Static Apnea: Holding your breath in the pool

In 2013, the most decorated female freediver ever, Natalia Molchanova, set a static apnea record at 9 minutes 2 seconds at the Individual AIDA Pool World Championships as a group of spectators were watching in awe. It was her third world record of the championships and the first time any woman had held her breath for longer than 9 minutes.

With a reputation for being one of the most challenging freediving disciplines for both body and mind, static apnea consists of in-water breath-holding without diving, swimming or moving. As you’re holding your breath, the carbon dioxide builds up in your system and your mind urges you to take a breath. Remarkably, ultra elite freedivers are able to suppress this urge. With the right training and guidance by an experienced instructor, static apnea is a discipline that can be mastered regardless of your freediving level.  

So what exactly is Static Apnea?

Static apnea is a pool discipline during which a freediver holds their breath face down in the water for as long as possible and it requires that the respiratory tract, in other words, mouth and nose, are immersed, while the body is either underwater or floating at the surface. The only discipline based on time of breathhold and not distance, it is also the only International Association for Development of Apnea (AIDA International) discipline which measures duration and one of three disciplines considered for the international competitions by team, with constant weight and dynamic with fins.

How do we breathe for static apnea?

Both recreational and top level freediving athletes breathe differently for static than they do when diving for depth. Contrary to what most education systems teach, when breathing for static, it is perfectly normal to over-breathe a little, while hyperventilating can be quite helpful. Just bear in mind that there are different spectrums of hyperventilation and different ways of doing it.

So for example, when performing a dynamic performance in the pool, you are actively using your muscles and these need oxygen. In this case, hyperventilating won’t work to your favour because you need better oxygen distribution to the cells and organs that are being used.

Static apnea is a different story. As its name suggests, during this discipline you are not moving your body and so your muscles are not consuming much oxygen. If you hyperventilate, you can delay your contractions substantially. Contractions burn oxygen and use a lot of energy, making you more stressed and the more stressed you are, the more oxygen your brain is using. You need to find your breathing’s sweet spot and determine how much you need to hyperventilate. 

Insider tip: If you need to cut your static apnea short because of discomfort, then in all likelihood, you need to increase your hyperventilation or increase your warm ups before you enter the water. On the other hand, if you need to stop because of hypoxia, black out or LMC (Loss of Motor Control), this means that your carbon monoxide tolerance is quite high but your oxygen reserves are very low, so you need to either hyperventilate less or you need to perform fewer warm ups. 

Ideally, speak to a coach who is experienced in static and who can guide you accordingly.

What are the different stages of static breath-hold diving?

Static breath-holding can be divided into three separate stages, each distinguished by the level of difficulty:

  1. The easy phase

Without a doubt, this phase is the easiest part of the breath-hold. It’s the most comfortable part where all you need to do is simply relax. Carbon dioxide is slowly building up in your system but it is still tolerable, while you will not have any contractions during this phase.

  1. The intermediate phase

By this phase, there will be a fair amount of carbon dioxide built up and you’ll begin to feel a little less comfortable, while there will be soft contractions where you can feel your breathing reflex.

3. The hard phase

The most challenging phase, your body would have accumulated high amounts of carbon dioxide, while your contractions would be strong. 

What’s the best way to train for static apnea?

Static apnea is a discipline you either love or hate and more often than not, the reason for not liking this deeply relaxing and time warping discipline is because of the way in which freedivers have been taught to train. Jumping right into the hard phase where you’ll experience the most discomfort and contractions will only lead to a negative perception of static. But if you keep in mind the three different breath-holding stages mentioned earlier on and train for each one, static apnea will eventually become easier to master, while you’ll be pleased with your achievement.

When training for static, two main things you need to work on are relaxation and Co2 (carbon dioxide) tolerance. Anxiety and stress can act as major barriers, stopping you from fully enjoying freediving. In addition, whenever you’re not relaxed, your heart rate shoots through the roof and your body burns valuable oxygen, cutting your dives short. Knowing how to relax while freediving is one of the single most important things you could learn and this is particularly true for static apnea. But relaxation is not just a concept, it’s a skill and just like any other skill, you can train it. There are many different relaxation techniques you can adopt, but it’s important to understand that what might work for one person, might not work so well for another. Remember,  this is your journey, so have fun with it. Try your hand at different techniques until you find the one that suits you best.

Here are some relaxation tips to try:

  • Practice mindfulness – This can be done through meditation such as vipassana, one of the most ancient techniques of meditation. To do so, focus your awareness on different parts of your body, starting from the top of the head and moving all the way down, relaxing each and every muscle as you proceed. You can also focus on sounds, sensations on your skin and body. For example, pay attention to what the water feels like on your face, hands and feet, as well as the water temperature.
  • Train for positive visualization – an excellent technique to use as part of your meditation practice in the dry, positive visualization is a way of boosting your hope, relaxation and performance by envisioning yourself doing well in a particular task or outcome. This usually works well for people who already have a strong base of mediation and can keep focus. Over time and through practice, your visualizations should become more automated.
  • Use music to relax – Play a song in your head. This can be any song you enjoy and know well to keep you distracted. You can either recite mentally the melody or the lyrics, just make sure that whatever you do it’s relaxing. It may also be helpful to listen to some relaxing audio before your training, like sounds of crashing waves or any other soft, recurring sounds you find soothing.

