WEB EXCLUSIVE: Learning to freedive
Freedivers. Most of us have seen them, whether they be suited-up professionals on training dives or young snorkelers duck-diving to wave hello while you complete a safety stop. While many might not strictly categorise the later group as freedivers, to all intents and purposes that is exactly what they are. In fact, while they’re obviously not adopting depth-extending breath-hold techniques, it is perhaps these folk that best demonstrate the accessibility of freediving as a sport.
In early May this year I spent a day with Freedive UK, a Cornwall-based outfit run by the affable Ian Donald, a freediving veteran of over ten years. I’d been looking to try my hand at freediving for a while, curious about the benefits the sport could offer me as a scuba diver. While I am still some way off my esteemed editor Mark Evans’ air consumption capabilities (I’m convinced he has gills), my air consumption is good, but could freediving improve it further?
The day was based around the Aida 1-star course, the first rung on the freediving tuition ladder. While I had expected some theory of sorts, the pre-diving classroom session went way beyond the ‘just relax and hold you breath’ talk I had half-expected. Ian covered everything from the biology of breathing - that the ‘desperation’ to breathe when holding your breath is not a need for O2 but a desire to expel CO2 - to the physiological explanation of what exactly happens to our bodies when we freedive. It was captivating stuff. For example, hold your breath for more than two minutes and most of us still have over 90% of the initial oxygen content left.
Getting your breathing right is essential
As well as the plentiful oxygen supply knocking about your system, Ian also talked us through the physical reactions we would encounter when underwater: pins and needles in the extremities, numbness and the regular contraction of the diaphragm as it tried to force that nasty CO2 out the system. All this information - but particularly the prolonged retaining of oxygen - would all come in handy later in the day when dreaming of a good ol’ lung full. All that was left now was to learn how to hold our breath properly…
It won’t come as much of a surprise that the more oxygen you take down with you, the better. Essentially, you have to take the biggest breath possible. Surprisingly, there’s real protocol to how this breath is taken. First off, several minutes are spent relaxing, finding that inner Zen. During this time, you belly breathe - rather than the usual shallow breathing used on a day-to-day basis, you take air right down to the pit of your lungs. You can actually watch your lower belly inflate and deflate. This exercise calms you down, slows the heart rate and prepares you for the dive ahead. It’s hugely important. Then comes the breath. Prior to the inhalation, you rid your lungs of all the air, literally spitting out the last bit. You then refill them from the bottom up - belly to chest - before finally loading up the throat and, seemingly impossibly, the mouth. It really feels like you are about to burst. Now you’re ready to dive.
We went through this process several times in the classroom. Once we all felt relatively comfortable we headed to the pool for some time trials. These were done statically, so we could get used to holding our breath underwater without worrying about other factors such as duck-diving, finning or simply dealing with the cold. I personally clocked a tepid 1 minute 55 seconds, with two of the other four divers reaching the low two-minute mark. Incredibly, one of my course counterparts, Andrew, a total novice like myself, clocked a breathtaking 3 minutes and 7 seconds. Star pupil.
Ian offers Andrew some tips
Having done the static breath-hold a few times, Ian dished out some fins. For those who haven’t used freediving fins before… wow! You can generate some serious speed in those things. Great fun. We were set the task of completing four lengths of the 25-metre pool on a single breath. In our buddy teams we also practiced rescue drills, simulating diver blackouts.
During the afternoon we headed to the coast. You’re spoiled for choice in Cornwall, and the Newquay headland means that there is almost always somewhere to get in regardless of the weather. It felt strange getting in the water without a cylinder on my back. But with those freediving fins on we motored round the headland and into a favourite enclave of Ian’s. The spot was sheltered from the moderate chop out to sea and offered a decent 5-6m of clear water above a shingle seabead - a perfect spot for duck-diving. Ian demonstrated a couple of times before pairing us up and tasking us with copying. I was in my element. While I can’t hold my breath all that long - which is an issue, granted - when it came to duck-diving… well, what can I say? Just call me Mallard. Conversely, breath-hold king Andrew flapped about on the surface like a newborn chickling. Morph us together and we’d have a half-decent freediver on our hands.
There's always a calm spot in Cornwall...
From a scuba diving perspective I think the course offered a number of benefits. Confidence in how long you can last on a single breath is probably the big one. Should I encounter a problem underwater - a popped o-ring for instance - I’ll hopefully now have greater belief that the air contained in my lungs will get me to my buddy ok, and bolting for the surface if I don’t find help in two seconds flat will hopefully be less likely. I think the slowed breathing rate is also useful. While taking bellyfuls wouldn’t do your air consumption much good, steady and relaxed breathing will. It’s something all scuba divers already know, but you really realise just how slowly you can breathe.
The day was as enjoyable as it was educational, and Ian made for a thoroughly engaging and approachable teacher. I don’t think freediving is something I will personally get hooked on, but I’d certainly like to develop some of the skills further. Being able to hold my breath for a few minutes and pootle about a reef would be great and is something I shall aim for. Next time I’m down in the south west, a bit of practice could be on the cards. I’ll be giving Freedive UK a tinkle for sure…
Interested in learning to Freedive? Check out Freedive UK’s website here.
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