Deep, journalist James Nestor takes readers on an up-close-and-personal tour of this literally breathtaking competitive world that pushes the boundaries of human ability. With nothing but a single breath, divers will submerge to depths of 300 feet, seeking to grab a flag that hangs at the bottom of a lengthy piece of rope. The water pressure at those depths is bone crushing; lungs shrink to the size of softballs. But somehow these folks have trained their bodies to withstand that punishment and make it back to the surface alive. A typical trip down and back takes nearly four minutes, and again, they do this all in one breath.
After reading about these amazing feats of apnea, I wanted to see how long I could hold my own breath. I sat in my chair, took a deep breath, and started the timer. After 30 seconds, I started feeling uncomfortable, but I fought through it. Time dragged slowly by. It seemed like I had held by breath for close to 3 minutes. When I finally had to gasp for air, I looked down at my timer. One minute and 30 seconds. I’d be dead halfway down to 300 feet.
So I set out to see if I could hold my breath for longer. Why? I don’t plan on diving for pearls, but maybe one day I’ll end up in a capsized cruise ship and I’ll have to swim through an underwater maze in order to reach safety. You never know. Honestly, it just seemed like a really cool skill to master. So I started working on it and practicing.
Below are tips from deep-sea freedivers that I’ve successfully used to expand my breath holding capacity to three minutes. (Next I’m gunning for Harry Houdini’s record of 3 minutes 30 seconds!)
Obligatory Disclaimer: Holding your breath for long periods of time can be dangerous. By holding your breath, you’re depriving your body of the oxygen it needs to function. Blackout is common. And like sniffing Sharpie markers, you’re likely killing brain cells each time you hold your breath. Do not under any condition do this in the water, especially if you’ve never done extended breath holding. Do it in a safe place and with people near by. Or don’t do it at all.
With that said, let’s take a look at how to hold your breath like a deep-sea freediver.
Like most kids growing up, my friends and I would do breath-holding contests in my neighbor’s pool. The technique we all used to extend our time was to hyperventilate right before we went underwater.
A few decades back, this was how many freedivers and spear fishermen were taught to extend the length of their breath-hold too. And magician David Blaine used a similar technique to train himself for breaking the underwater breath-holding world record.
But in recent years, most professional and competitive deep-sea divers have eschewed hyperventilation for a very good reason — it can kill you.
Most people think that the reason hyperventilation allows you to hold your breath longer is that you’re saturating your blood with fresh oxygen. The more oxygen in your blood, the longer you can hold your breath. And there’s some rhyme and reason to that thinking. Research has shown that individuals who breathe in pure oxygen right before holding their breath can indeed significantly extend their time.
Except that’s not what happens when you hyperventilate.
Instead, hyperventilation tricks your body into thinking you have more oxygen than you do by reducing the amount of CO2 in your bloodstream.
When you breathe, the oxygen coming in is converted into CO2. When you hold your breath, this CO2 starts to build up, and when this buildup begins to reach a critical level, you feel that overwhelming urge to take a breath and get some new oxygen into your system. When you hyperventilate, you reduce the amount of CO2 in your blood, but you don’t boost its oxygen. These lower levels of CO2 delay the activation of the body’s “need to breathe” reflex far past the point where it should have been triggered. In short, the reason you can hold your breath longer when you hyperventilate isn’t because of an increase in oxygen, but because of a decrease in CO2.
Besides reducing the amount of CO2 in your system, hyperventilating actually reduces the amount of oxygen available to your muscles and organs. Because your blood has less CO2 due to hyperventilation, the alkalinity levels in your blood increase. This increased alkalinity causes the hemoglobin to bond too strongly with the oxygen molecules in the blood and consequently doesn’t allow those molecules to be released to the muscles and organs.
Hyperventilating thus creates a broken fuel gauge in your body — you think you have a full tank of oxygen because lowered CO2 levels have suppressed your urge to take a breath, but you’re actually running on E.
What all this often leads to is an unexpected loss of consciousness, and in water, this is called “shallow water blackout.” When this happens, the individual must be rescued immediately, or else their body’s natural urge to breathe will kick in, they’ll inhale water, and drown. Shallow water blackout has become such a problem at many pools and water recreation areas that lifeguards are cracking down on underwater breath-holding contests.
Bottom line: Don’t hyperventilate to hold your breath longer. It could kill you.
How to Train to Hold Your Breath Longer
So if hyperventilating is out, what can you do to hold your breath longer? You train.
Here’s how deep-sea freedivers do it:
Learn How to Take a Full, Deep Breath
Take a breath. Did your chest and shoulders rise? Yes? You just failed at breathing. When your chest and shoulders rise when you breathe, it means you’re breathing with just the top part of your lungs.
If you want to store more oxygen for your deep-sea diver breath-hold, you need to learn how to use the total volume of your lungs. A proper breath begins from the diaphragm. You know you’re breathing correctly if your belly is moving up and down rather than your shoulders.
