Freediving: How to hold breath for two minutes...Today!

Did you know that the world record for the longest static breath-hold is over 11 minutes long?

A breath-hold of this length might sound superhuman and almost impossible, but these champion freedivers all started at the same place; performing short breath-holds and gradually extended it with training and practice.

If you are a freediving newbie, a two minute breath-hold might feel out of your reach, but with a few simple steps, two minutes is actually very achievable even for beginners.

We are going to give you a few tips to try to hold your breath for two minutes today... Maybe you will even manage to go for longer! Are you ready?

Benefits of holding your breath

It might sound unbelievable, but there are actually many health benefits of performing breath-holds. Here are a few:

  • Preserves stem cells which can lead to longer life
  • Increases resistance to bacterial infections
  • Can improve mental health and help you feel more relaxed
  • Might increase brain function

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Is holding your breath dangerous?

You might be worried that holding your breath could be harmful to you. Performing breath-holds on dry land, in a lying down position is not dangerous. The worst outcome from dry static breath-holds is blacking out, but you would wake up shortly afterwards with no serious side effects. There is a risk, however, if you perform breath-holds in water. It is important to only hold your breath in water if you have a trained, experienced, safety diver present who can rescue you from a blackout if necessary. Losing consciousness in the water will most likely lead to drowning if no one is around to keep your head above the water. If you perform dry static breath-holds, make sure you are lying down in a safe, comfortable place.

Prepare for the breath-hold

The first thing to do is get ready for your breath-holds. As we know, this means lying in a comfortable position (on your back to allow for a full breath). Make sure you are not doing your breath-holds right after you have eaten as a full stomach can make it feel less comfortable, and avoid caffeine and sugar beforehand to keep the heart rate low. Have a stop-watch, or a timer on your phone ready so that you can simply press the "start" and "stop" buttons without much effort. During the breath-holds try not to clock-watch too much as this can throw you off and potentially cause stress. It can help to have a timer which will alert you when you get to the time you want to achieve, so that you can relax and wait for the alarm rather than watching the time.

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How to breathe before the breath-hold

Now, the most important part of holding your breath is the breathing you do leading up to it. The key to a long breath-hold is to become as relaxed as possible in the minutes before you hold your breath. In freediving, we call this the ‘relaxation phase’ or the ‘breathe-up’. The goal is to slow your heart rate and use as little energy as you can, because a fast heart-rate requires oxygen, and we need to preserve this oxygen in order to hold our breath. Breath work is an excellent way to become relaxed (both for freediving and for day-to-day life). Here are a couple of breathing techniques to help you become relaxed:

  • Belly breathing: When you are breathing, try to make sure you are taking the breath into the belly instead of the chest. Belly breathing is a proven way to become relaxed.
  • Tidal breathing: Tidal breathing is your normal rate of breathing at rest. This means no hyperventilation (breathing fast and strongly), and trying to maintain a 1:2 ratio (breathing out for twice as long as the breath in).
  • Ujjayi breath: Ujjayi breathing is a yogic technique to become relaxed using the breath and has been proven to reduce feelings of stress. The way to perform Ujjayi is to slightly restrict the breath at the back of the throat, this will mean you can slightly hear your breath in a similar sound as when you sigh. Some people call Ujjayi ‘snake breath’ because of the sound. 

Combining these breathing techniques can help you to become as relaxed as possible before your breath-hold, and extend the time in which you are able to hold your breath. You should breathe in this way for a few minutes before the breath-hold, while also lying very still. When you feel ready to hold your breath, take a final, big breath into the mouth which fills the belly and the chest, taking as much air as comfortably possible.

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How to breathe after the breath-hold

After a breath-hold, freedivers will perform "recovery breaths" (sometimes known as "hook breaths") as a way to even out the oxygen and CO2 levels quickly and avoid a potential blackout. It’s important to get into the practice of using recovery breaths after every breath-hold (even if you feel like you don’t need them). Here is how to perform rescue breaths:

  • Take a big breath in after your breath-hold
  • Hold that breath for a split second and prepare to make a "p" sound
  • Release the breath using the "p" sound and exhale sharply
  • Take another big breath in and repeat a few times until you are sure you feel fine

Warm up holds

When we hold our breath, we eventually feel the urge to breathe. This is an uncomfortable feeling which becomes so unbearable that we have to take a breath. The reason for this urge to breathe is not usually from a lack of oxygen, but in fact an accumulation of too much carbon dioxide. We usually have enough oxygen left to hold our breath for a long time after this urge to breathe without blacking out. Many experienced freedivers will add "CO2 training" to their training programs to get used to this uncomfortable feeling. Performing multiple breath-holds can also push back this urge to breathe. So warm up holds can be a great way of achieving a longer breath-hold.

Most people can hold their breath between one to one and a half minutes before this urge to breathe (as long as they are relaxed). If you want to reach a two minute breath-hold today, start off with a breath-hold of around one to one and a half minutes, stop when you get your first urge to breathe. Perform your recovery breaths and then take a few minutes to breathe-up again and become relaxed. When you are ready, try for a second breath-hold and you should find that the urge to breathe comes a little bit later (due to a higher tolerance for CO2 after the first breath-hold). Try to add 10-15 seconds with each attempt, and remember that this uncomfortable feeling is nothing to panic about, it is only CO2 build up and is not necessarily an indication that you are about to black out. Repetition is key to gaining confidence and getting used to the CO2. After three to five tries, you might be hitting the two minute mark!

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During the breath-hold

It is just as important to stay relaxed during the breath-hold as it is during the relaxation phase. Becoming panicked or stressed during the breath-hold will raise the heart rate and use up precious oxygen, making the breath-hold shorter. It is easy for the mind to wander during a breath-hold, and there are no "right or wrong" things to think about, however, focusing the mind on something can stop it from wandering and becoming stressed. Many freedivers perform a "body scan" during a breath-hold to focus the mind. A body scan involves mentally scanning every little part of the body to check for any held tension. Starting from the top of the head, the forehead, between the eyes, the eye brows, and so on until you reach your toes. Bring your attention to each of these areas and make sure that it is totally relaxed. This can make the time go quicker and stop you from clock-watching. Some people like to have their eyes open during a breath-hold whereas others find it distracting and prefer to keep them closed to feel the most relaxed. Try both to see what works for you. It is not necessary to pinch the nose during a breath-hold, but if you prefer to have the nostrils held closed you can use your fingers or a nose clip.