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This month we take a plunge into the wild world of freediving. You are holding your breath, aren’t you? In our view, the diving community writ large can arguably learn a lot from freedivers…
Text by Michael Menduno. Header image by Lorenzo Mittiga, who provided photos used through out the FREE story bundle.
This month we take a plunge into the wild world of freediving. You are holding your breath, aren’t you? In our view, the diving community writ large can arguably learn a lot from freedivers who have essentially operationalized their knowledge and their ability to manipulate mammalian physiology to significant effect. Today’s top athletes are all pushing beyond 100 meters, even intermediate freedivers are reaching into tech diving depths of 50 m/164 ft and beyond, and five-and-six minute static breath-holds are not uncommon—the men’s record is 11:35 (11 minutes, 35 seconds) and women’s record 9:02, breathing up on air. Nitrox pre-breathing is still in its infancy.
As a result, like the old recommendation for early tech divers: Take a cave diving course whether or not you intend to cave dive!—every tech diver should strongly consider taking a freediving course! Without a doubt, it will increase your depth of knowledge and give you a visceral experience you won’t soon forget—a two and a half to three-minute static apnea breath-hold (three minutes qualifies you for intermediate level) will give you an entirely new appreciation for the power of CO2 and your urge to breathe. I guarantee it!
You may find it surprising that freedivers are every bit as geeky as their tech diving counterparts. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to cover and report on Performance Freediving International’s (PFI) Deja Blue Competition in the Cayman Islands for an Alert Diver freediving story. There I was housed in a condo with the rebreather safety diving team. They were a small team of Canadian tech divers led by Bill Coltart who were tasked with being deep safeties for the event. During the competition, the safeties took turns being stationed at 50-80 m/165-261 ft, depending on the event, armed with a lanyard and lift bag to rescue a freediver in the event of an incident at depth.
One night, we were sitting around the kitchen table strewn with rebreather equipment, and I took notes as the divers engaged in animated discussions about hyperbaric sensor calibration, the efficacy of hypoxic training, comparative work of breathing, whether cartridges offered advantages over hand-packed scrubbers, and the accuracy of temp sticks. After a time, I was curious to know how the freedivers were faring, so I walked next door to the athlete’s condo.
To my delight, a half dozen competitors were sitting around the kitchen, watching videos from the day’s dives and geeking out on their equipment as well, in this case their bodies. Their discussion ranged from sharing Frenzel equalization secrets, the optimal depth for moving a mouthful of gas from their lungs to their mouth on that 80 m/262 ft dive in order to equalize, their preferred Mucinex regiment, the agony and ecstasy of doing negative statics, their last samba i.e., LMC (loss of motor control), and their plan to break their PB (personal best) on tomorrow’s dive. It was clear—they were every bit as geeky as their tekkie counterparts.
In this issue of InDepth, we offer you a curated selection of freediving stories that we thought might be of interest to tech divers, beginning with a Wim Hof-inspired story by Sabrina Figliomeni titled, “Freezedivers: What Doesn’t Freeze You Makes you Stronger.” Beware: it will potentially make your blood run cold, even if you’re wearing your RF1!
Next science writer Reilly Fogarty tackles the issue, “Do Freedivers Get Bent?” and explores what we know and we don’t know about breath-hold DCS. The answer is yes btw! French adventure writer Florine Quirion introduces the next innovation in freediving biometrics in, “Listen Up: Freediving Is About to Enter a New Era if Oxama has a Say!” Then we dive into Ted Harty’s Freediving Summit, with a pair of reports, “How Do Competitive Freedivers Stay Safe?” by tekkie turned freediver Dean Laffan, and Handling The Pressures of Competitive Freediving by freediving freelancer Charly Stringer.
We conclude with some resources on Technical Freediving i.e, breath-hold dives conducted with nitrox pre-breathing, and a The Diver Medic’s new DAN Europe-approved Freediving Emergency Medical Responder course.
Finally, a special thanks to Bonaire-based photographer extraordinaire Lorenzo Mittiga for supplying us with a bevy of freediving bella foto. Grazie Lorenzo! That said, I suggest that you do a good breathe up and dive right in.—M2
The freediving community is the latest community to begin applying mixed gas technology to improve their safety and performance. It’s fair to say that at this stage mixed gas freediving, specifically nitrox freediving, is still in its infancy, and only used by innovators like freediving pioneer Kirk Krack, who has used nitrox pre-breathes successfully in film work on James Cameron’s Avatar series, his colleague John Hulverson and others. However, this will likely change as freedivers learn about and are able to experience the benefits of nitrox pre-breathes. Watch this space.
