Speed, strength, endurance, agility, and power are well-acknowledged skills of elite athletes. But did you ever think that the ability to hold your breath could enhance your athletic ability?
How long do you think you can hold your breath underwater? – 30 seconds? 45 seconds?
Whatever length of time you chose, go ahead and double it. That’s more likely the duration of your breath-holding ability. And with a little training, you can most likely triple that number.
There are no fancy secrets, and no need to breathe pure oxygen beforehand. All you need is a few strategies, a belief in yourself, and a little bit of practice. Read on for the technique I used to increase my breath-hold from 45 seconds to well over 3 minutes under water.
Before we get into how to improve your breath hold, let’s quickly look at what the elite performers in the world can do to see what the human body is capable of. Right now, the world record for breath-holding underwater is over 22 minutes by Stig Severinsen!1
It’s important to note that this is the record for absolute underwater breath-holding. In this event, participants are allowed to breathe pure oxygen prior to holding their breath, which some argue is not a true indication of our natural ability. (The air we breathe is about 21% oxygen,2 so breathing pure 100% oxygen will saturate blood vessels with more oxygen and allow for a significantly longer breath hold.)
This is how the famous magician David Blaine held his breath for 17 minutes on live TV a number of years ago.
The current world record for “natural” breath holding stands at 11:54 seconds. This is the competitive discipline known as “static apnea”. No oxygen is allowed to prepare for this type of event.
My current PR (personal record) is 3:19, and that’s with just a few hours of practice during a weekend free-diving course with Performance Freediving International. Before that course, my previous PR was only about 45 seconds.
As a surfer, the ability to hold my breath for over 3 minutes has completely changed what’s possible with my surfing. It’s allowed me to surf more challenging waves that I would have been too scared to surf in the past. The confidence it’s given me has been huge, and it’s spilled over into other parts of my life as well.
Breath training has completely shifted my perspective on what’s possible.
Regardless of whether you are a dedicated exerciser, a weekend warrior, a dancer, runner, or biker, improving your breathing ability has numerous benefits not only for your health but also for increasing your performance. Even if you’re not a surfer and don’t have an obvious need to hold your breath for over 3 minutes, there are definite benefits to being able to hold your breath for longer periods of time:
The University of Buffalo conducted a study that looked at the effect of respiratory training on swimming performance. They found huge increases in performance after 4 weeks of breath training. Lead researcher Claes Lundgren summarized the findings,
“As shown by other studies, when breathing muscles become fatigued, the body switches to survival mode and “steals” blood flow and oxygen away from the locomotor muscles and redirects it to the respiratory muscles to enable the diver to continue breathing. Deprived of oxygen and fuel, the locomotor muscles become fatigued.”3
So it’s safe to say that better breathing will not only help you become a better swimmer, but can also translate to land-based sports. As you become a more efficient breather through training, you will preserve precious oxygen needed for muscles to run, jump, throw, and lift.
Al Lee, the author of Perfect Breathing, states, “By increasing the strength and stamina of your respiratory system, your breathing becomes more efficient, requiring less energy—which leaves more energy for the motor muscles and whatever task or activity you’re involved in.”
Just like how muscles grow stronger from the stress of lifting weights, training your breath will make you a better breather and thereby save vital energy for muscular output.
The breath is truly the bridge between mind and body, and it’s a perfect way to strengthen your mind-body connection. If you’ve ever taken a yoga class, you know what I’m talking about. Focusing intensely on the breath can allow us to momentarily let go of our thoughts so we can be more present to the sensations of the body. It is this self-awareness that is fundamental to all aspects of living a healthy, fit, energetic life.
When you watch elite athletes perform, their physical skills are all but indistinguishable. It’s the mental edge that separates the very good from the great.
During any particular sport or exercise, you can consciously focus on your breath to become deeply immersed in the task at hand. Paying attention to your breathing, and slowing your breath down, can take you into a very relaxed, calm and grounded place that is vital to performing optimally. It is this intense focus that gives the best in the world the slight edge to achieve greatness.
Train your breathing to improve your focus and performance will follow.
Whenever you do any kind of breath training in water, you need to have a buddy. I cannot stress this enough. Please do not attempt underwater breath holds without someone there watching you. Even if you are only in a few feet of water, you can still drown. Shallow water blackouts are very common in free diving. You must take this training seriously.
Free divers use a basic technique to hold their breath underwater. Without any prior training, I used this specific technique to increase my breath hold from 45 seconds to 3:19 seconds.
Here’s the 3-step breath lesson:
Get as relaxed as possible to decrease your heart rate. The single biggest factor in breath holding is your ability to calm down and settle your heart rate. You accomplish this with deep belly breathing.
This style of breathing requires you to use the big diaphragm muscle that sits just above your stomach. Belly breathing can help reduce stress by allowing you to access the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the “rest and digest” part of your nervous system, which works in direct contrast to the sympathetic system, the one responsible for “fight or flight”.
Unfortunately, most of us are running around in fight or flight mode, which uses more of the chest and rib muscles to breathe. Therefore, learning to access your diaphragm with belly breathing might be challenging at first, but with a little practice you can easily learn to do it.
Objectives of Belly Breathing:
• Reduce your heart rate.
• Decrease your stress hormones.
• Provide more oxygen to your muscles.
How to do it: Lie in a comfortable position with one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach. As you take a big inhale, breathe into the hand that’s on your stomach, expanding your belly while keeping your chest still.
Once you have the technique down, focus on inhaling for 2 seconds and exhaling for 10 seconds. Repeat this cycle for 2 minutes.
After the 2 minutes of belly breathing, perform 5 rounds of purging breaths.
This type of breathing requires you to use the lungs to forcefully expel air out.
Objective of purging breaths:
• Clear excess C02 from the body
How to do it: Inhale for 2 seconds, pause for 1 second, and exhale for 5 seconds intently trying to blow out a candle about 4 ft. in front of your mouth.
This will clear more C02 out of your blood, enabling you to hold your breath longer.
After 5 rounds of purging breaths, return to normal breathing for 10 seconds.
Remain as calm as possible without any movement. Movement will cause an increase in heart rate and more oxygen demand from the body.
Take a large inhalation by first filling your belly, then your chest, and lastly get a little more air in your neck.
Have your buddy start the timer and see how long you last.
How’d you do? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.
Additional Breath-Holding Resources:
This is the 2.5-day free-diving workshop I attended: http://www.performancefreediving.com/
James Nestor has written one of the most fascinating books on the topic. He does a terrific job of profiling free divers and exploring the science of breathing. It’s a great story of human potential. http://mrjamesnestor.com/
Wim Hof is an amazing guy who has accomplished some impressive feats using the power of breath. I love his enthusiasm for life and his passion for using the breath to accomplish some incredible things. You can watch this fascinating 40-minute short documentary on him: Inside the Superhuman World of the Iceman