Performance Freediving Clinic

During Oct 19 – 22, I was fortunate enough to attend the Performance Freedive Clinic in Long Beach, California that was conducted by Kirk Krack and Brett LeMaster. The following are my personal notes, thoughts and some information regarding what I learned and experienced during the four day clinic

Day 1

After an uneventful plane ride down and a good nights sleep, the first day of the clinic began at 8am sharp. Needless to say, I was disappointed when the night before my departure, the venue for the pool had been changed. I was looking forward to seeing the Belmont Olympic Pool, but due to an unfortunate incident involving a lifeguard at that pool trying to practice static apnea without a buddy and had to be fished off the bottom, Kirk had to change the facility we would be doing our first two days of pool training and classroom at.

Personally, it was a disappointment. We ended up in a section of Long Beach that was not the best in terms of personal safety, but hey, I was there to learn how to freedive safely and more confidently, so I dealt with it.

Kirk greeted each of us as we arrived (Brett would fly in that evening) at the Silverado Pool and Community center. After arriving, we went to a loft that overlooked the pool and began by introducing ourselves to the rest of the 7 participants for the clinic. It never ceases to amaze me the diversity of people who participate in this sport – My roommate, Andrew Schultz, was the youngest at 22 years of age, and the only one there for the pure sport of performance freediving. My going was, of course, for the journalistic point of view, but also to develop my skills to expand my photographic skills while freediving. The rest of the class were Spearfishing freedivers – A Doctor and founder of a Fortune 200 company, an attorney, and three successful businessmen. Yes – we were a diverse group, but we were there to learn – and learn we did.

After introductions, we then went into one of the most important aspects of the clinic – Emergency Procedures.

Having been in the sport long enough now has allowed me to observe the lack of good information regarding the proper methods of safety and rescue when freediving. Every scuba certification agency teaches a Rescue Diver type of class to better prepare those who tank dive to manage an emergency situation should it arise. Nothing has been written or taught on this topic for freediving – until now.

Kirk went into great detail regarding the proper procedures for virtually every major scenario that might occur when freediving. The number one rule that he continuously emphasized again and again was the need for diving with a buddy. And I was to see later, I have totally changed my perspective on solo diving and training.

Taking one of the clinic participants as a helper, Kirk began to show proper techniques for bring someone to the surface in the event of blackout underwater. Then he began to explain the physiological processes involved when this occurs and how to revive a diver who has gone into a samba or has lost consciousness. And although he did touch on the topic of CPR, he stressed the importance of getting proper training from a your local Red Cross or dive shop that teaches dive rescue and first aid. Having been certified as a PADI Rescue Diver, I found the refresher on this topic of great value, since the proper way for rescuing a Freediver did deviate from the norm of what is taught in traditional scuba classes.

After a short break, we were then taken into the pool where we applied what we had learned in the classroom about rescue skills and then evaluated on our techniques. The Spearfishing attendees were glued to Kirk as he explained this portion of the clinic, and many times, they were amazed at how they had been freediving in a less than safe manner – many times diving alone, or with a buddy who had gone the opposite direction purposely. There was a sense of dread on some of their faces at the prospect of what they had been doing up to this point. Simulating the various levels of distressed diver scenario’s gave us all a chance to practice what we had learned and be closely scrutinized by Kirk regarding our technique when finishing the rescue scenario. But when he corrected us, he always made a point of stating what we had done correctly as well as what we needed to work on.

It was an awakening for all of us.

After an hour lunch break, we were back in the classroom, where Kirk began by going over the basics of the sport and the equipment needed to participate in it. He emphasized the importance of freediving specific equipment, saying that "this sport is gear intensive", but this need for proper gear contributes to the overall safety and enjoyment of what ever level of participation each attendee does while freediving. He displayed much of the gear he uses and even some of the more exotic equipment like his custom made Picasso Competition freediving wetsuit, specially made goggles that allow perfect vision when filled with fluid (hence the name "Fluid Goggles") and Carbon Fiber freediving fins.

Yes the toys were to be fondled over this day…

And then the real meat of the course began – Learning to properly ventilate.

