Cross-Training for Freedivers: Part II

After interviewing several top freedivers about their cross training strategies it seems that most, but not all, excelled in other sports before freediving. Martin Stepanek and Yasemin Dalkilic were finswimmers, Annabel Briseno competed in underwater hockey, and Topi Lintukangas was a triathlete.

Bu what do you do if you’re not already an elite athlete?

Luckily, there’s more to freediving than physical fitness. Freedivers need to develop special underwater skills and abilities, mental preparation techniques and self-awareness. "Spend as much time as possible in the water to maximize the adaptations of the body," advises Fred Buyle, former world record holder, "Spending the maximum time freediving is the key ." Nevertheless, even with access to water, all the freedivers interviewed agreed that it helps to do something to prepare your body for freediving.

Some freedivers use a relatively straightforward cross-training regimen. Martin Stepanek and Mandy-Rae Cruickshank are two divers who have planned world record attempts solely on the strength of indoor training. Stepanek says that he uses stairclimber, cycling and finswimming for cardio training. He does this to increase the oxygen-carrying capacity of his blood, carbon dioxide tolerance and buffering capacity. He avoids pool training except for negative pressure dives to maintain chest flexibility for equalizing. Mandy-Rae Cruickshank, the "better half" of the Performance Freediving team, also relies on similar gym training to get ready for ocean diving, along with with CO2 tolerance tables and hypoxic training.

Tom Sietas of Germany, who achieved 7’48"static apnea at the 6th Berlin Masters Cup (AIDA) and an eye-popping 9’14" in training, will challenge the men’s static world record this June. Sietas relies on swimming, cycling and interval training, combined with maximum-effort apnea in static and dynamic, to achieve his results. He says that for him the "low pulse rate from cardio and carbon dioxide tolerance from training [apnea]" are the most important training effects.

The endorsement of aerobic training among top freedivers appears unanimous. Is there any reason not to do cardio? Most would argue that having good cardio fitness is essential for dealing with the stresses freediving imposes on the human body. But some freedivers on Deeperblue have discussed the idea that cardio alone without supplemental training may actually impair your ability to freedive. The theory goes that muscles that have excellent oxygen uptake -from aerobic work- are not suited for long periods of anaerobic use. Instead of having muscles that can operate without oxygen, cardio-only trained muscles gobble it up. To add to that problem, muscles that have not had any anaerobic or lactate threshold training could fail earlier under extreme anaerobic conditions. Alun George suggests increasing tolerance to lactic acid with dry apnea exercises. "[It] will give you the best bang for the buck because it’s so specific." Bevan Dewar, who dives to over 80 metres and can reach 8 minutes in static, also uses apnea walking to train for both static apnea and constant weight.

While a few have experimented with apnea exercise, most use weight training or intervals to address this problem. This kind of training is rigorous, so a word or two of warning is in order: "Don’t concentrate your training on apnea and anaerobic conditioning alone," says Yasemin Dalkilic. "This is important, but it should not be done all year long, but rather it should be preceded by cycles of cardio conditioning and progressive adaptative work before you move into the last part where you do purely anaerobic exercises."

Overtraining is always a risk when looking for gains in anaerobic fitness. "Often I see divers who burn out and get sick or loose performance because of too much apnea all the time," Dalkilic says. "The more we try to find specific training methods for freediving, the more we realize that a balanced training, like in many other sports, is still the best."

Cross-training is not just limited to the body. Exploring your limits can be stressful. World record holder Carlos Coste of Venezuela emphasizes the need for mental training before any record or attempt at a new personal best. "Most importantly, spend time on mental preparation and find a group under the direction of a trainer- it’s easier to find motivation with two or three other people rather than training by yourself -and make a plan and stick to it. "

David Lee offers one last piece of advice for freedivers looking to put everything together. "A lot of people I meet who are actively involved in freediving train mostly with a yogic mentality – entering a calming state, slowing the body’s vitals, visualization. I believe this is good – but your body should be prepared to reach its potential and be ready to deal with the stresses it will encounter. On the day of your event that calmed state of mind may be gone, but thanks to hard training, your body will still perform well because you have trained well."

Freedivers are happy to discuss training techniques, but are less articulate about an overall training philosophy. The freedive trainers of the world do make an attempt to provide an idea of the whole picture.

Given the complexity of designing a cross-training program, the key to an effective one is to analyze it critically before you start. Rudi Castineyra, FREE president and trainer of several world record holders, puts great faith in meticulous gym and pool preparation for his athletes, especially for those who have little access to ocean training, like David Lee.

"Training [in a pool and in the gym] and showing up to a dive site to attempt a record when you haven’t seen the ocean for close to a year is a great leap of faith," says Lee, a three-time world record holder.

Castineyra sums up his training approach: "I try to keep a balance between anaerobic/apnea adaptation, muscle conditioning and breathing efficiency – all of which we accomplish with different methods," says Castineyra. "Cardio is indeed a main component of any training, including freediving training, and unfortunately many divers don’t understand this. An efficient heart-lung-circulatory system mechanism is essential and can only be accomplished through cardio."

When asked about the importance of muscle conditioning and anaerobic work, Castineyra replied that muscle conditioning is "very" important because freediving requires muscles capable of anaerobic function and high-energy output. But he also cautions that "keeping anaerobic training under control is also very important because the body needs time to eliminate excess C02 and lactic acid from the body, so rest period from anaerobic exercise is essential."

Castineyra does not advocate or use inhale or exhale apnea combined with exercise, or hypoxia/carbon dioxide tolerance tables. He believes that the possible advantages of these exercises do not outweigh the disadvantages, even though they may work for other people. As he sees it, a person can become a confident and able freediver with the well-honed tools of conventional fitness training at his or her disposal, as long as they are specific to freediving.

