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The Physiology & Psychology of Freediving

Freediving is more than a sport – it is an art and a discipline.

Think about it for a moment. You perform a tuck dive, drop down to 30 feet or more with only the air in your lungs Controlling you urge to breath, using as little energy as possible, you commence to stalk your prey, either with speargun or camera in hand, you move silently through the big blue until your urge to breath becomes too great. You then rocket back to the surface to take in the life giving air that we all need, only to replay that same sequence repeatedly thoughout your freediving.

Many would say – Are you crazy? Do you have a death wish?

But I say, unless you have participated in it – you will never know the freedom and beauty of freediving.

The art and sport of freediving requires skill and discipline, both physically and psychologically in order to participate in this activity. Where as many who scuba typically participate only on the weekends or on holiday/vacation after getting their certification, freediving entails continuous training in order to participate safely, both with pool training sessions and actual diving in open water environments. Developing the ability to utilize the available air in your lungs and stay under for up to 2 minutes in a open body of water like the ocean is not as easy as it sounds. Shallow water blackout is an ever present risk when freediving. And yet, if you are willing to take personal responsibility for your actions as a diver and train to know your limits, freediving opens up a whole new realm of diving excitement.

The term "Train" might scare away many people – and it should. Freediving is not a passive activity. You are constantly swimming, holding your breath and diving underwater with only the air in your lungs, while trying to gather game, capture an image or just to sight see through a kelp bed. Then resurfacing and recovering from the lack of oxygen that you induced on your body from your previous dive. Let me emphisize though that you do not need to be a top athlete in order to freedive. But you also cannot be a couch potato "Weekend Warrior" and expect to freedive with confidence and safety. The sport requires a commitment of regular training to maintain a level of fitness that is needed to actively participate. There are 4 areas I am going to discuss how you can make your freediving more enjoyable and satisfying.

They are:

  • Physiology
  • Psychology
  • Techniques of execution (Training examples)
  • Equipment

With small changes in each of these areas, you can affect your overall performance while freediving.

PHYSIOLOGY – The goal of the freediver is to maximize his/her oxygen consumption during a dive – that is; to do more with less expendeture of energy, or put another way, to have a very low output but have long hours of diving.

An example to try: Most divers when they either descend or ascend, usually have their arms at their sides. This creates more resistance and thus possibly lead to Shallow Water Blackout (Referred to as SWB). If you are trying to ascend, you exert more energy, and thus more of the limited oxygen in your system. By extending either one or both arms over your head in such a way that they form a point, you will decrease your resistance through the water column and thusly reduce your energy expendeture.

Phsyiologically, there are 4 areas that contribute to the ability to improve your performance while freediving.

  • Vital Capacity
  • Recovery Rate
  • Metabolism
  • Oxygen Consumption

Vital Capacity – A typical lung capacity is around 4 – 4.5 liters. Whereas upper class athletes typically have a lung capacity of between 5.5 and 6.5 liters. World Freediving Champion Pipin is said to have a lung capacity of 8 liters!

In order to increase your vital capacity, changes need to be made to your VO2 max (The maximum volume of oxygen your lungs can hold). But increasing your VO2 Max takes longer in time to change.

Formula: VO2 Max/Time=Maximum amount of air exhaled in 1 second.

In order to increase your breathing efficiency, one needs to increase the resistance and the amount of dead air space to force breathing muscles to work harder.

Example: A longer type snorkel with a narrower barrel can serve the purpose of both dead air space and resistance. By training with this type of device in a pool setting (Doing laps, etc), you will be adapting your body to working harder to attain your goals.

To chart the process of improving your VO2 max, you will need to measure your chest elasticity.

Using a sewing measuring tape, do as follows:

  • Take a big breath, then exhale as much as possible.
  • Take a measurement of your chest while fully exhaled
  • Now inhale as deeply as possible – hold that breath
  • Take the same measurement while fully inhaled.

You can then chart the differences in diameter to measure chest elasticity.

Elasticity – in other words: STRETCHING

The reason for this is to allow you body to become more relaxed, and thus use less of your available O2 reserves. There are also specific stretches that will, over time, allow you to increase your intake of air into your lungs by allowing your rib cage to expand and also your ability to utilize what is called "Belly Breathing".

  • Stretch 1 Raise your arms above your head and bring your hands together palm to palm. Bend to the left at the waist and then inhale as deeply as possible. Now exhale as far as you can. Now lean to the right and repeat this sequence. Do 20 reps for each side.
  • Stretch 2 Sitting on the ground, stretch out your legs in front of you. Now bend one leg in front of you with your foot still flat on the ground. Rotate your upper body so that it stretches your rib cage area, and inhale. You can lock your elbow behind the leg that is folded up. Do 20 reps of this as well. Then switch to the other leg and repeat. You will find that you will become sore from these stretches at first. But as you do them consistantly, this will go away and you will be allowing your upper chest area the flexibility of expanding, and thus increasing your potential lung capacity.


The psychology of freediving is related to the state of mind while dropping down from the surface. There are two areas that will be addressed – Mental relaxation and Controlled Breathing. Each of these when combined with physical training will greatly enhance your time underwater.