Insider tip: meditating can take place before and during static. For example:

  • As soon as you’re face down in the water become more aware of your senses. What do you feel? What can you hear? What can you see?
  • Keep your focus exclusively on your senses and try not to think of anything else. If you get distracted, redirect your thoughts back.

A beginner’s guide to Co2 training 

One way of training for static apnea is to focus on Co2 use and Co2 resistance tables. As you progress with your training and embark on setting your personal best, these tables can help you push your tolerance, while they can condition your body to deal with either high Co2 or low O2 – oxygen. But one of the biggest mistakes that newby freedivers make at the very beginning of their static apnea training is going hard and fast on Co2 tables or long breath-holds. Breath-holding can be taxing on the body, most especially on the nervous system. So the best approach to building your Co2 threshold is to gradually increase your breath-holds over time, starting off by doing many per day and per week with low intensity. Doing so will not only keep you motivated, but it will give your system time to adapt.

A Co2 table is basically a series of dives which afford you less and less time to recover in between breath-holds. As the Co2 in your blood and tissues builds up gradually, this also helps to build your tolerance to Co2. An old school method that could be beneficial to more advanced freedivers, if you’re new to the discipline there are far better ways to boost your Co2 tolerance than using these tables.

Here is an easy step-by-step guide:

The exercise below consists of five, low volume breath-holds with a two minute rest in between. As mentioned above, although hyperventilating during static apnea can be beneficial, with these exercises you should breathe with tidal volume, since by ventilating more, you would be ridding your system of Co2 which goes against the goal of this exercise. Ideally, try to forget about your breathing and focus instead on the relaxation technique of your choice.

  • Lie down in shavasana, close your eyes and focus on your relaxation technique. This should take around two minutes.
  • Once you’re ready, take your final breath, hold and carry on with your relaxation technique.
  • You will begin to feel the Co2 levels in your body rising, so carry on relaxing as much as possible until you feel your first few physical contractions. Take note of the time once you reach this slightly uncomfortable phase.
  • Perform five repetitions of breath-holding for the same duration with a two minute relaxation phase in between each one.
  • By time, you will notice that the contractions decrease and eventually disappear. This means that you’ve managed to push yourself further and out of your comfort zone.
  • Make sure to take a break after two or three days of breath-holding exercising.

Aim to get around two and a half or three minutes of very mild or no contractions at all. There’s no need to rush and remember that this can take time. It’s important to build a healthy and sustainable relationship with your breath-hold training. Eventually and by time, you can adopt more advanced methods of training your Co2 tolerance.

Bonus tips and tricks:

  1. Cardio and stretching are two vital components when it comes to your breath-holding training so you should train for both. The stretching will help with increasing your vital capability, as well as flexibility which in turn can soften your contractions. On the other hand, cardio will help decrease your heart rate when it’s necessary. Having said that, once you start your breath-holding training, all cardio must stop.
  2. Feels like the time spent breath-holding is taking forever? Then you’re probably not relaxed enough. You need to distract yourself and not count the seconds until the exercise is over. Forget about trying to empty your thoughts and focus instead on daydreaming. Remember, this should be your happy place.
  3. With static, it’s all about volume and this is what your body, system, as well as mind needs to adapt. Doing just a couple of warm ups and then maxing out won’t cut it. 
  4. To train your body for hypoxia, you need to breath-hold (dry) on empty lungs and it’s very important you do so without a nose clip. Try and get as hypoxic as possible and do this twice per week.
  5. Try not to make a big deal out of contractions. The minute you start feeling them, direct your mind to them and try to soften them mentally. Although this may sound hard, it is possible and the more you practice, the easier it will become. Just go easy in the beginning and learn to control contractions when these are still comfortable. Contractions are just wasting your energy so if you learn to slow them, you won’t be losing valuable oxygen.
  1. If you feel like you’ve reached your limit, continue repeating these breath-holding exercises for a few more months. Repetitions will help your nervous system catch up with the rest of your body.

What is considered a good time for static apnea?

This will all depend on what you are trying to achieve. Perhaps you are an active freediver wishing to work on your Co2 tolerance or maybe you want to learn to dive while at a deeper state of relaxation and take in the sensations around you. Ultimately, there is no good or bad time. Having said that, if you are an instructor or you’re hoping to become one, then you must learn to hold your breath for around five minutes. This can be easily achieved with the right training.

Is statis apnea dangerous?

Just like any other freediving discipline, it is best to practice with a buddy. The good news is that because of the nature of the pool conditions in which static apnea is trained in, it is completely safe as long as you aren’t constantly pushing yourself to the limits or blacking out.

Having the right mindset is what separates professional freedivers from those who just dabble in it once in a while. Static apnea can help you achieve this mindset. But it’s also a discipline whereby everyone has their own method of training. You need to experiment until you find what works best for you. And through repetition and practice, you’ll be well on your way to experiencing complete relaxation.