Can you hold your breath for five whole minutes? For some freedivers, it’s easy! Some freedivers can dive down more than 120 meters with just one breath.
So, are these people crazy? Are they superhumans?
The most important question is this: How the heck do they stay underwater for so long without passing out, being crushed by the water pressure, or totally freaking out? Take a deep breath, and let’s find out!
What is Freediving?
Freediving is a form of underwater diving that does not require any sort of scuba gear. So that means divers have to hold their breaths!
Freediving used to be a necessity for humans, for fishing, harvesting natural resources, and even for military operations. But in modern times, it’s an epic sport that requires insane physical and mental toughness, and, of course, lungs of steel.
Breaking Down Alexey Molchanov’s Freediving World Record
To prove our point, let’s take a look at Alexey Molchanov. The Russian diver dove 130 meters with one breath, while wearing a monofin. That’s 426 feet, and a world record!
This record-breaking dive took him 39 stories underwater, and he had to hold his breath for almost five minutes.
How did he manage to do this and live to tell the tale? Let’s take a look.
Alexey started on the surface, clearing his mind, calming his nerves and filling every last corner of his lungs with sweet, sweet oxygen. Then, it was time to get going!
After diving under, he pushed himself deeper and deeper with powerful dolphin kicks using his monofin for extra propulsion.
Soon after starting his dive, he had to start equalizing the pressure in his ears. If he didn’t do this, there’s a pretty good chance he’d end up with a ruptured eardrum and nosebleeds, which would have resulted in a very painful dive.
Around 65 feet deep, Alexey’s body was no longer quite as buoyant as it is closer to the surface, and he took full advantage of that! He tucked his hands into his sides, and started a freefall.
At this point, his lungs were one third of the size they would be on land, all because of the water pressure.
By the time he reached the bottom of his dive, his lungs were one tenth of their normal size. At 130 meters deep, Alexey was withstanding a water pressure of about 145 pounds per square inch. That’s about nine times the pressure we’re used to on land at sea level.
Alexey’s body moved blood away from his limbs to protect his vital organs, and as a result, his heart rate slowed down, which helped him stay underwater longer and maximize the use of all the oxygen his body had left.
Thankfully, he didn’t have to endure the pressure of the deep for long. After reaching full depth, Alexey didn’t hang around. To prove he achieved the full 130 meters, he grabbed onto a special tag at the end of his dive rope.
For his whole dive, Alexey was attached to this dive rope so he could be pulled to safety if the worst happened. It also doubled as a guide to make sure he swam straight down!
So, the worst was over, and the rest of this dive was a walk in the park, right? Wrong. The long journey back to the surface was the most dangerous part of this dive.
As the clock kept running, Alexey could have experienced a host of life-threatening issues, from depressurization sickness, to lung barotrauma, to a loss of motor control, to a full-on blackout. But because he’s a pro, he remained cool, calm and collected all the way back to the surface.
To make a dive official, the diver must show the OK sign and present their depth tag within 20 seconds of breaking the surface. If they can’t do it, their dive doesn’t count.
And of course, Alexey crushed it, setting a new world record for the constant weight apnea category.
To many, he’s the king of the deep! Researchers think that he inhales about 2 gallons of air before he dives. Like I said…this dude has lungs of steel.
But Alexey wasn’t born with the ability to swim down deep and hold his breath for long periods of time.
How to Train for Freediving
The best freedivers in the world (Alexey included) have perfected the arts of breath control and mindfulness, which allow them to stay relaxed in deep water.
They learn to take advantage of the mammalian dive reflex, which kicks in as soon as we put our faces in the water. The body redirects blood to the vital organs, the heart rate slows down by up to 25%, and the spleen releases a bunch of new red blood cells to increase the oxygen capacity of the blood.
So what does freediving training actually look like? Contrary to popular belief, it’s not all deepwater dives, all the time.
Some divers train static apnea in a pool. That just means they float face down on the surface of the water, and hold their breaths for timed intervals.
They may also work on streamline kicking in a pool, doing laps back and forth while holding their breaths, with or without fins. This ends up working pretty well as training for deeper dives.
Divers also practice equalizing their ears at regular intervals to prevent painful eardrum ruptures from deepwater pressure. And if they wear an eye mask, they also have to make sure to equalize that, or they risk a bunch of burst capillaries in their eyes.
Ideally, divers will find a regular pattern of equalizing that becomes second nature, so they don’t have to think about it.
As divers go deeper, the nitrogen concentration in their blood increases, which can result in nitrogen narcosis…basically, the diver will seem drunk. With more diving experience, the symptoms of nitrogen narcosis may get better and divers are better able to manage it, but most freedivers – even the pros – have to deal with this.