Tech freediving articles:
DeeperBlue: Technical Freediving: Are Breathhold Divers Ready To Mix It Up? By Michael Menduno (2019)
DeeperBlue: Technical Freediving In Hollywood Revealed by Victoria Brown (2020)
Diver: Technical Freediving in Truk Lagoon By Kirk Krack and John Hullverson (2019)
JHPEE: Covington D, Lee, RH, Toffell S, Bursian A, Krack K, and Giordano C Technical Freediving: An Emerging Breath-Hold Diving Technique, Journal of Human Performance in Extreme Environments: Vol. 15: Iss. 1, Article 3 2019 DOI: 10.7771/2327-2937.1122
Alert Diver: The New Pointy End of Diving by Michael Menduno (2017)
Tech freediving videos and webinars:
The Diver Medic: Kirk Krack – Technical Freediving
Dirty Dozen: Episode #9: Kirk Krack; Technical Freediving in Hollywood with Aron Arngrimsson
OZTek: Video interview with Kirk at Oztek by Michael Menduno
Freediving Emergency Medical Responder course (FEMR)
Breath-hold diving is a rapidly growing sport around the world whether freediving for fun or competition freediving. There is also spearfishing, synchronised swimming, and of course, mermaids that freedive professionally for aquariums and events. There are hundreds of thousands of breath-hold divers in the world; many push themselves to their limit, either hunting for food or setting personal records for depth or time.
However, breath-hold diving has a huge risk factor—possible death or serious injury! This form of diving suffers from an alarming number of fatalities. According to the 2019 DAN Annual Diving Report, there were at least 955 breath-hold diving incidents between 2004-2017, with 73% fatal outcomes—or an average of at least 51 fatalities per year. [Ed.note: This is not the case in freediving competitions] Of course, those are the recorded incidents, what about the unreported ones?
What are the other risks? Blackouts and hypoxic fits, dehydration, blood sugar levels, barotrauma to the eyes, ears, sinus, and lungs, nitrogen narcosis, decompression sickness. Hood squeeze and mask squeeze. Cuts, abrasions to catastrophic injuries like marine life injuries or being accidentally shot with a speargun. Cardiac arrest, heart attack, anaphylaxis, hypothermia, hyperthermia, and shock to name a few.
Yes, most sports have risks but would you know what to do in an emergency? This is why we want you to be prepared and continue to enjoy the sport you love so much. We encourage you to be safer with the knowledge that can change the outcome of life or death.
Here are the links to the courses:
Handling the Pressures of Competitive Freediving
Sporting vegan diets, yoga, meditation, breath work and plenty of Mucinex, freedivers are often considered to be the woke, hippy contingent of the diving community—backpacks anyone? But as scuba instructor turned freediver Charly Stringer explains there’s method in the madness, err, protocol. I kid our breath-hold brethren. 😉 How do elite divers handle the competitive and hydrostatic pressures? Why, they pump up the prāṇa, of course.
By Charly Stringer. Header image: Diver Lily Crespy coming to the end of a Constant Weight (CWT ) competition dive. Photo by Kalinda Wijsmuller
Diving to your deepest capabilities can be nerve wracking on even your best day. Throw in some judges, spectators, plus the pressure of diving for your country, and this can take the nerves to a whole new level.
So how do you handle these nerves and stay relaxed enough to perform well in a freediving competition?
Let’s dive into Ted Harty’s Freediving Summit, and see what some of the deepest divers in the world have to say about relaxation techniques and stress management skills.
For those of you who don’t know, there are pool freediving competitions, and depth freediving competitions. The current AIDA world records include an amazing 11 minutes and 35 seconds for static apnea (STA) which was achieved by Stéphane Mifsud. The records for depth in competition include 130 m/427 ft in the constant weight discipline (CWT) by Alexey Molchanov, and 102 m/335 ft in the no fins discipline (CNF) by William Trubridge. I think we can all agree that these are some extraordinary achievements—and that’s just the guys! Alenka Artnik is hot on the heels of Alexey, with her world record for the women being just 16 m/53 ft away from his in CWT.
William Trubridge, in an interview with Ted Hardy at this year’s Freediving Summit, spoke about his world record and his experiences with competition diving. When discussing the comparisons between freediving competitions and other sports, Trubridge expounded about how freediving is so unique, in that there are so many aspects to it that athletes of other sports don’t have to consider. For example, freedivers have to think about things like equalization, pressure adaptation, and narcosis. But he also said freedivers get “a beautiful sensation that they can’t experience with any other sport”.
So how do these world champions do it? How do they achieve such incredible depths without letting their nerves get the best of them?
Let’s look at some techniques to help you handle the pressure of competition freediving:
Yoga and meditation play a big part in the lives of most deep freedivers. Yoga helps them stay flexible and strong, which are both essential qualities for deep diving in an efficient way. Meditation can help to keep them calm both before and during a dive. It allows them to be in the present moment and accept all that they are feeling.
At the Freediving Summit, Sara Campbell (four time world record holder and yoga/meditation coach) spoke with Ted Hardy about her experiences with yoga, meditation, and freediving.
Sara was convinced to try freediving by a yoga student back in 2007. Reluctantly she tried, and realized very quickly that she had a talent for it. After just nine short months of training, Sara achieved three world records in three consecutive days, putting her on the map as one of the most impressive freedivers still to this day. Currently her deepest dive in competition was 96 m/315 ft in CWT.
During the summit, Sara and Ted talked about how yoga and meditation played a huge part in Sara’s fast progression. She said bringing these skills to freediving allowed her to have better awareness of her body and mind.
