As freedivers, we depend entirely on our lungs and their efficiency for our sport. Yet numerous freedivers, some of them elite, smoke cigarettes. Even Enzo Maiorca, a multiple world record holder back in the day, was a smoker, although he would stop smoking one month before competitions. I myself am a smoker with sporadic periods of quitting (currently attempting to quit permanently, I swear). So let us have a look at how smoking can impact a freediver’s breath-hold capabilities.

Negative Impacts

Burnt Cilia In Our Lungs

Microscope image of cilia located in the lung trachea epithelium.

The cilia in our lungs, which are microscopic, hair-like structures, cover most of our airways. They create a sticky mucus, which traps dust and airborne particles and prevents them from settling in our airways. They also move in a wave-like motion in order to move mucus out of the lungs. Tobacco smoke and heat are toxic to cilia, damaging them and preventing them from effectively moving the mucus. With damaged cilia, airborne particles remain in the airways and can cause an increased risk of respiratory infections (and cancer, of course).

Excess Mucus

Without fully functional cilia, more mucus is accumulated in the bronchioles, which is what causes “smoker’s cough.” This can affect a freediver’s equalization as well, much like sleeping in air-conditioning or having a cold.

Reduced Lung Flexibility

Smoking depletes an enzyme called elastin, which enables lung flexibility. Freedivers rely on flexible lungs, not only to inflate and contain as much air as possible but to protect us from lung squeezes as well. Less flexible lungs can lead to being more prone to lung squeeze.

Narrowed Blood Vessels

Nicotine causes our blood vessels to constrict, limiting the amount of blood flow to the organs. If this constant constriction continues, the blood vessels become less elastic and stiffer, which reduces the amount of oxygen and nutrients our cells are given. In order to compensate for the reduced amount of oxygen and nutrients, the heart rate may increase.

Increased Heart Rate, Blood Pressure, And Metabolism

Nicotine, the highly addictive substance found in cigarettes and some electronic cigarette liquid, raises a person’s heart rate, blood pressure, and metabolism. Since smokers have higher heart rates than they would have if they were non-smokers, this means reduced overall breath-hold times.

Damaged Alveoli

Basic diagram of the human respiratory system with the alveoli.

Alveoli (tiny air sacs located in our lungs) are the gateways in which oxygen from the air we breathe is transferred into our bloodstream, and where carbon dioxide is transferred out of our bloodstream and our bodies when we breathe out. Smoking cigarettes damage the alveoli in the lungs by breaking their thin walls, leaving larger, but less efficient air sacs. The gas exchange becomes less effective, and when enough alveoli are destroyed, emphysema develops.

Increased Carbon Monoxide Levels

During the gas exchange, oxygen binds to hemoglobin, which is delivered to all of our cells. Cigarette smoke contains carbon monoxide, which binds to hemoglobin better than oxygen does; 200 times better, in fact. When carbon monoxide binds to hemoglobin, oxygen cannot bind, which means there is a decreased amount of oxygen in the bloodstream and more strain on the heart and lungs.

What About Electronic Cigarettes?

Electronic cigarettes and vaporizers are still relatively young inventions, therefore the long-term effects are not quite clear as of yet. There is also the matter of the absence of regulation regarding e-liquids, which means that you could be inhaling harmful flavorings or solvents without knowing it. If you are using electronic cigarettes as a form of Nicotine Replacement Therapy and are using e-liquid that contains nicotine, you are also still getting the increased heart rate, blood pressure, and metabolism that regular cigarettes give you.

Electronic cigarettes and vaporizers.

Admittedly, e-cigarettes and vaping are considered healthier for your lungs than actual cigarettes, so if you are between two evils, e-cigarettes and vaporizers are generally regarded as the lesser evil. It is advised, however, to wait to smoke e-cigarettes or vape until AFTER freediving, due to the coat of vapor left on the lining of the lungs when smoking; this may temporarily block some oxygen absorption. It is also unclear how vaped herbs will affect a freediver at depth, so it is still best to wait until after your session to vape.

What About Marijuana?

It is not recommended to get high and freedive, just as it is not recommended to get drunk and freedive. Why? Impaired judgment might be fine when you are on land with your friends or safe at home, but it definitely is not what you need at depth. Freediving already has its risks, do you really want to increase the chances of something going wrong and put your safety and your buddy’s safety at risk?

Final Thoughts

Upon researching this article, I found myself wanting to quit even more so than usual because all of this information is definitely eye-opening. But what really made me want to make this permanent was quitting for one month while also freediving. I am a freediving instructor, so I spend quite a portion of time during the day holding my breath. After smoking a cigarette and for hours afterward, I could feel my heart beating faster and stronger, and an oximeter always confirmed it. It was not until after a few weeks of quitting that I saw my resting heart rate drop from 44 to 37BPM (I know, really slow) and felt contractions noticeably later on in my dives; they even felt markedly fainter.

Smoking is a personal choice, and I do not think anyone has the right to comment on what someone else chooses to do with their own body. I do believe, though, that everyone should be informed of the decisions they make.