Mental Relaxation – Much has been written about many of the worlds top freedivers who practice yoga to attain a sense of mental relaxation through controlled breathing. I have no personal experience with practicing yoga, but I can tell you that whatever your belief system or procedure for relaxation is, focusing on a mental image of something peaceful, while internally reciting words or verses of scripture or whatever else is calming for you can dramatically increase your bottom time. Controlled breathing – This comes from the realm of yoga, and has greatly affected my personal training habits when doing pool training. An example would be: In a rhythmic cycle, breath for 1 minute at the surface, then submerge and hold your breath for the same amount of time. Then begin to extend the time by 5 seconds equally for both surface and u/w. By practicing this, you begin to adapt your mind and body to the effects of the limited amount of air available for freediving.

It is also important to recognize that how you breath is as important (if not more so) as is the amount of time you can sustain holding your breath.

There are two types of breathing:

  1. Lower belly breathing
  2. Upper lung (or chest) breathing

When only one is used by itself, you limit your ability to take in as much air as possible at the surface before a dive. This in turn reduces your bottom time.

Try this exercise: Inhale with just your chest, when you can’t inhale anymore, add the belly breathing to take in additional air – you will notice that you have increased the amount of air in your reserves substantially than if you had only done the chest breathing by itself.

TECHNIQUES OF EXECUTION (pool training) At this point, I must emphisize that if you are going to utilize this next section of information, that you train with a fellow freediver who can monitor your progress in case you exceed your limits and blackout. Many freedivers have drowned while in pool training because they did not have someone there to rescue them when they blacked out underwater. The added benefit of training with a partner gives each diver a measuring stick by which to measure their progress. And, you also have a partner to dive with on a regular basis.

Exercise 1

10-10-10-10 breathing cycle

  1. Inhale completely in 10 seconds
  2. Hold that breath for 10 seconds
  3. Exhale that breath completely in 10 seconds
  4. Hold your exhaled breath for 10 seconds.

Do this cycle for between 5 to 15 minutes. You must do this as described for it to work. If you cannot hold your breath after inhaling or exhaling for the 10 seconds, try doing it for 5 seconds instead. After the 10 second interval becomes comfortable, increase the intervals to 15 seconds each. You can even try 20 seconds each after that if you choose.

I typically do this while sitting on the edge of the pool to prepare myself for my pool training session.

Next comes the extending of breath hold times in a static apnea exercise. This portion is done at the shallow end of the pool (typically 3 ft/1m in depth)

Exercise 2

Static Apnea – Example 1

UW Recover / At Surface

30 sec / 1:00 min

1:00 min / 1:00 min

1:30 min / 1:00 min

2:00 min / 1:30 min

2:30 min / 1:30 min

3:00 min / 2:00 min

3:30 min / 2:00 min

4:00 min / 2:30 min

4:30 min / 2:30 min

Note that the longer times do not need to be accomplished immediately, they are strictly for showing how each interval is modified for each catagory.

While doing this exercise, monitor internally how you feel while underwater (Your urge to breath, etc)

My personal modification is to do sets of 5 of each time then increase to the next longer time until I cannot accomplish the longest breath hold time. (As of May 12, 1999 – After 2 weeks of training, I am up to 2:45 min in the static Apnea)

Dynamic Apnea – Example 1

25 yd/meter surface swim followed by 25 yrd/meter u/w swim (you should always wear your equipment when training; mask, fins and snorkel) – the total distance of 400 to 500 yds/meters should be covered by this exercise

Dynamic Apnea – Example 2 This needs to be done in a pool area that is at least 12 feet/4 meters deep.

  1. At the surface, perform a tuck dive and descend head first to the bottom of the pool.
  2. Now outstretch your arms and push off the bottom with your hands and kick steadily. The palms of your hands should be against the bottom of the pool – do this for a minimum of 30 seconds and do at least 5 reps. You can increase your time by 5 sec underwater while kicking.
  3. When you feel the urge to breath, surface immediately, rest for 2 minutes to recover.

Combination of Static and Dynamic Apnea

Example 1

A typical cycle should be done with a minimum of 5 reps (10-15 is ideal)

  • 30 sec static breath hold
  • 25 yd/meter u/w swim while holding
  • that same breath
  • 25 yd/meter swim back on the surface
  • 2 min recovery repeat cycle

After this becomes comfortable, try adding an additional 5 sec to the static breath hold.

EQUIPMENT – For those looking to participate in freediving, you should realize that, although the equipment is similar to that used for Scuba, it is different enough to warrant some discussion.

The two pieces of equipment that are the most unique are the fins and the low volume mask.

  • Fins – This is a major contributing factor that allows a freediver to to what they do. The long blades and the unique properties of how the fin responds to a divers kick allows a freediver to acheive the depths that can be reached. I have discussed the issue of equipment as well as a review of freedive fins.
  • Masks – The standard scuba mask typically has too great a volume to equalize efficiently with the fixed volume of air in a freedivers lungs. By going with a low volume mask like these, you will use less of your precious air to equalize it.

Conclusion – you will find that when you apply this information to a training routine, that you will begin to see results in as little as 2 weeks. My typical workout at the pool includes an equipment swim of 800 yds/meters to 1 mile/1600 meters (done first) followed by the exercises, and lasts from 90 minutes to more than 2 hours. I come away feeling relaxed and yet refreshed at the same time.

Dive safe….

Editor Note : Much of this information was acquired from a couple of valuable resources that I have been utilizing for my training. Terry Maas’ latest book "Freediving" and from a video tape that was done by Peppo Biscarini, a member of the 1998 American Freediving team. Without these two resources, I would never have been able to write this article – I am indebted to the depth of their experience and knowledge.

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



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