Cross-Training for Freedivers: Part I

Hockey players now hop, jump and skip to improve their jump on the rush.

To keep a straight face they call it "plyometrics". Football linebackers attend Aikido classes to learn how not to get run over by the offence. Windsurfers now surf, skateboard, snowboard and kiteboard – anything to gain an edge and to have more fun. Cross training is a now a permanent fixture in mainstream sport. If you’re not doing it, you’ll get left behind.

Are the world’s best freedivers getting creative with cross training, too? Should you? There are lots of exotic choices to tantalize a freediver. There’s Ashtanga Yoga, Pranayama, Qigong, Pilates, apnea exercising, isometrics, and exhale apneas, to name but a few. For those of you who like gadgets, you can salivate over a Powerlung, an IHT machine, or even a high altitude tent that lets you count sheep at Mt. Everest base camp.

Freedivers are a long way from reaching a consensus on the best way to train. Part of the problem is that most of them don’t monitor their training strategies with regular scientific tests. Most just can’t afford it. Instead, they wait to see if they get any better.

One could very well argue that we haven’t devised the right tests to evaluate what goes on in a freediver’s body during a constant weight dive or static apnea.

Sport physiologists are fairly confident that they have an idea of what the body goes through during, say, the 100-metre dash. A typical analysis includes things like the different metabolic and chemical energy pathways at use in various stages of the race, cardiovascular function, blood buffers, cellular interactions, vital organ function, breathing, and body mechanics. Does that depth of analysis exist in freediving? Aside from proving the blood shift and bradycardia ten times over, we’re far from understanding what goes on inside a freediver’s body on a 100-metre dive.

So how are we supposed to cross train effectively for freediving, whether our goal is ease and safety for recreational dives or increasing our ability to pull off personal bests or world records? We can rely on what has worked in other sports and try to make informed guesses about how it will work for us, or we can go on the experiences of successful freedivers, using the "what worked for Martin and Mandy should work for me " approach.

Or, we can be creative, recognize our limited understanding, and try to match the unique act of diving beneath the ocean with specific cross training techniques derived from thought experiments and diving experience.

Eric Fattah once said that just because someone sets a world record using a certain technique, equipment or training regimen, that doesn’t make it the best way. You shouldn’t blindly follow what the best in the world are doing without first questioning it in detail. Fattah is the first to admit that he was doing something wrong when he set his world record, as evidenced by the problems he had with keeping his legs working in the massive blood shift he would experience below 70 metres.

If you were to emulate what the best freedivers in the world do, you would be immediately faced with contradictory approaches to training, for example:

Martin Stepanek uses cardio, some weight training and C02 tables.

Sebastien Murat does no cardio, no weights, and no CO2 tables.

Both freedivers have gone very, very deep.

The contradictions are somewhat more subtle in the static apnea discipline. For example, I asked Karl Pernett of Colombia for his training advice to freedivers and this is what he said: "I recommend them to call Martin Stepanek! Seriously, though, I recommend cardio training and weight lifting. I haven’t used either yet, but I think they work." So while Pernett admires Stepanek and believes that cardio and weight training are invaluable for good apnea, he has reached the eight-minute mark more than a few times by using CO2 tables, apnea exercises, and exhale statics.

Building tolerance for carbon dioxide seems to be the main reason that freedivers are trying all sorts of active apnea exercises. South African diver Bevan Dewar reported doing only apnea walking for a month in order to train for constant weight. A month later his static apnea jumped a full extra minute in length and then some. And all the while he was trying to improve his constant weight dives.

Long apneas involve time spent in hypoxia, so naturally people have tried to find ways to simulate that state without the long wait. Do exhale statics and exhale apnea exercises improve our resistance to hypoxia? Can our body experience a training effect from repeated hypoxic exercises? Or are we just giving ourselves needless headaches?

Some freedivers could be accused of looking for a "silver bullet" training technique, one special exercise that will give them the static apnea of Tom Sietas and the consistent constant weight dives of Herbert Nitsch, all rolled into one. From one perspective, namely that of the conventional trainer, we risk overtraining or missing out on the benefits of aerobic, anaerobic and resistance training.

Lacking tools to measure our improvements objectively might result in getting better only at performing these special exercises themselves. Two years ago I added exhale apnea stairmaster to my workout. Despite the strange looks from my gym-mates, I noticed improvements in apnea stairmaster, but by the end of the training period I felt that the exercise didn’t really do much for my static, dynamic or constant weight performances. Recently, however, apnea cycling (to simulate a constant weight dives) has been an extremely useful training tool for me. The specificity-of-training principle ( practice and train your muscles and body to do what you do in an actual performance) can help you or work against you. It all depends on what kind of exercises you choose.

Sebastien Murat tries to avoid everything but the most specific of training exercises. He models his freediving after seals, who exhale and sink, and rely on high hematocrit and myoglobin levels to supply oxygen during a dive.

"I adhere to the Maximum Intensity Specific Training approach," says Murat, "My training is strictly wet static to physiological break-point coupled with dynamic to muscular failure, in both pool and ocean."

That’s it. No cardio, weight training, dry apnea, CO2 tables, or even apnea exercise, except for what he does in the water. Nothing that might confuse his body from adapting to his diving style.

For those of us who don’t plan of using this method anytime soon, Murat says that in order to improve inhale apnea diving or static, it is best to do inhale apnea training -stay specific.

Until we devise ways of properly testing some of these training techniques, it is likely that they will be slow to gain acceptance among trainers and freedivers who use a more conventional approach. More esoteric exercises such as Yoga and Qigong have an even longer way to go, even when celebrated by such athletes like Stig Severinsen and Eric Fattah.

While the verdict is out on alternative cross-training exercises, you can bet that more threads will appear on Deeperblue’s forums, and freedivers will keep on trying them out, because after all, you’re guaranteed to attract stares in the gym and, who knows, you might have discovered a cross training secret of your very own that will make you the next freediving star, or at least make your dives more enjoyable.

In Part II of this article, some of the best freedivers in the world discuss their approaches to cross training in their own words. You’ll hear from Rudi Castineyra, Carlos Coste, David Lee, Martin Stepanek, Bevan Dewar, Annabel Briseno, Eric Fattah, Yasemin Dalkilic, MT and Aharon Solomons, Fred Buyle, Mandy-Rae Cruickshank, Alun George and Tom Sietas.

Peter Scott freedives in British Columbia, Canada. After competing in the World Championships for Canada in 2001, he has continued his exploration of the ocean through writing, art, photography, freediving, swimming, surfing, windsurfing, and travel. Visit his website at www.holdyourbreath.ca.

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