Disclaimer: Follow the recommended protocols for simulated altitude training unless a customised protocol is designed for you by a qualified oxygen provider. The practices described in this article can result in injury or death.
Training for freediving, compared to that for most sports, can be notably uncomfortable and at times almost impossible to endure. This being so, I was naturally intrigued by the idea, heard from other freedivers, that I could increase my breathhold ability by sitting at a table, casually breathing through a mask and reading a copy of Sports Illustrated. It all sounded wonderfully easy.
A number of articles (and forum threads) on Deeper Blue have discussed Simulated Altitude Training (SAT) . Here’s my very own experience with this recliner-seat approach to preparing for a competition.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who will admit to trying almost anything allowable to improve breathhold times. You’re not really a freediver until you’ve gone for days without food, sculled citric acid with bicarbonate of soda, taken up yoga classes, deprived yourself of sleep and bought a flash speed suit in the hope of going just a little bit longer or deeper. I once drank a bottle of “oxygenated water” because a friend swore it would provide an immediate boost to the O2 stores in my body. It tasted unbelievably bad and made me nauseous for the best part of a very short static. From there on in I vowed to remember that O2 actually has to be breathed to work.
My first go with SAT came in the buildup to the BIOS event in Cyprus, 2004. I did the same SAT programme that any punter off the street would be given: breathe a low O2 mix at 5-minute intervals over the course of an hour. You wear an HR/O2 saturation meter and target specific O2 blood saturations. I had access to a hypoxicator tent but chose the sit-around-a-table method for the lower price tag and – let’s face it – convenience.
Once in Cyprus I concluded that the SAT work I’d been doing had no beneficial effect on my breathhold ability for any freediving discipline. Not surprisingly, there were no markers in my blood profile to suggest that my haematocrit or RBC count had improved. I was on a standard SAT protocol which, in hindsight, was no more than a slight inconvenience to my body – which was already adapted to the highly hypoxic stress placed on it during regular pool and ocean sessions.
At that point I went pretty cold on the SAT idea for a while until Bill Stromberg visited New Zealand and we tried some altitude training together on a slightly more aggressive protocol which Bill designed on the fly. Our goal was to see who could drop their O2 saturation the most without samba. I,for one, experienced some monumental head-spins. Bill seemed to hold it together nicely.
It seemed that the optimal standard for an ideal hypoxic session is saturations held to around 70% over the standard timing intervals. It’s very similar to the sensation I feel on surfacing from a 6-minute-plus breathhold. The body seems to think it is actually freediving – you need regular toilet stops. After training sessions on this plan I can normally perform 4-minute dry statics with minimal discomfort – and I suck at dry statics. A definite performance gain.
On this occasion I took five days’ rest after the SAT sessions before trying a maximum static breathhold. During the go-for-it static I experienced a couple of contractions at around 4 minutes, but generally felt comfortable through to 6:30. I did a bit of struggle towards the end but surfaced cleanly at 7:30. The best I had done without the SAT was 7:00. This is a very significant difference.
I haddn’t changed anything, to the best of my knowldge, in my warmup or in my training routine during the weeks leading up to the attempt, so I’m pretty confident that given the right protocol. SAT training can have a significant impact on breathhold times. I have, at times, been too aggressive with SAT work. I know when this has happened – during all-out statics I experience pins and needles or cloudiness by 6 minutes, warning me that a samba is close.
If you have some extra time and money then consider giving the SAT stuff a go. The downsides are the cost factor and the lack of portability. It’s possible to get small, light hypoxicator units for travelling but they heat up and are a bit of a hassle to use. Anything’s better than drinking some dodgy oxygenated water for training -unless you’re a Bevan Dewar, and simply hold your breath until your blood saturation reaches 60% then ever so slowly sip in air to hold your saturation constant for 5 minutes at a time.
I think I’ll be staying with the soft approach for a while longer.