Learning to properly ventilate was the beginning of my truly enjoying the sport more than I ever had before. Most people who freedive make the mistake of thinking that ventilating is the same as hyperventilating.

This is totally incorrect.

Without divulging in great detail what was taught to us, I realized that with proper ventilation, I could slow my hear rate down and attain a longer static breath hold than I could have before the clinic. Kirk went into great detail explaining the various physiological processes that occur when ventilating as opposed to hyperventilating. It was a real eye opener for me.

Learning to stretch correctly while ventilating also improved the capacity of my inhalations. It also made me sore for the next few days of the clinic.

We then proceeded back to the pool where we applied what we had learned in the classroom setting. We began to apply our newly acquired breathing techniques in preparation for our target static apnea attempts.

During this portion, we were led in our relaxation and ventilations gradually – then into a controlled setting for static apnea, leading us to prepare for our initial target times we each wanted to attempt. First round was a three-minute ventilation followed by a two-minute static apnea. We were each partnered up with a buddy who did the breath hold in the pool, while the other closely monitored to watch for any signs of distress. Each did this without any problems. We then were taken to the next level – five minutes of ventilation followed by a three minute controlled static apnea. These two sessions were controlled by the observing buddy requesting a sign at the two-minute mark and then every 15 seconds afterwards until the duration of that session.

Then the realities of training and diving with a buddy set in.

Kirk said that we all looked like we had been doing well on our first two rounds and it was time to see what we were truly capable of doing at this point in time in our skill set.

We were given the go ahead to attempt an unlimited static apnea. I became a little nervous. This was what I wanted to attempt, but hadn’t due to not having a training partner back, so now, I had my chance to attempt this in a safe setting.

I elected to go after my buddy, Andrew. After five minutes of preparation, he immersed and floated as relaxed as anyone could get. Minute thirty, then two minutes, then every 15 seconds after that. Three minutes, he started to have contractions, three minutes 15, and then three minutes 30 seconds… finally he popped up at 3:45. Not bad I thought. As we watch the others who were going for it – Kirks partner, Tom, was contracting pretty hard, and then he went limp… He blacked out. We all watched first hand as the principles of what we had learned earlier about proper rescue techniques were put into action. Kirk was totally calm and collect – and within 10 seconds, Tom came to – not knowing what had happened.

It made everyone feel a little vulnerable from that point on – I know I felt it.

Kirk proceeded with an analysis of what had just occurred in this blackout and how each of the rescue skills he had taught us had come into play. I was totally floored at the level of professionalism Kirk displayed during those few seconds.

After all was said and done – We all walked out exhausted – and a little more knowledgeable about this area of freediving.

Andrew and I went back to the hotel to eat and digest what we had learned and witnessed today.

Can’t wait for tomorrow’s session.

Day 2

We get into the meat of freediving…

After a good nights sleep on a hotel bed, which was a very good indicator as to how exhausting the first days session was, we were ready to get into some of the very things I had always wanted to learn about freediving. Kirk’s partner in teaching the clinic, former world record and current American record holder of the constant ballast, Brett LeMaster, had arrived late the night before and was now a part of the rest of the teaching. The day was going to be broken down into several key areas – all of which were EXTREMELY important for developing a deeper level of understanding about the sport of freediving.

1) The Psychological Aspects of Freediving – Well, needless to say, the idea of holding one’s breath while diving seems tantamount to insanity to the uninformed. What was it that psychologically draws us to freediving? And deeper than that – what are the processes that kick into gear when diving to a realm not ventured to before? Much of what was discussed dealt with relaxation and focusing one’s mind to the task at hand.

Brett and Kirk both explained that in order to really begin increasing one’s diving depths, the process of visualization and relaxation were key components to attaining one’s goals. No new age ramblings here, just a methodical approach to calming the mind and body through breathing exercises, mental visualizations and special stretching techniques to help with the previous two skills.

This led to the next phase of the morning:

2) Land Based Training Exercises – The big buzzword lately in freediving is what is termed as "Lung Packing". It is a technique that, when practiced over time, creates more flexibility in the ribs, chest and intercostal muscles. The skills taught, although deceptively simple in nature, when first done, will create soreness in areas very few experience normally. Lung packing needs to be done carefully so as not to injure ones self, which is easy to do if one, is over zealous when first attempting them.