Just like any other sport, athletes slowly build up to deeper dives, always going with a buddy who can look out for signs of blackouts and other potential dangers. This is NOT a solo sport.
Perfecting the Surface Interval
If they have access to deep water, freedivers will obviously take advantage of that for training too! The key to being able to complete multiple dives in a day is the amount of time spent on the surface, which is called the surface interval.
The surface interval helps prevent decompression sickness, and allows excess nitrogen to move out of the body through a diver’s exhales.
For a dive up to 30 meters deep, divers will need a surface interval of three to four times their dive time. For a deeper dive, it’s recommended to divide the total dive time by 5, and spend that much time on the surface before going down again. So, if a diver went down to 50 meters, they’d need to spend 10 minutes on the surface.
Depending on where a diver wants to dive, they’ll also need to get used to different water conditions, including cold water, changing currents and tides, and crazy weather. If a diver isn’t prepared for certain conditions, they could end up in a pretty dangerous situation.
There’s work to be done out of the water, too. Freedivers should be generally fit, using the strength and endurance they gain from working out in the gym or in the pool to their advantage on dives.
Divers also need to have flexible and strong respiratory muscles to make sure they can inhale as much air as possible before submerging.
They’ll spend time strengthening their diaphragm and intercostal muscles (the muscles between the ribs) with breathing exercises and stretches.
Some divers will walk, run or cycle while doing breath holding exercises. Try this on your next walk: Inhale for four steps, hold your breath for four steps, and exhale for four steps. Do this continuously for 10 minutes, and you’re on your way to better breath control!
The Mental Game
The final piece to successful freediving is mental. Some people argue that freediving is actually 90% mental. The best divers are very in tune with their bodies, and can dive deep without panicking. Divers learn how to relax, push past those initial signals to breathe, and train their brains to not sound alarm bells after only a few seconds underwater.
Visualizing every part of an upcoming dive can be helpful to overcome anxiety and prepare the mind for what’s to come.
Over time, divers learn how to dive without fear, teaching their brains to handle more intense diving experiences and operate with a lot less oxygen.
So, if you want to try freediving, all of this is good news. Even if you can’t hold your breath very long right now, it’s possible to improve your breath control and enjoy diving a little deeper.
Different Types of Competitive Freediving
Almost anyone can get into freediving, as long as you have the right training. And the good news is that you don’t have to dive 100 meters deep to enjoy this sport.
There are a bunch of different types of freediving. Most competitions are done in oceans or lakes, but plenty of people freedive just for fun in pools, too.
Constant Weight Apnea
Constant weight freediving is considered to be the purest form of competitive freediving…this is the type that Alexey Molchanov did for that 130m world record! Athletes can wear fins to help propel themselves down and power themselves back up to the surface, following a guide line. Or, they can go without fins. Both are valid competitive disciplines!
They can only touch the guide line once, to stop their descent and start their ascent back to the surface.
The “weight” part just means that the weight the diver chooses to wear – or not wear – during their dive must remain the same for the whole dive.
In some other freediving disciplines, divers will use a weight to help them reach full depth, and then ditch the weight on their way back up.
In Free Immersion Freediving, the diver wears no fins, pulling on a rope to propel themselves down, and to help themselves back up.
There are a ton of other types of freediving, including pool-only competitions, and even static apnea, which times how long someone can hold their breath while floating on the surface of the water.
The world record for that is almost 12 minutes, by the way…
Possibly the craziest – and most dangerous – freediving discipline is No-Limit Apnea. Divers can use any method they choose to reach full depth and come back to the surface. So that means divers will use weights to sink down, and some sort of inflatable vest or bag to bring themselves back to the surface.
The world record for No-Limit is 253 meters, or 831 feet. Very few divers do this type of freediving, and it’s generally considered to be very dangerous.
Beyond competition, many freedivers are also photographers and videographers. Maybe they take “do it for the ‘gram” too far! But their photos are incredible, so they can keep doing what they’re doing.
Some people use their newfound breath control to play underwater hockey, go spearfishing or do synchronized swimming.
Whether you are going as deep as possible or just want to dip below the surface, it takes discipline and a little craziness to be a good freediver. And though it might seem like an extreme sport, nearly anyone can get into freediving with the right mindset and training. Let us know in the comments if you would ever try freediving, or if you would rather leave it to the adrenaline junkies!
- Molchanovs Freediving: Alexey Molchanov Free Immersion Diving
- VB Freediving: Alexey Molchanov World Record Dive
- Alenka Artnik: Alenka Artnik Constant Weight Diving
- The Unlazy Way: My Eye-Opening Journey Into Freediving
- Deeper Blue: What is Freediving?
- Wikipedia: Freediving
- PADI: What is Freediving?
- Immersia Freediving: How Does Freediving Work?