Breathing for Freediving

This is the first topic that is learnt in freediving and involves ‘changing’ our breathing. People can often become confused with this concept and wonder ‘Am I filling my belly enough?’ or ‘Should I be exhaling this long?’ etc etc

Why do we perform the breathe up?

In freediving it is very important to relax; if we cannot relax we cannot freedive - it’s that simple. Each and every time we go for a dive the breathe-up is performed, and it’s here where the mind and the body become completely relaxed. 

The body and mind are one; if our muscles are tense then the mind is tense and vice versa. So the breathe-up is there to relax us. Simples!

Oxygen (o2) and Carbon Dioxide (Co2) - The two main gases we deal with

The air we breathe contains 21% oxygen and 79% nitrogen. Oxygen is stored in the myoglobin in our muscles and bonded to haemoglobin in our blood. When we are at rest our blood saturation (which is the oxygen concentration in our blood) would be at around 97-99%. Reading this, your blood saturation will most likely be around 97-99%. It is then up to us to properly fill our lungs to their maximum capacity. 

Carbon Dioxide is waste that is produced when carbon is combined with oxygen as part of the body's energy-making processes. As air enters the lungs and oxygen is diffused into the blood, carbon dioxide is expelled in the air breathe out. The less active we are the less Carbon Dioxide our body produces; and on the contrary the more active we are the more waste our body will produce.

For example; When we sprint we are using explosive power and a large majority of our muscles. In turn Carbon Dioxide builds up fast and our breathing changes! We automatically breathe deeper and heavier to expel the Carbon Dioxide. Carbon dioxide’s main producers are; body functions, physical activity, thought and the things we see.

Muscles used in breathing

There are two muscle groups that are involved in the way we breathe. The Primary muscles involved in breathing is the diaphragm which is a large shaped-dome that separates our chest and abdomen cavities. The secondary group of muscles are the intercostal muscles which are found in between our ribs.

Remember, in freediving it’s very important that we keep our body relaxed so when we perform the breathe up we want to use only the muscles involved (diaphragm and intercostal) and keep the others relaxed!

How we breathe

There are two ways how we breathe; automatic and autonomic. The automatic breath describes our normal, daily breathing rate eg when we sit, rest or sleep. It is always changing to suit our ‘current’ activity. The autonomic breath is when we become conscious of each breath and voluntarily alter its pattern, rate and speed. This is how we control our breath before a dive; ie performing The Breathe Up. During the breathe-up, the breathing rate is slowed to reduce the amount of air going into and out of the body, which reduces the risk of hyperventilation.

Relaxed diaphramatric breathing is known as belly or abdominal breathing; the only part that should be moving. As we inhale it will rise and as we exhale it will fall, and this is what we want to mimic whilst in preparation for our dive - performing it as relaxed as possible as if we were asleep. 

How to breathe before a dive (belly breathing).

Place one hand on the belly and one on the chest. Breathe into your belly and feel it rise, breathe out of your belly and feel it fall; the only hand that should be moving is the hand on your belly. If the hand on your chest starts to move this means that you are most likely over breathing - something we’ll talk about a little later on.

Pointers:

  • Longer exhalation than inhalation; when we exhale the heart rate decreases, so when we extend the exhalation this will calm the body and mind. Create an ’Ssss’ sound to control the speed of the exhalation.
  • It is done in a relaxed manner; the inhalation and exhalation are passive; there is no forceful breathing involved so as to not put any strain on the breathing muscles involved (diaphragm and intercostal muscles).
  • Focus; another trick to help the body and mind relax is to try and focus on a single point. Since breathing is involved it’s the easiest thing to focus on; follow the breath from the beginning of its passage, down into the throat and off its way into the belly. Feel the expansion of the belly. As you breathe out, again follow its passage and this time if you feel any muscle tension let go on the exhale. Imagine your thoughts in the form of clouds; acknowledging them as they enter. Don’t get annoyed if many thoughts come in - just be the observer.
  • Don't complicate things! It is done as relaxed as possible almost as if you were sleeping. *consciously thinking about muscle relaxation will relax your muscles.* 
  • HELPFUL TIP! - Pause for 1 second after both the inhale and exhale 

The last and final breath.