We were told that our breathing, which we take for granted on a daily basis as adults, was inefficient and not conducive to efficient breathing for freediving. The most efficient breathing, come to find out, is that of a new born baby, who breathes from it’s belly only during the first few month of its life. Belly breathing stretched the diaphragm, and pulls the bottom portion of the lungs down, thereby causing them to become more elastic and eventually gain some capacity in the process.

Along with belly breathing, which I’ll now call Step one breathing, comes Step two of the process of breathing – Chest breathing. This is what we as adults typically do now. It isn’t as efficient as belly breathing by itself, but combining it with belly breathing and you now begin to increase your volume of air that you inhale. Step three in the breathing process is clavian breathing – that is, pulling in the last little bit of air through the muscles in the clavical area. Although this may sound unnatural to read and attempt, there was a noticeable effect in overall breath volume taken in on each inhalation.

Let me describe it as follows:

The procedure basically is as follows – while sitting in a chair or on the floor (I happen to sit in the yoga lotus position – cross legged with a pillow under my tailbone to push my pelvis forward and straighten my back). Focus on your belly first and slowly breath in through it only until you can no longer stretch it, then change to inhaling with your chest area until you can no longer inhale from the area, then finally while extending your neck tall and straight, take in the last amounts of air that you can with these muscles in this area. Hold for a couple of seconds, then exhale in the reverse order of the inhale. Hold the complete exhale. Repeat.

To expound on this technique involved stretching in specific positions to increase flexibility in the intercostal muscles of the chest. Doing a full inhale, hold your breath and lift your arms over your head and bring your palms together. Reach as far up as possible. Hold there for as long as you can comfortably. Exhale and slowly bring your arms down. Repeat the inhale and breath hold, but now stretch your arms out in front of you, again with palms together. Hold again. Exhale. Now the fun part begins. Full inhale (steps one through three) and breath hold. Now, bend at the waist to one side with your arm over your head. Stretch as far as you can – you want to feel those intercostals stretch. At this point, you might feel light headed. If so, straighten up a little – the idea is to slowly stretch and relax at the same time. Release and repeat the same to the opposite side. Finally Do the breathing steps and place your hands together behind your back and try to lift them as far as possible while still keeping them together.

Repeat this cycle of stretches 3 times.

I can say that after this, I was very loose, but also could tell that I was going to be sore the next day.

3) Gym Training Exercises – Since there were no weight lifting facilities available to us, this section amounted to Kirk and Brett discussing how to go about doing the specific exercises as they were listed in the course materials. Needless to say, applying what was learned just that morning was going to improve my capabilities dramatically once I got back home.

Lunch ensued and for the next hour, we consumed Quizno’s sandwiches to satiate our appetites and prepare us for the afternoon’s portion of the clinic.

4) Physics and physiology of freediving – When we returned to the classroom, we were greeted with the topics of Physics and Physiology of freediving. Of course on a full stomach and learning what is essentially an uninteresting topic to many, it was nonetheless a needed component to the overall understanding of the sport of freediving. Understanding the physiology of what occurs while freediving made for very interesting information. It also gave me a sense of what I would feel while diving to depth and to internalize my thought processes and check my well being at all times during an descent and return to the surface.

A short break finally let us back to the pool, where we could apply what we had learned in the classroom.

5) Pool training Exercises – In order to kick in the various physiological processes that occur during a freedive and to experience in a controlled setting the effects of diving at depth, we were taught a training technique called Negative Pressure Diving. Due to the legalities of the skill and not doing it properly, I will only touch on the generalities of this exercise. It basically amounts to exhaling and then dropping down to the bottom of the deep end of a pool (at least 10 feet deep). What this does is simulates the pressures of diving to depth and how you will feel during that time. Exhaling all the way and dropping down to 12 feet can effectively cause you to feel as though you were diving to over 140 feet! I must reiterate that unless you have had professional instruction with these skills, that you do not attempt them. They are very intense and you could become injured if not done correctly.

6) Finally we were given specific drills to do that were to be the foundation of our dynamic apnea training for freediving.

