Preparing for a Freediving Course
I am often asked by prospective students and beginner freedivers how to prepare for a freediving course. This article is a summary of my recommendations for.motivated students.
Step 1. Read your Freediving Manual
All major freediving certification agencies now have electronic manuals to study from. In our school we email the electronic manuals to prospective students as soon as they have enrolled on their course. The AIDA Freediving Manuals have recently been updated and are a wealth of information on all aspects of freediving. They will give your some good ideas on what to practice. Start here!
Goal: Read a chapter per day leading up to your freediving course.
Step 2. Practice Relaxation Exercises
This is the core component of all freediving courses: teaching students to relax and more importantly. remain relaxed as the urge to breathe increases. As a clinical psychologist I would recommend the Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) method pioneered by American physician Edmund Jacobson in the 1920s. Essentially this method involves starting at one end of the body and tensing muscles in that part of the body (e.g., face, jaw, neck, shoulders) for 5 to 10 seconds, and then relaxing those muscles for 10 to 20 seconds before moving onto the next muscle group down (or up the body). The goal is to learn to be aware of the difference between tension and relaxation in that muscle group. A full PMR can take 20 to 30 minutes. At later stages of practice, a person can simply scan their body for tension and relax the specific muscle group without prior tensing. Of course, by the time a person reaches this level of practice they are more adept and faster at relaxation and achieving the “relaxation response” (a term coined by Herbert Benson that sounds suspiciously like the mammalian dive response in terms of physiological changes). This level of practice is very relevant in freediving preparation or breathe-ups prior to a dive. Unfortunately, because of limitations in time on freediving courses, usually only body scanning and relaxation is encouraged. Relaxation is a skill and it takes time to learn.
The more difficult level of relaxation practice is remaining calm under pressure or in our case remaining calm as we run out of air. This is the point at which the beginner freediver often panics. Again there are all sorts of techniques in psychology that help people to remain calm. Panic causes two major changes in our body. Firstly tension starts to creep in especially around the face, neck and shoulders. Therefore, continue to apply PMR and scan your body for muscle tension and “let go” of this muscle tension. Keep the muscles relaxed to conserve oxygen. Secondly, our mind starts to race with thoughts such as “I have to breathe”. Reassure yourself with coping self-talk such as “That’s ok there is a lot of air still left in the tank”, “be calm”, “I’m in control”, and “keep going”. In other words, use self-talk to dispute the racing thoughts to breathe and to encourage yourself to persevere at the task at hand.
- Go online and download a PMR mp3 file to practice.
- Take a few moments now and write down what you will tell yourself as you run out of air. How will you encourage yourself to keep going?
Step 3. Practice Breathing Exercises
Normal breathing frequency is anywhere from 12 to almost 20 breaths per minute. Your goal is to practice slowing your breathing frequency utilising diaphragmatic breathing only (and not chest breathing) to somewhere from 4.5 to 7 breaths per minute. The exact number has been termed resonance frequency of breathing and is specific for each individual and does not change over your life. Finding this frequency is trial and error without sophisticated biofeedback equipment. For this reason, many biofeedback specialists recommend aiming for the average of 6 breaths per minute. If this breathing frequency seems too easy try breathing at 5.5 breaths per minute and so on. This sounds complicated breathing at these fractions but fortunately technology has come to the answer with apps on our smart phones. Two of the most popular apps in this regard are “Breathe 2 Relax” and “My CalmBeat”. Both can be downloaded free of charge.
Why do we need to practice slowing our breathing? This has always been recommended in freediving but the actual reasons for this practice have never been clear beyond slowing the heart rate. The effects of slow breathing, especially at our resonance frequency, are as follows (see Lehrer, 2014):
- It increases heart rate variability (or the beat to beat interval) which in turn leads to greater activation of the parasympathetic nervous system for what I like to refer to as rest, relaxation and recovery. Parasympathetic activity is part of the relaxation response. The parasympathetic nervous system is also responsible for the reductions in heart rate that also occurs during the mammalian dive response. Maximum heart rate variability occurs when breathing coincides with heart rate such that heart rate increases when we breathe in and decreases when we breathe out. As such breathing and heart rate are in very close synchrony. Heart rate variability training has been found to correlate with many positive health outcomes such as decreased anxiety, decreased depression, reduced asthma, cardiac rehabilitation and increased resilience. It is simply healthy for you to breathe at this breathing frequency by putting the brake on the sympathetic nervous system or what has been termed the” fight or flight” nervous system that is often activated in our daily stressful life.
- Improved gas exchange efficiency occurs during resonance frequency breathing and this has been suggested as a possibly mechanism for improvement in patients with respiratory diseases. Experiments have shown that gas exchange at the alveoli is most efficient with the greatest heart rate variability which in turn occurs at resonance frequency breathing or around 6 breaths per minute. If improved gas exchange occurs during this frequency of breathing then it makes sense as freedivers to aim for this breathing frequency.
Practicing resonance frequency breathing of around 6 breaths per minute does not have to be time consuming. Based on recommendations in the health literature on this topic, I would suggest aiming for 10 minutes per day most days of the week.
- Download one of the apps and practice slow diaphragmatic breathing for 10 minutes daily.
- Also experiment with a breathing frequency from 4.5 to 7 breaths per minute in preparation for your dives. What breathing frequency contributes to your best breath hold times or dive times?
Step 4. Put It All Together and Practice Breath Holds on Your Bed
Now is the time to combine the preceding steps and practice breath holds on your bed or on the floor with a yoga mat. I would do no more than 3 breath holds with a minimum of 2 to a maximum of 5 minutes preparation between each breath hold. The first breath hold can be considered a warm-up but you could aim for maximum breath holds on the other two repetitions. Nevertheless, the main purpose of this practice is on the breathing cycle including:
- Preparation focusing on relaxation, and slow diaphragmatic breathing of around 6 breaths per minute.
- One full breath using both the diaphragm and chest breathing. You might like to experiment with taking varying degrees of “full breath” to see what is comfortable for you.
- Breath hold and experiment with various psychological strategies such as scanning for tension, “letting go of tension”, self-talk for encouragement, or even imagery (e.g., floating). Good relaxation means being relaxed and free of all muscle tension and racing thoughts right up until you must breathe.
- Recovery breaths.
- Set aside up to 30 minutes to practice in the morning or after work – ideally before meals or several hours after a meal. A practice session every second day or three times per week is enough at this level of training.
Step 5. Get a Good Night’s Sleep Prior to your Dive Day
This might sound obvious but nearly every time we have had someone on a course that has gone to bed after midnight (for a 7am boat trip) they end up queasy if not seasick and they have had to shorten their diving by sitting it out on the boat. You are participating in a strenuous athletic activity – get adequate sleep to perform at your best. You might be able to function on little sleep normally but it certainly affects your diving performances especially at sea from a boat. You might also like to seriously consider taking sea sickness tablets as a prophylactic measure.
- Go to bed at 10pm even if you are normally a late night person for an early morning dive trip.
I think these 5 steps will make a big difference for beginner freedivers if they can spend a little time reading their freediving manual, and practicing relaxation, breathing, and dry land breath holds prior to the course and don’t forget to get a good nights sleep before the big day out on the boat diving.