After finishing your breathe up, take one deep breath in and then a full exhale, pulling in the stomach muscles (don’t over pull on the muscles but just enough). Finally we move onto the last complete breath (3 part breath) which is done in three stages :

  1. Breathe into the belly filling it up as much as possible; the ribcage and chest shouldn't be moving - keeping the shoulders relaxed
  2. Once the belly is full, shift the breath into the ribcage and breathe into the central area of your lungs.
  3. Open your mouth as wide as possible and fill the upper region of lungs, collarbone and throat, making sure to keep the shoulders nice and relaxed.

The last and final breath should be done as slowly as possible, ensuring you fill up those empty spaces as much as you can. When people rush the last breath they tend to loose their relaxation. Take your time, theres no rush!

Check out this video by Sara Campbell on how to get the deepest inhale.

How long should you take performing the breathe up?

This is a personal question and depends on mainly two things; how relaxed you are and the depth of your dive. Generally, for beginners to intermediate level this would be around two minutes when in a relaxed state, to reduce the risk of hyperventilation. 

If ever you feel out of breath or anything abnormal then stop what you are doing and resume normal breathing; take your time and relax before you start the breathe up - this is your breathe up and no on else’s.

What is hyperventilation?

Hyperventilation is when you are performing any sort of over breathing. For example, you would not breathe at the same rate you do when running if you were sitting down. When you hyperventilate you are dropping the levels of Co2 in the body. 

The reason our breathing changes when we run is because Co2 builds up, so it automatically ‘hyperventilates’ to bring the levels back to normal. If we were to mimic our running breathing rate whilst sitting down in a relaxed state the levels of Co2 would decrease.

Why shouldn't you hyperventilate before you go for a freedive?

When we hold our breath, the levels of Co2 start rising and this is what causes the urge to breathe and is an ‘alarm’ to us; resulting in something we call ‘contractions’. These contractions may be experienced in a number of ways; swallowing, burning sensation around the chest and abdominal area and contracting of the diaphragm. Most people would think that they are running out of oxygen, when in actual fact it is only the Carbon Dioxide rising.

This is why it is important not to hyperventilate! If we hyperventilate before a dive, we are flushing the Co2 out of our system which in turn makes the dive feel easier and delays the urge to breathe; which at that point you will be very close to low O2 levels and put yourself at risk of blacking out.

Other reasons not to hyperventilate:

  • The bond between oxygen and haemoglobin will be a lot stronger, reducing the bodies ability to use it.
  • It raises the heart rate; remember, the slower our body works the less oxygen it uses!
  • Reduces blood flow to the brain; our brain is a vital organ which needs oxygen at all times.
  • It takes the body from a sympathetic to a parasympathetic state.

Symptoms:

  • Metallic taste in mouth
  • Feeling of Euphoria 
  • Lightheadedness 
  • Fingers and hand cramping inwards
  • Tingling in the extremities

If ever you feel any symptoms of hyperventilation during the breathe up stop what you are doing, move over to the side and resume to normal breathing for a few minutes until the levels of Carbon Dioxide settle.

Before you go diving try hyperventilation at home to get a feel of the sensations yourself, and remember never use any hyperventilation techniques during freediving.

Recovery breathing - what is it?

At the end of our dive we will most likely be low on oxygen so it’s very important to do recovery breathing and it takes around 10 -15 seconds for our body to be fully saturated with oxygen. The aim of recovery breathing is to keep the majority of the air in our lungs and passively exhale. Even if you had a short dive, practice it anyway so that it would become habitual. 

How do we do it? 

  • As soon as we come up from a dive we automatically exhale the air we have in our lungs
  • Open you mouth as wide as possible, take a maximum inhalation and hold for around 1-2 seconds.
  • Passively exhale around 30-40% of the air in your lungs
  • Again take maximum inhalation and repeat steps for 5 times.

Make sure to always practice recovery breathing so that it will become automatic - even when you think you don’t need to!

Conclusion

Throughout your freediving journey, you will slowly start to alter your breathe up; as said before it’s a very personal topic, like are many other things in freediving. The more you practice (even on land) the more aware you will be of the breathing muscles involved and the deeper you will be able to relax. Just make sure to really listen to your body and most of all not to hyperventilate.