Another 8 hours had come and gone, and we were all tired and hungry – Tomorrow was to be our first of two days of open water skills evaluations. We were going to get to apply what we had learned in the controlled environments of the classroom and enclosed swimming pool to more realistic open water conditions.

I couldn’t wait.

Day 3

Time to put what we learned to the test…

With all that had happened on Sept. 11th, certain aspects of this clinic had to be changed. We had originally been scheduled for a different pool – that had changed. Now, due to the reduced class size, expenses were being curtailed to help defray some of the costs. Due to the generosity of Dr. George Lopez, who was one of the participants in our class, he donated the use of his house, which overlooked Emerald Bay, south of Newport Beach. The drive down the coast was a treat, since it allowed my roommate, Andrew Schultz and I to get out of the "Hood" as we were beginning to call it.

Arriving at the private development community made us realize that we were in for a great day of diving, not having to worry about our cars being robbed or our gear laying on the private beach being messed with. We arrived a little after 9 am and were greeted by Dr. Lopez and Kirk and proceeded to meet downstairs – which opened to a patio that had a 1/2 length lap pool and overlooked the cove we were to be diving in. Dr. Lopez is an avid spearfishing freediver and founder of a Fortune 200 company. We were in great company indeed.

First thing was Kirk and Brett reviewed the video’s of the previous days static apnea attempts at the pool. As Kirk and Brett continued to reiterate in our daily meetings that safety is crucial, and that warmups are important. "The core idea (when freediving) is to find a ritual of preparing for time, depth or distance" Brett said. "Once a routine is found, even on a bad day, you can accomplish your target" Kirk added.

Expounding on day two’s section on freediving psychology, "Meditation and concentration is 90% of performance freediving" Brett explained. "When anxiety is experienced, there is a quantifiable reduction in performance when freediving."

The main causes of anxiety are:

?? Claustrophobia

?? Performance anxiety

?? Pressures of "Gameday" (Meeting all expectations of the attempt)

Brett explained from his personal experiences about how internalizing a discussion with yourself, what I call "Meta-Talk" which, he explained, is crucial during the descent on an attempt. And although you can be mentally prepared, equipment can add to your anxiety, which was why it is crucial to have the highest quality freedive equipment at your disposal. "Equipment is a part of a divers ‘Artificial Psychology’ " Brett explained.

"When you dive – dive for you and no one else" he continued. And Kirk emphasized the setting of realistic goals for your training. "Don’t over do it" was the mantra.

After a short break, it was time to get suited up on the beach and get in the water. Finally some warm water diving for this cold water diver. While the others were complaining about the water temp being in the low 60’s F and putting on their 5mm wetsuits, I was smug in being able to say I was wearing my 3mm Picasso Apnos freediving wetsuit. It would also be an advantage for my practice dives as I would need to wear less weight in the process and would find my neutral buoyancy much easier.

Richard Hadley, another participant, had piloted his 19′ rigid inflatable up the coast so that we would have a dive platform if needed for resting, adjusting weights, etc. We swam out to the marker buoy. The feel of the ocean was calming after so much information being absorbed into my brain. It was calming, very meditative – it has always been that way for me since I started freediving. Richard’s boat was approxmately 400 meters from the shore, so the swim was leisurly. Once there, Kirk and Brett went about setting up descent lines. The depth here was about 40 feet – the deepest I had ever gone up to this point. After setting these lines, Each took turns explaining what ritual we should do to prepare ourselves – it was, in a sense, the foundation for developing our own unique preparation rituals.

It began with doing negative pressure dives down the descent lines using the skill of pulling oneself down the descent line with your arms only , or what is called "Free Immersion", gradually increasing the amount of exhaled air on each attempt. Once the depth is reached, you hang at this depth for up to 10 seconds, then ascend back to the surface utilizing the free immersion technique.

Negative pressure diving really does initiate the mammalian dive reflex, which in essance, slows the heart rate and prepares the body for the rigors of freediving. I did at least 4 of these dives, gradually increasing the amount of air I exhaled. On my last attempt, I was able to drop to the bottom of the line – I had just tied my personal best for depth and was more comfortable than I had ever been before at this depth. And had done it while only using my arms! Amazing! These guys DO know what they are talking about.