Take a full, deep breath with your mouth, and imagine your lungs are filling up, starting from their very bottom. Slowly, you feel your lungs fill near your diaphragm. Next, you feel the air filling your lungs by your sternum. Finally, fill the very top of your lungs near the top of your chest. You’ve successfully taken a full, deep breath — the kind you’ll take right before you start holding it. According to freediver Hanli Prinsloo, your deep inhalation should take 20 seconds.
Start practicing that. In fact, start always breathing with these belly breaths. It will make you feel like a million bucks, and even improve the quality and attractiveness of your voice.
Understand What Happens to Your Body When You Hold Your Breath
According to Prinsloo, when you hold your breath for a long period, your body responds by going through three stages. First, you’ll get an urge to take a breath because of the CO2 building up in your system, and if you resist it, your diaphragm will start having convulsions. This is just your body’s way of saying, “No, but seriously, you’ve got some major CO2 building up here, and you’ve got a few minutes before you really need to breathe buddy!”
But you can train yourself to fight through the convulsions. If you can do that, you’ll then move on to stage two, in which your spleen releases up to 15% more fresh, oxygen-rich blood into your bloodstream. In humans, this usually only happens when the body goes into shock, but researchers believe it may also be a mammalian dive reflex. Diving mammals like seals and whales experience this “spleen vent” all the time. So much so that the spleen is often referred to as a biological SCUBA tank. When this oxygen-rich blood hits your system, the body calms down and a deep-sea freediver will often feel a surge of energy.
The third stage is blackout. Your brain uses about 20% of your body’s oxygen, so to conserve this chemical, the brain will just shut off when it senses there’s not enough in your bloodstream. If this happens while a diver is underwater, well, then the next stop is a watery grave.
Through training and conditioning, deep-sea freedivers learn to listen to these signals their bodies send in order to time their dives. When they feel the convulsions, they know they can fight through it and be okay, but that they only have a few minutes before they need to breathe. When they feel that surge of oxygen from the spleen vent, they’ll start planning their ascent, so they don’t experience blackout while underwater.
As you learn to hold your breath for longer and longer periods of time, you’ll start to recognize these cues in your body. Understand that you can fight through the spasms and be okay, but that you just have a few minutes before you’ll really, definitely need to take a breath.
Train with CO2 and O2 Static Apnea Tables
“Static apnea training” is what deep-sea divers use to condition their lungs and body to withstand the effects of prolonged breath-holding. “Static” refers to the fact that you’re not swimming or moving your body while you do these exercises; you’re staying still.
There are two laddering programs: one table conditions your CO2 tolerance, and the other helps you increase the amount of oxygen your lungs can store.
CO2 tables condition you to get used to having CO2 build up in your system without having to take a breath. The training consists of a series of alternating breath-holds and rest periods. By the time you get to the end of your training session, your lungs will be burning.
Here’s an example of a CO2 static apnea table:
|Round 1||Hold 1:00||Breathe 1:30|
|Round 2||Hold 1:00||Breathe 1:15|
|Round 3||Hold 1:00||Breathe 1:00|
|Round 4||Hold 1:00||Breathe 0:45|
|Round 5||Hold 1:00||Breathe 0:30|
|Round 6||Hold 1:00||Breathe 0:15|
As you can see, the rest periods get shorter and shorter as the session progresses. During your rest period, it’s important just to breathe normally — don’t hyperventilate! Start off with a breath-hold period that you’re comfortable with. If it’s 30 seconds, that’s fine. Just try adding 5 seconds each day. Space your sessions out; don’t try doing two back-to-back. Do one in the morning and one at night.
While CO2 tables train your body to deal with high levels of CO2 in your system, O2 tables condition your lungs to store more oxygen, and your body to operate on lower levels of it. With O2 tables, your breath holds will get longer while your rest periods will stay the same.
Here’s an example of an O2 table:
|Round 1||Hold 1:00||Breathe 2:00|
|Round 2||Hold 1:15||Breathe 2:00|
|Round 3||Hold 1:30||Breathe 2:00|
|Round 4||Hold 1:45||Breathe 2:00|
|Round 5||Hold 2:00||Breathe 2:00|
|Round 6||Hold 2:15||Breathe 2:00|
Again, during your rest periods, just breathe normally. Start off with a 30-second or one-minute breath-hold, and add 5 seconds to each session. As with the CO2 tables, space your sessions out.
You can do both CO2 and O2 sessions on the same day, just make sure they’re separated by a few hours.
It should go without saying, but you should always do static apnea training in a safe environment and never in the water.
Finally, Stay as Still as Possible
Movement uses precious oxygen, so if you want to hold your breath longer, stay as still as you can. Holding your breath while swimming down to a depth of 300 feet is a whole ‘nother ball game with its own set of required techniques!
But now you at least know how hold your breath like a deep-sea freediver. Take your time, don’t rush it, and most importantly, don’t be stupid!
Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves by James Nestor