Can scuba-divers benefit from breathing lessons? Steve Weinman finds out
RECENTLY, FROM A POSITION of no particular knowledge, I suggested in DIVER that a basic freediving course might benefit scuba divers. Apart from anything else, I thought it would be nice to know that you could hold your breath for more than half a minute in an out-of-air situation. The inevitable angry letters arrived, pointing out that the words 'breath-holding' and 'scuba-diving' had no place in the same sentence. To which my reply is: a) I'll try to remember that if I ever run out of air; and b) breath-control is not necessarily the same thing as breath-holding. Marcus Greatwood and Andy Laurie, who have run the Dive NoTanx club near London for nine years, also read the column. They invited me to attend one of their introductory NT Style Freediving courses at the LA Fitness gym in Moorgate. 'We're interested in the fun, relaxing aspects of freediving,' said Marcus (third from left in the top picture), though he is no stranger to the competitive, extreme side of the sport. Marcus started out as a scuba-diver before going on to break four UK freediving records. His real talent is, however, as a trainer, and to date he has coached competitive freedivers to four world and eight national records. Inspired by the late Loic Leferme's training philosophy, he helped the world's top freediver Herbert Nitsch to two Constant Weight records and an unmatched 9min 4sec breath-hold as well as his astonishing 214m No Limits record, and is set to support the Austrian in his bid to reach 250m next summer. My objectives were far more modest. I was particularly intrigued by Marcus's claim that 'we can add 10 minutes onto the dive-time of any scuba-divers who adopt our techniques'. A dozen people had signed up for the course, mainly scuba-divers in their 20s and 30s, along with snorkellers and swimmers hoping to extend their capabilities. They were quite a serious bunch, although the question 'Will we need snorkels?' from one innocent did provoke giggles, and sharp intakes of breath among the NoTanx staff. The morning classroom sessions were devoted to ways of reducing heart rate and stress and controlling our bodies, with nothing more physically demanding than yoga stretches. 'Someone coming in off the street can generally hold their breath for half a minute to a minute,' said Marcus: 'We can get them to two minutes or more on the day.' We would be shown how to over-ride the body's instinctive demand for fresh air and move safely 'into the zone' without going blue in the face. After a lecture on black-out prevention, we plunged into the first pool session. We attempted underwater lengths barefoot, then using training and full freediving fins. Keeping the neck down is the key to staying down, though in a crowded pool that's easier said than done. You need someone to look out for you, hence insistence on using the buddy system. I learnt this lesson after being rightly admonished for neglecting my own buddy as I got carried away with trying out (with all the elegance of a hippo) a monofin. I was also told off for expelling valuable air as I swam under water. This, like looking where you're going, may be instinctive for scuba-divers, but is a no-no for freedivers.
AFTER LUNCH, WE PRACTISED 'BREATHING-UP' in the classroom, learning to use the diaphragm to fill and empty the lungs properly, and to expel residual CO2 using 'candle blows'. The pattern is based on a long count of five for inhalations and 10 for exhalations. This is the good way to prepare for a breath-hold - hyperventilation is the bad way. After more safety talk it was back to the pool for the 'practical exam', though it hardly seemed like one. These static apnea trials involve leisurely breathing-up before floating face-down in the water for as long as possible. Your buddy prompts you for hand-signals to ensure that you're alive, and sets you a simple question when you surface to check that your brain still works. By the third attempt, I was really enjoying the experience. As my metabolic rate slowed, the effect was curiously soothing, perhaps a flashback to the nine months I once spent immersed in amniotic fluid. I knew I had been in this pleasant state for a fair time, the instructor's voice a dim echo, but was surprised to learn that I had held my breath for two and a half minutes. No immediate threat to Herbert Nitsch, then, but hours earlier I would not have believed it possible. After congratulating myself on being top of the class in this discipline, however, it did occur to me that I had found my forte in the least-energetic activity conceivable. I knew I was adept at lying around doing nothing; I just hadn't realised that I could give my lungs a break too! In the dynamic apnea phase, we aimed to swim three underwater lengths of the 15m pool. I found it a bit difficult to concentrate in the melee but managed the 40m that is needed, along with 2min+ static apnea, to qualify for the next phase of the AIDA 2* freediving programme - vertical breath-holding. If that's a step too far, there are breathing exercises you can do at home. So what about this extra downtime for scuba-divers? 'It's in the first 10 minutes of a dive, the transition between all the commotion of kitting-up and the bottom time, when people seem to use up a disproportionate amount of air,' said Marcus. 'By focusing on the dive ahead while you're still on the boat, and employing our relaxation techniques, that transition becomes far smoother.' Because the brain uses 20% of the oxygen our bodies need, controlling anxiety and allowing the brain to focus on the task in hand allows for more efficient use of the stuff. Controlled breathing then reduces gas consumption throughout the dive . That doesn't mean breath-holding or skip-breathing, just breathing in a relaxed manner as a result of your preparation. The training seemed to have worked for at least one of the divers who attended. 'I went scuba diving yesterday and used the breathing techniques learned on the course,' said Neil Cook a few weeks later. 'Compared to a similar dive I did two weeks ago, I actually used about 30 or 40 bar less.' Meanwhile Debbie Millin, who was helping out on the day, having done the introductory course a few weeks earlier, set a new South African record of 78m in dynamic apnea (without fins) the following month! And what if the day comes on a scuba dive when I run out of air? I asked our instructor. 'That's when, instead of panicking, you immediately remember what Marcus told you to do!'
The NoTanx Full Day Introductory Course costs ?100. NoTanx also offers the full AIDA 2 Star Accredited freediving course, Red Sea holiday courses and safaris, and holds weekly club meetings in Kingston, Surrey, www.notanx.com