Once we had been evaluated in this skill, we were ready to begin our Rescue Evaluations. Being a PADI certified Rescue Diver, this test seemed to be very familiar. It was so much so that I had no problems doing what was asked of me, due to my previous training. It was a relief to not have to fight all the scuba equipment that I had originally trained for when doing the rescue diver course. The other participants were equally successful as well in doing their skill reviews.

After having gotten the ok that I had done the necessary requirements, I went back to photographing the others in the calls underwater with my new digital camera and housing. I should note that my interest in the clinic was to be able to shoot images while freediving, and hence become more comfortable while doing it.

We were then given the ok to practice, with a buddy always observing, the skills we had learned in the pool sessions. Refining our technique in this semi-controlled environment allowed each of us to dive with confidence and security, knowing that we would be taken cared of if something should happen for whatever reason.

After over two hours in the water, we were all getting cold and tired. Freediving is a strenuous activity. We swam back and were able to warm up in Dr. Lopez’s pool and jacuzzi, watching the glow of the sunset wash across the hillsides of the area. A perfect end to the third day of the clinic.

Tomorrow would be the topper – Diving off of Catalina Island – I couldn’t wait!

Day 4

Final day – Time to see what we could actually do.

Arriving at Alamitos pier, we anxiously waited to get underway. The skies were overcast – not a good sign from my point of view, but I was determined to make the best of it. I had elected to wear my 7mm suit this time, due to the unfamiliarity of diving Catalina Island. I figured I was better off being a little too warm than not warm enough.

Once all had arrived, we departed for our approximately one hour boat ride to our destination – Whites Cove. Small swells greeted us as we proceded out into open ocean. Everyone seemed unfazed by it – well, except me. I was beginning to feel a little sea sick. Fortunately I had taken a remedy that I have found to work very well for seasickness – ginger capsules. I had taken two an hour before departing and although I was feeling a little woozy, I was able to manage it without much difficulty. Passing several large oil tankers, and oil rigs in the distance, I was anticipating one of my dreams – to dive Catalina. Much has been written about this oasis off the coast of Southern California. Through the haze, the vague outline of the island began to take shape. That was Brett’s cue for all of us to begin our ritual for preparation to dive. Breathing and stretching commenced by all on board. It was quiet. All who were here now wanted to make their target depths. A sense of anticipation was in the air – would I make my target depth? I wanted to do 100 feet, but I wasn’t sure. I wasn’t feeling all that great, but I was mentally prepared to go their if I could.

The sun began to break through and as we got closer, the water got bluer and bluer. I had never seen as blue a color except in Hawaii. I was really pumped to get in. As we arrived at our dive spot, the sun had completely broken through and we were now enjoying a perfect fall day of diving.

No wind, flat seas and 80 – 90 foot visibility. I just knew I was going to make my target depth.

We were given a briefing about the area and then all suited up. Kirk and Brett set our 3 descent lines – which was over 100 feet in depth. One by one, we sank into the blue liquid that makes a freediver glad to be alive. Strangely, my heart wasn’t racing – The mental and breathing ritual that I had already developed had prepared me for what laid ahead for the day.

Repeating the days skills, we began our breathe up and free immersion negative pressure dives – although now the depths we could go to in preparation were much deeper. My first descent was to 33 feet – hung for the 10 seconds and then I pulled myself back up the line as usual. My 7mm suit also made this an easier ascent then when I was in my 3mm suit. I rested for 5 minutes then repeated – this time exhaling half way and descended to 45 feet – I had just gone deeper while freediving than I hever had before – and it was comfortable – again while descending only on arm strength. This was interesting. I did this cycle a few more times, but I elected not to exhale all the way – I was still feeling a little sick to my stomach from the boat ride out.

We then began to do practice dives doing the constant ballast technique of swimming down under our own power then swimmng back up.

This is what I had waited for.

