Breath-hold training isn’t just for big-wave surfers

Almost every surfer has been there. On the paddle out or in a wipeout, at least one wave has pushed each of us deep underwater and held us down too long, so long that a little panic crept in: “I need to breathe. I have to breathe.” And if the hold-down continued, “Am I going to drown?!”

That time underwater can feel like an eternity, but in fact, most hold-downs last only five seconds. In large surf, that may stretch to 12 seconds. Even a big-wave surfer subjected to a two-wave hold-down will be underwater only for about half a minute. Objectively, it’s not that long, although it can feel like forever when you’re in it.

Big-wave surfers train to hold their breath for long hold-downs at breaks like Mavericks. Photo: Cynthia Replogle

Smart surfers who charge the liquid mountains of Mavericks and Jaws train seriously to learn how to survive those times when it seems like the ocean is trying to drown them. But can such training also be useful for an average surfer?

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Tracey Thompson, who rides waves near San Francisco, believes that it can. Several years ago, she took a breath-holding class offered by Hanli Prinsloo, a champion freediver from South Africa.

Thompson says the training enabled her to feel comfortable paddling out again after a winter season riddled with rough hold-downs, and it helps her to stay mostly calm in challenging surf. “Now when I’m in a tricky situation, I try to think, ‘OK, what can I do to best help my body help me get through this?'”

Surfers train under supervision in a pool in San Diego. Photo: Courtesy of Steve Slocum

Other trainees agree. “Before taking Hanli’s class, I would find myself panicking on a three-second leash drag, scratching for the surface and truly believing I was dying for lack of oxygen,” says Steve Slocum, a San Diego surfer. “After absorbing the human physiology and breath-holding techniques that Hanli taught us, I was able to hold my breath for three and a half minutes on the first try during class and have never again been pushed to the point of panic in any of the moderate conditions I normally surf.”

Slocum is convinced the training is invaluable. It “completely eliminated an unnecessary element of fear, allowing me to get to new levels in my surfing.”

While Prinsloo offers sport-specific breath-hold training called “Surprise Apnea for Surfers,” training is more widely available through spearfishing and freediving clubs. There’s even a course finder on the website of Freediving Instructors International. Although unlike surfers, participants in those pursuits have time to “breathe up” before deliberately going underwater, many of the same broad principles apply.

During breath-hold training, you’ll learn about the importance of the mind and the physiological reactions of the body. When your body is screaming that you have to breathe, it’s warning you prematurely.

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The urge to take a breath is a response to a buildup of carbon dioxide, not a lack of oxygen. Even when your diaphragm starts bucking, trying to force your lungs to inhale, you’re not yet out of that critical component of air. And having your face in the water activates the mammalian diving reflex — something we share with seals. Your heart rate slows, and then blood flow is redirected from extremities to the core.

If you continue to hold your breath, your spleen will release oxygenated red blood cells. Ultimately, you’ll black out, and you must breathe within a few minutes or suffer brain damage. But all that happens after a lot more time than the hold-downs we average surfers experience even on bigger days.

The mammalian diving reflex helps seals and people conserve oxygen underwater. Photo: Courtesy of Doi

Breath-hold training also teaches that the mind plays a major role. Thinking uses oxygen; panic and struggling burn it fast. The key is to keep calm and relax.

In a class, you’ll learn how to quiet your mind, breathe deeply to fully oxygenate your body and hold your breath longer than you ever thought possible. For beginners, that can be two to three minutes in the air and three to four minutes face down in the still water of a pool.

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That’s a whole lot longer than a typical five-second hold-down, which is something to think about the next time an overhead wave breaks on top of you.