"As for all-around success, I recommend keeping a high level of fitness throughout the year so that when time comes to prepare for records or competitions, the training will be much easier and shorter. And personally what I consider a key to success is to have your technique polished 500% before you start your deep dive training, as this is not the time to experiment with new elements or styles. Having a set technique, being comfortable with it and confident about it and knowing it inside out is the biggest advantage a diver can have, and this can be accomplished during the off-season, on shallow dives, in the pool, and even at the gym."

Kirk Krack, Performance Freediving coach and President of the Canadian Association of Freediving and Apnea, shares a similar approach. He advocates year-round fitness that’s enjoyable and that doesn’t feel like "training."

"In Vancouver we do the "Grouse Grind," a mountain hike up a trail that climbs 3500 feet of elevation at a 45 degree angle, biking, and long dog walking. It’s important to not let a season of focused training slip away without a fight, but it’s also important to give the mind and body a rest."

When it comes to world records and helping freedivers achieve personal bests, Krack believes in setting achievable goals to help an athlete feel as though they are always succeeding, whether on dry land or in the water. He compares freediving to middle distance running – an activity that requires both excellent aerobic and anaerobic fitness. His athletes do use CO2 tables to build carbon dioxide tolerance. "These exercises are obviously an integral part of any training regimen," says Krack. "We utilize them at different intensities and different intervals, but also with variations that can be specific to the discipline and the athlete. Targeted apnea exercises are important and at a beginner level such things as apnea walking can help, but as the athlete progresses, more focused training is required."

Maria-Theresa and Aharon Solomons, trainers who live and give courses in Baja, Mexico, believe that most freedivers ignore the need for time to adjust to the specific and intense physiological and psychological demands that freediving requires at a high level. Too many divers rely on a "crash and burn" style of last-minute training or ignore psychological preparations in favour of physical training. A needlessly stressful training strategy can have a lifelong negative impact on a person’s relationship with freediving.

"Basically, our philosophy is to develop the longer-lasting freediver and not a mentally broken one," says Aharon Solomons. "Allowing sufficient time for physiological adaptation with regularity and persistence at a lower than maximum threshold is the key to all-round and continued success without peaks and troughs. I thoroughly endorse the French dictum that a diver is not allowed to attempt a new depth until he can come up with a smile at the end of a dive."

The Solomons are as detailed as Rudi Castineyra when it comes to describing cross-training strategies, but with at least one obvious difference. Whereas Castineyra does not use dry apnea training, the Solomons use it as a cornerstone of their physical training approach.

"Long ago we were very convinced," writes Aharon, "probably more than any other kind of non-water based training, of the effectiveness of dry apnea exercise–especially variations of the dry walk depending on which freedive discipline is being attempted. However, this is only most useful once the base training (aerobic and later anaerobic/lactate) is in place and of high enough standard."

Aharon recalls that eighty-five percent of the training used by Audrey and Pipin Ferreras for their No-Limits attempts was composed of dry apnea exercise. The Solomons have applied this approach to other disciplines such as free immersion and constant weight. In Bevan Dewar’s case, for example, they prescribed a refined "apnea walk" and used a heart rate monitor to ensure proper intensity and specificity. By all appearances, this strategy has worked well.

The Solomons bring up the question addressed in part one of this article. Does conventional aerobic and anaerobic training really address the specificity of a breath-hold dive? With dry apnea exercise, he says, it is possible to simulate a least some elements unique to freediving. "The heart beat in a breath-hold [exercise] descends at points of increased stress, unlike in an anaerobic exercise. Also the dilation of the central cerebral artery due to elevated CO2 levels does not correspond to typical anaerobic exercise."

It would be wrong to characterize the Solomons’ training strategy as a "silver bullet" approach because they favour apnea exercise. They highlight the many opportunities for effective dry land training in crucial areas that round out their cross-training program, including the importance of flexibility, strength, technique, breath control and ventilation techniques, and learning how to manipulate muscles for equalizing. Above all, there is added emphasis that a person needs time and the mental will and motivation to achieve above-average results in freediving.

"A champion is a hungry boxer," says Aharon, recalling an axiom from his boxing days. "You can give anyone the physical and the mental techniques," he says, "but if [a student] does not want to succeed enough for whatever reason he never will. Some students come to me with this hunger, some develop it on the way and some discover that they really don’t want it enough and [decide] freediving is not about competition or depth or records, maybe just time and pleasure. I respect that only too much. Very often the less talented but more motivated hard-working student will surpass the more talented dilettante."

The Solomons embrace a holistic approach that recognizes that "the perfect training technique does not always results in a competition winner." With that in mind, they try as trainers to improve the likelihood that a cross-training strategy will improve a freediver’s chances of succeeding.

Clearly, if you want to choose an effective cross-training strategy it does require some serious thought. The top trainers agree that excellent fitness, specificity, a detailed plan and regular analysis of your progress is absolutely necessary and offer the following advice: Keep a training journal to track your progress and identify what works and what doesn’t. Train with a buddy or with a trainer who understands the demands of freediving on the human body. Give yourself ample time to rest. Enjoy the process. And in the words of Martin Stepanek, "Don’t overtrain."

There may be difficult challenges in your cross-training, like getting over four minutes for the first time, or developing a tolerance for carbon dioxide, but training can be an enjoyable experience long before the champagne starts flowing. And for those of you who can see beyond the horizon of competition results and personal bests, sticking to a well-developed training program–no matter what level you are at now or want to reach–is a great way to enjoy a lifetime of freediving.

For more information:

Deeperblue.net forums

Rudi Castineyra www.learnfreediving.com

Kirk Krack www.performancefreediving.com

MT and Aharon Solomons www.freedivers.net

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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