Taking turns with our buddies watching in teams of two’s and three’s, each of us began to attempt going a little deeper each time. My first dive – 45 feet. My second dive – 48 feet, then 54, then 66. Now I was deeper than I had ever gone before. I had a feeling that was almost tears of joy. I finally internalized what would be my final attempt – I was beginning to have troubles equalizing, which is unusual for me. I figured if I didn’t try this now, I wouldn’t get to my goal. breathing up on the surface and then packing as much air as I could into my lungs, I descended – deeper, deeper… Finally the feeling of pressure became too uncomfortable for me – 74 feet! I hung for about 5 seconds to allow the freedive computer I was wearing to register the depth and then I ascended in a relaxed fashion – arm’s over my head, breaking the water column in a streamlined position. I inhaled the air that I had been using to equalize my mask as I descended back into my lungs. I shot to the surface and raised my fist! – Kirk was right there looking right in my eyes – I was ecstatic! I felt really good on the ascent – I wished I could have gone deeper. I was chastised by Kirk for not having done my hook breathing that we had been taught when breaching the surface after a dive – but he also congratulated me on my personal best for a constant ballast dive.

After that dive, I was feeling a little weak and my ears were becoming more difficult to clear. I climbed back on to the boat to rest a bit. Come to find out, later that day, I came down with a very bad cold, which I figured had been kicking in while I was diving – go figure! With less than an hour before our departure to the mainland, Kirk and Brett decided to let some of us play a little and rigged a variable ballast line and weight. Variable Ballast is riding a weighted line down and then swimming back up under your own power. I figured why not – since we didn’t have to wear a weight belt, and I was in my 7mm suit, I knew I could make a couple attempts for a deeper dive and know that I would literally shoot back to the surface.

My first attempt began with my ritual breathe up. Tossing the bag while holding onto it, I descended, and equalized, but couldn’t get passed 65 feet. I dropped the bag and ascended with out any problems. I talked it over with Brett who was supervising this portion of the clinic and he suggested that I close my eyes while descending and holding a mouth full of air to help in equalizing, which I had forgotten to do. I waited for about 10 minutes to recover from my dive. As I prepared for my second attempt (and last) I mentally visualized my dive. My turn came and grabbing the weight bag and sitting on the dive platform, I breathed up, packed my lungs as much as possible, and then held a mouth full of air for helping me equalize my ears as Brett suggested. I dropped the bag over the edge and dropped into the water. I closed my eyes and just equalized like crazy. I streamlined my body as much as possible. Deeper and deeper I descended. The pressure began to get more intense but it wasn’t what caused me to drop the weight from my hand. It was that I had used up all the air in my mouth that I had been using to equalize my ears and couldn’t equalize anymore – I looked at the dive computer’s display – 87 feet! I turned around and kick towards the surface – I accelerated as I got going and the buoyancy of my suit kicked in. I breached the surface like a whale and shouted. I had gone deeper on a single breath than I ever had before on a single breath!

I was congratulated by Brett who watched the event and told him I felt I could have gone deeper, but couldn’t equalize. He said this was due to my not having refined my technique and that it would come with practice. I climbed on deck and watched as Richard Hadley and Brent Aslin each attempted and acheived dives of over 100 feet doing the constant ballast technique.

Needless to say, as we all got back on board, we were all very pleased with what we had accomplished today. The ride back was in full sunshine and clear skies. Pulling back into port, we unloaded and went to a local restaurant to review the video that had been shot of each of us during our dives at Catalina.

I was very pleased with my dive technique as it seemed to have made a big difference in my comfort level in the water. And I was honored when both Kirk and Brett commented on how well executed my technique was for my surface entry, descent and ascent.

After consuming a huge late lunch, we all exchanged business cards, and went on our seperate ways. Andrew and I went back to the hotel, where my cold really hit me and I basically became worthless the rest of the day.

Overall, I feel that this clinic was an invaluable resource in my development of my freediving skills, and I cannot express enough the quality of character and patience both Kirk and Brett displayed while questions were asked of them.

If you can at all get the chance to attend one of the Performance Freediving Clinics – Do SO! You will learn more than just reading a book or surfing the internet would ever teach you.

Cliff Etzel

Cliff is the former Freediving editor of DeeperBlue.com. He is now a freelance journalist and film-maker.

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