Some Whys and Hows of Breath Hold Training for Surfers

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How long would you survive under water?

If you’ve ever been held down by a wave, you probably know that apprehension of being tumbled about underwater, wondering how long you can hold your breath, and whether it will be long enough.

You needn’t have superhuman lung capacity to get through a hold down, even a hold down of the two or three-wave variety. Disorientation and stress make time beneath the surface seem longer than it actually is. However, training to improve your lung capacity, breath hold time and mindset underwater will greatly improve your physical and mental preparedness to survive a wipeout. It’s not so much a matter of going very long periods without air as it is being able to hold your breath under stressful conditions, when your heart rate has just previously been raised.

Proper breathing

Breath Enhancement Training’s Nam Baldwin recommends you start by breathing properly – that is, breathing with your diaphragm. The diaphragm is an important muscle and crucial to efficient and controlled breathing.

Too many of us inhale primarily with our neck and shoulder muscles, resulting in shallow breathing that does not fully oxygenate the lungs. We can recondition ourselves, however. Lie on your back, one hand on your chest, the other on your belly. Take a breath – if you are breathing properly, the hand on your belly should be first to rise. Practice “belly breathing” till it becomes second nature to you.

Longer breath holds

When you’ve got proper breathing down pat, you can work on increasing the amount of time you can hold your breath.

Surfer Today suggests a simple exercise to lengthen your breath holds:

1. Breathe slowly for 60 seconds.
2. Inhale deeply, then exhale everything.
3. Take in a really deep breath, and hold it.
4. Relax.
5. When you’ve reached your limit, inhale deeply and recover.

Repeat several times, practicing regularly over a number of weeks and noting your best hold time. A month of this exercise should significantly improve your breath hold duration.

Carbon dioxide tables

It is not actually lack of oxygen but accumulation of carbon dioxide in our body that urges us to breathe. With this in mind, some recommend the use of CO2 tables to train your ability to hold your breath. The idea is to have a constant breath hold time while decreasing the time you have between holds to release CO2 and breathe. This way, the carbon dioxide levels in your body gradually increase, the same as what happens when you spend time underwater.

A sample CO2 table based on a static breath hold best of three minutes might be as follows:

Rest time: Breath hold time:
2:30 1:30
2:15 1:30
2:00 1:30
1:45 1:30
1:30 1:30
1:15 1:30
1:00 1:30
1:00 1:30

The Inertia’s Morgan Hoesterey suggests the following guidelines for making your own CO2 table:

1. Breath hold time should be equal to or less than your best static breath hold duration.
2. Your resting time should be challenging but achievable.
3. Choose to increase breath hold times rather than decrease rest.
4. Do no more than eight reps per session.
5. Do no more than one table per day.

Oxygen tables

An alternative approach to breath hold training is to accustom your body to handling lower levels of oxygen. Using oxygen tables, the rest time remains the same while the breath hold time gradually increases. With a three-minute personal best static breath hold, you might create a table with a constant two-minute rest period while the breath hold duration gradually increases as follows:


When making your own O2 table, it is suggested that breath holds should never reach more than 80 percent of your best static breath hold time. For greater challenge, you can reduce rest periods. A table should not exceed eight cycles, and you should never do a CO2 and an O2 table on the same day.

Apnea training apps are available to generate CO2 or O2 tables for you.

Breath hold and mindset

The more you panic, the more oxygen you burn and the more carbon dioxide you produce, triggering the urge to breathe. This is why the ability to stay relaxed under pressure is essential to the surfer in a hold down scenario.

Training for longer breath holds and understanding the physiology behind breathing can give you not just the physical capacity to survive, but the confidence that will reduce your stress in such a situation. Knowing you’re prepared will give you the inner calm you need to wait out your immersion while minimizing demands on your oxygen supply.

In terms of the quality of your surfing, breath hold training can work towards allaying fears of an extended hold down. The feeling of greater control over possible circumstances can allow you to approach waves with greater courage, which can translate into improved performance.

Breath hold training is not just for freedivers and big wave chargers. The average surfer stands to gain from it hugely as well. It is a discipline that pays off in physical ability, confidence and greater enjoyment of their chosen sport.

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