A Beginners Guide To Freediving

By David Fialkoff •  Updated: 09/10/20 •  11 min read

Planet Earth, when viewed from space, is like a blue marble with vast oceans that dominate the globe, dwarfing the land masses on which we live. These oceans have a profound effect on us by helping to regulate weather patterns and climate, and our very existence relies upon the water cycle. The sport of freediving brings humans and water closer together than ever before!

The close link between humans and the water is undeniable, and many people feel the pull of the ocean in some way. We fulfill this through pastimes such as freediving, sailing, swimming, scuba diving, or simply spending time by the coast to appreciate its beauty. Even when we can’t get to an ocean or a lake, a pool will do, as we enjoy that relationship with water.

There are those, however, who yearn for a deeper connection – quite literally. And these people are known as freedivers.

What Is Freediving?

Put simply, this is when someone dives beneath the water and stays there for as long as they can, using only one breath, sometimes going as far down as they can, without any special equipment. No scuba gear, no oxygen tank. There are a few variations, but this is essentially it. For this reason, it is labeled as an ‘extreme sport’, though this is something that many freedivers themselves would dispute.

Some of the appeal lies in its simplicity, with connections to our distant ancestors; diving would have been second nature to some coast-dwelling communities, for food and other resources. Obviously, they would have had no special equipment to help them. It was just a man or woman against the ocean, surviving in an alien environment. And that is precisely what the sport of freediving entails these days, with participants pushing the boundaries ever further. The current freediving record for depth is 214 meters. The record for the longest breath-hold is 9 minutes for women and 11 minutes for men. These astonishing figures have left doctors and scientists scratching their heads collectively; the human body shouldn’t be able to cope with the pressure at 30 meters. So how do freedivers manage these amazing feats? The answer, it seems, all comes down to your state of mind.

 

Preparation

The key to freediving lies in the preparation beforehand. Many divers use breathing exercises borrowed from disciplines like yoga, that help to relax the body and slow the heart rate. Some use visualization to achieve this state, going through the stages of the dive in their mind before entering the water, and even whilst diving Mantras may help here, or perhaps a song or tune to help you focus. Relaxation is essential, as tense muscles use way too much oxygen – and you’re going to need all you can get! Likewise, your heart rate has to be slowed down. The faster your heart is, the quicker that precious oxygen will be used up.

So, by controlling the mind, you control the body to prepare yourself for entering this amazing, beautiful, and alien environment. For seasoned freedivers, this control has become automatic, as they induce a trance-like state. It may take time, but it is vitally important to train your mind properly to prepare you for the dive. Your safety, and your life, may depend on it.

 

How To Hold Your Breath

As a beginner, you should not expect to leap into the deep blue waters and stay down for ten minutes or more. Be realistic and take it slowly. It could take years to build yourself up to anywhere near the record. It is a good idea to do some research, but use common sense and don’t trust everything you read on the internet! There is some seriously bad – and dangerous – advice floating about. There is no secret formula to magically increasing your breath-hold limit, in spite of what ‘the internet’ might say. Look up sites run by qualified freediving teachers. Better still, sign up to a course to guide you safely through the training. In the meantime, or if this isn’t an option just yet, you can still take some steps towards getting yourself ready.

Before heading for the water, try some ‘Dry Training’ breath-hold exercises sitting in a comfortable chair or even laying on your bed:

Using these simple steps it is possible – but not guaranteed – that you could increase your breath-hold capability by two or three minutes within a month. Success or failure will depend on several factors, including your overall fitness.

In addition to the above steps, most freedivers practice slow breathing to bring the heart rate down. With this exercise, the trick is to make sure that you breathe out for longer than you breathe in. For example, the in-breath could be 5 seconds and the out-breath 10 or even 15 seconds. This isn’t just good for slowing the heart, but it also avoids the danger of hyperventilating (further details on this to follow).

This Dry Training technique, while being safer than Wet Training (under the water, obviously) is actually more difficult. This is because of the mammalian dive reflex that is activated when we immerse our faces in the water, triggering certain responses within the body that prepares it for survival by shutting down various processes to conserve energy. However, it is always a good idea to have a ‘buddy’ with you whether you are training in or out of the water. The good news is that when you do eventually go beneath the water you will probably find that you are able to hold your breath for longer. For the sake of clarity, breath-hold techniques are also referred to as apnea or apnoea training, which simply means the ‘temporary cessation of breathing’.

To end this section, here are a couple of tips –


Pay attention to your ears!

One of the main challenges of staying beneath the water is pressure. For every 10 meters you descend, the pressure increases by one atmosphere. This not only puts extra strain on the body but it also shrinks any spaces within the body that contain air. It also changes the way certain gasses behave, especially within the bloodstream. And this has an impact on the whole body – including the central nervous system.

Because of the drastic change in pressure, divers of all types often have problems with their ears. This is all down to the eustachian tubes that connect the middle ear to the back of the throat. These are ‘dead-air’ spaces that can start to hurt, especially in the first part of the dive. When this happens, you should never ignore it. The problem is caused by the difference in pressure between the outside environment and the middle ear. This can lead to several health issues, some of which can lead to damage or loss of hearing. Some can even be life-threatening as the symptoms are fairly immediate and include vertigo, nausea, and/or vomiting – potentially fatal in an underwater situation.

However, there are a few ways of equalizing the pressure which will help to avoid this problem:

There are several other variations of the Valsalva Maneuver, so it’s best to find one that works for you. The main thing is not to wait until you feel pain or discomfort but to keep ahead by equalizing regularly. When you hear the ‘pop’, your eustachian tubes are open. Never be tempted to blow too hard as this itself can cause damage.

 

How Do I Get Started?

While freediving doesn’t require breathing equipment, it is a good idea to invest in some basic stuff to keep you safe and comfortable. Though some purists may prefer to keep things as simple as possible, to heighten that primitive connection and the thrill of the dive without any ‘clutter’, you might want to purchase a few items as a beginner to start you off. Scuba fins or short fins are good for starting out. And there’s no need to spend a lot on your first basic equipment. One of the best things to buy would be a low volume mask; these are more flexible and easier to equalize than the larger scuba masks.

As you progress, you could consider a rubber weight belt, a two-piece wet suit, long-blade fins, and even a dive computer. The latter isn’t absolutely necessary unless you are starting to incorporate freefall into your dive sessions and going further down, but it is a good way to monitor your dive time and ascent rate.

They can be pretty expensive, which is the main reason they are not used (or bought much later) but there is no reason why couldn’t use a secondhand one – as long as it is good working order. Some freedive centers even rent them, which can save you the expense. However, as you get into the sport and want to take it further, then you might find it better to invest in your own.

Before starting your journey, check out freediving courses online and try to locate your nearest center. Obviously, some will be luckier than others in this regard, but don’t give up!

 

Final Notes

Freediving offers an amazing experience, an escape from our own world into one of peace and tranquility, where you must be in control at all times. It is thoroughly relaxing, and, if you are lucky enough to dive in the clear blue ocean, it brings you into contact with all kinds of beautiful creatures.

However, there are two key issues; preparation and safety.

Nothing is more important than remembering these two factors. It isn’t about physical strength, but you must be fit. It is more about mental strength and discipline. Speak with veteran divers and qualified instructors to get more tips and advice. Prepare yourself mentally before each dive, and never dive alone.

And once you are ready, there’s a whole new world out there to explore.

David Fialkoff

David Fialkoff is the founder of Spearfishing.Live, a site that's dedicated to the sport of spearfishing. He is a full-time digital marketer and loves to spend time chasing fish underwater on the weekends.