Sara discussed how spiritual teachers talk about “downloading information,” and how she felt that was true for her with yoga and freediving: “Somehow I was given a lot of wisdom about how our bodies behave in water. I had the ability to surrender to what was happening to my body in the ocean” she said. “Yoga and meditation gave me access to awareness. Through any blockage or fear, I had trust in myself.”
Yoga and meditation are a common pre-dive ritual for deep divers. Setting aside time before a stressful competition dive to be mindful and do some light stretching (nothing too strenuous in order to stay relaxed) can make a huge difference to how relaxing your dive will feel.
Breathwork is a part of meditation and can be massively helpful in relaxation for freediving.
Believe it or not, there is a wrong way to breathe. Your natural way of breathing is not optimum for relaxation, and therefore not optimum for freediving either. Breathwork and Pranayama can be used to increase relaxation for freediving. Including techniques such as:
Belly breathing: While breathing normally, you will probably be breathing more from the chest, or a mix of chest and belly. Breathing into the belly slows the breathing down and uses less energy, which can increase relaxation, and reduce heart rate and blood pressure. This is what makes it perfect for relaxation breathing for freediving.
2:1 breathing: 2:1 breathing is the technique of breathing out for half the amount of time that you breathed in for. It’s a breathing technique used to relax yourself. For example, breathing in for four seconds and breathing out for eight seconds. It shouldn’t feel like a struggle, but if it’s difficult try reducing the amount of seconds to three in and six out. Do whatever is most comfortable for you. There are other breathing ratios you can experiment with, but the 2:1 works best for relaxation breathing right before a dive. Remembering of course, not to hyperventilate.
Ujjayi breath: Ujjayi breath is commonly used in yoga. You perform it by constricting the throat slightly, so that when you breathe you can hear the breaths, almost like a snoring sound. Some compare it to the Darth Vader noise from Star Wars. Ujjayi breathing is very calming and can be nice to do as part of relaxation breathing to stop your mind from wandering.
All of these breathwork techniques can be combined to create the best relaxation breathing for a competition dive.
Visualisation can be used in the moments before a dive, as well as the night before, and even in the weeks before. It can be used alongside your meditation practice, and is an excellent way to stay relaxed and confident with the dive you’re preparing for.
visualisation is when you go through every aspect of the dive before you do it. You play the relaxation breathing phase in your mind, followed by the duck dive, the first pulls or kicks, the first mouthfill, the freefall phase, the feeling of the pressure increasing, the turn, the way up, and the final minutes of the dive on the surface, including surface protocol for competition diving. You will think about how each of these phases of the dive will feel. It’s important to visualize the dive going well, but also to visualize any issues you might face and how you would overcome them.
If you visualize the dive, you know exactly what you have to do at every phase, and there will be no surprises. Knowing that you are completely prepared will help you to feel relaxed and confident.
A body scan is a technique to check how relaxed you are. Sometimes you feel completely relaxed, but you’re actually holding tension somewhere in your body. Even somewhere small or subtle.
You perform a body scan by lying still and going over every part of your body in your mind to check there’s no tension there. Start from your head, your ears, your forehead, your eyes, your mouth, and so on until you reach your toes. Do the front and the back of the body. You might be surprised to find tension in a subtle place such as the eyebrows or fingers.
Body scanning can be combined in the breathe up with the relaxed breathing exercises, to check you’re totally relaxed and ready to go.
The Importance of Competitions
Staying relaxed and mindful before and during a competition dive is important. But it’s also important not to put too much pressure on yourself to do well in the competition. Everyone has bad days, even the best athletes in the world. Of course, strive for your best and hope to do well, but remember that if you do have a bad dive for any reason, it’s not the end of the world. Thinking this way will help to put less pressure on yourself, which means you’ll be more relaxed, and more likely to have a successful dive.
In the Freediving Summit, Alexey Molchanov talked with Ted Hardy about the importance he puts on competitions. Alexey is arguably currently the world’s best freediver, holding 24 world records so far. He owns his own freediving equipment company and education system with schools around the world.
Alexey’s mother, Natalia Molchanova was a legend and pioneer in the freediving world, she achieved an incredible 41 world records, and was the first woman to dive to 100 m/328 ft. This meant that Alexey learned freediving from the best, and from a very young age he was always involved in the sport.
In the interview, Alexey claimed that something he learned from his mother was how to manage stress for competitions. He said he used to feel pressure to win, and that it was “painful for the ego” to lose. But then he realized that he was putting too much importance on winning. Referring to freediving competitions as “just games for adults” he said: “They’re not important. There are much more important things”. This realisation allowed Alexey to “avoid personal attachment to the competition” and to “create distance” between himself and the event.
Advice from Alexey: “Work hard but don’t place too much importance on winning. It’s not easy to do, and coaches need to work with your personal worries. But I just think, “If I lose, does it change anything?”
To explore additional stories, videos and webinars on freediving click: FREE
Charly is a writer who’s originally from the UK but has been based in Dahab, Egypt for the past four years. She taught scuba diving for three years in Cyprus, Thailand, and Egypt before discovering her love of freediving. She still scuba dives for fun, but these days she’s more focused on her freediving training. When she’s not in the water, diving, she’s on her laptop, writing about diving.