Fit for Diving: Part 1 – Stretching

Fit for Diving Series : Part 1 (Stretching) | Part 2 (Strength) | Part 3 (Condition)

If you do an online search for ‘stretching’ and ‘scuba’ you’ll get as many links for how to lengthen your neck seal and cuffs as for your muscles. For ‘freediving’ this is slightly improved in that the stretching refers to the body, rather than equipment, but often only the lungs and diaphragm.

For most divers the concept of warming up refers to donning a woolly undersuit or pouring hot water into their suit. Stretching is reserved for people in leggings at the gym, right? It’s not surprising if that’s your view as there are as many myths around stretching as there are truths.

So why bother? Stretching muscles helps to relax them, releases toxins like lactic acid which builds up during exercise, and improves tone for better posture. If done frequently it will help to avoid cramps whilst diving and ease tension out of the body after lifting heavy equipment or a tough swim. It’s best done after exercise and involves holding each stretch for 15 to 30 seconds. Don’t hold your stretches before a dive, because this actually reduces the power in your muscles. You might feel really relaxed but you won’t get as much power through your fin kick.

The only exception for this rule is for freedivers doing static breath-holds, where they lie face down in the water. The bonus of having all major muscles in resting state is great, as less oxygen will be needed to keep muscle tone.

What you can do before a dive is mobilise. It’s the action of moving your main joints through their normal range of motion that helps to improve flexibility, not holding stretches endlessly. And the best way to do this is through movement, which is why it’s called a warm-up! The best advice is that your warm-up should mimic the activity you’re about to do, so for running it’s a light jog. For diving it’s a bit more complicated as you’ll need to do this on dry land.

My warm-up routine involves circles – let’s call them bubbles as we’re all divers here. Starting at the top of the body I move my head & neck, shoulders, elbows and wrists in slow circles, in both directions. Then move to the waist and base of the spine, hip joints, knees and ankles using the same motion. This takes about 5 minutes, helps to focus the mind on the task ahead and if done in time with a steady breath can be really relaxing. I normally add five to ten squats to warm-up my thighs, calves and ankles for finning and I’m good to go. If you practice yoga and have access to a mat then a few rounds of slow sun salutations are a good warm-up.

To get the most out of your diving body you need to keep the joints moving daily, as the saying goes “if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it”. Try it every day for a month and the habit will soon kick in, so that on the morning of a dive it will seem second nature. It’s usually during a warm-up that I realise I’ve forgotten some important piece of dive kit, so it’s worth taking the extra few minutes to prepare!

Freedivers will also want to warm-up their breathing apparatus before diving. This could include some chest-opening stretches involving the arms and shoulders to relax the muscles in and around the rib cage. Deep breathing techniques such as ‘breath of fire’, ‘victorious’ (ujjayi) or ‘shining skull (kapalabhati) techniques will flush stale air out of the lungs, and help further release tension in and around the lungs. The main caveat with these exercises is not to do them straight before a dive as they are all forms of hyperventilation, so could lead to a blackout.

Many freedivers will also use diaphragm stretching, hence the high return rate on a Google search! This is an excellent way to prepare the body for diving to depth, but take care not to practice this too aggressively as back injuries are common. As with mobility, it’s a technique that needs to be practiced little and often for long-term diaphragm flexibility, so benefits are unlikely to happen overnight.

Once the dive kit is off and packed up, don’t rush off to the pub without some cool-down. Start at the feet and stretch the ankles by pointing and flexing the toes. Stretch out the calf muscles and quads using a few lunges. The lower back is likely to be tense from your swimming posture so a long-held backbend can be very pleasing after a day of diving. The upper back, chest and shoulders can feel tight from carrying heavy gear so stretch the arms out in front of the chest, above the head and behind the back. Finish off with gentle neck stretches to the sides, front and back. Wait several hours before you exercise any more strenuously than this, as it can increase the risk of decompression sickness.

Key things to remember are;

  • Warm-up by moving before your dive
  • Cool-down by stretching after your dive
  • Do both and you’re likely to have fewer injuries, feel more relaxed and get more power out of your muscles when you need it
  • Stretch to the point of discomfort only – aggressive stretching reduces flexibility. Remember that the lungs have no pain receptors, so go easy.
  • Do it daily!

In Part II we’ll look at building strength in the muscles for diving, particularly around the core. And in Part III look at cardio-vascular fitness.

Fit for Diving Series : Part 1 (Stretching) | Part 2 (Strength) | Part 3 (Condition)