Static Apnea: Pushing Our Limits as Safely as Possible

By: Tim Andrews

There are two things that I tell all of my Freediver students: “Freediving is competitive relaxation” and “Freediving is 90% mental”. To the seasoned freediver, these things are related, obvious, and often part of the drive to continue freediving. Having the mindfulness to achieve total and complete relaxation can be the ultimate flow state. However, to the new student in a freediving course, these can be things that mean very little in practice when the contractions start and the anxiety sets in. 

I happen to think this is the greatest challenge for a Freediving Instructor. As a freediving instructor and SCUBA instructor, I tell people all the time that teaching someone how to SCUBA dive is relatively straightforward: “Push this button to increase your buoyancy. Push this button to decrease your buoyancy. Breathe through this and don’t ever stop breathing.” I know that’s overly simplified, but fundamentally a SCUBA course is one that teaches you how to use equipment and, like any good equipment, it does what it’s supposed to do when you maintain it and use it properly. When you’re learning to freedive, the equipment you’re learning to use is your body, and that’s an entirely different experience. People generally don’t doubt that the Low-Pressure Inflator button will add air to the BCD. When you tell a new student that they can hold their breath for two minutes, the doubt comes fast and hard. So, what does this really mean to us and how do we overcome it to achieve better performances?

The first real performance of a freediving course, and often the most challenging from a pure apnea perspective, is the static apnea portion of the course. If you’re not already familiar, static apnea is basically floating face down in a pool to see how long you can hold your breath. 

Safety and Problem Management 

The number one rule in freediving including statics is that you NEVER do it alone. In water static session must be performed with a buddy that has received appropriate training to handle hypoxic events like a Loss of Motor Control (LMC) or blackout. Some such courses would be PFI Freediver, Intermediate Freediver, Safe Buddy, or their equivalent.

The first step in achieving successful performances is the reason I choose to use the PFI education system: a strong foundation in safety and problem management. It’s the lengthiest portion of the Freediver academics and it’s the first thing we cover when we get to the pool. Aside from genuinely being the most important aspect of the Freediver course, this sets a tone that this is a relatively safe environment.

The next piece is the way we conduct our static sessions. We could just start counting down to ‘official top’ (the designated start time of an athlete’s performance) the same way that’s done in a competition, but that provides a lot of time and space for a student’s self-doubt to creep in. Instead, we talk them through their breathe-up, giving specific instructions and counting through the ventilation breaths. Not only are ventilation breaths a fantastic relaxation tool, but the almost mantric chanting of the instructions also gives the student’s thoughts something to latch onto rather than something anxiety-inducing.

A word on instructor/student relationships

Most PFI Instructors that I know have a fairly similar approach, at least at the beginner/Freediver level, to help their students through the actual breath-hold phase of the static apnea. I find that when people start to get past the 3 – 4-minute range, the approach becomes far more individual and this is when the relationship with your Instructor becomes very important. The major reason the student/instructor relationship is important is understanding what the goal is, what the student’s capabilities are, and understanding where the line is. 

What do I mean by “the line”? 

I think it’s kind of like someone going skydiving for the first time. Obviously, they want to do it, or they wouldn’t have paid the money, sat through the safety training, put on the gear, and gotten on the plane. However, when the door opens and their one step away from a 10,000-foot drop, a little apprehension is perfectly normal. That skydiving instructor strapped to their back has to interpret the difference between “what have I gotten myself into” and “no, I’ve actually changed my mind”. There’s a difference between a freediving student that doesn’t think they can hold their breath longer and one that doesn’t want to; understanding when to give a little “push” and when to just celebrate what they’ve accomplished can change the experience. 

That “push” isn’t literal, but could be a lot of different things. I recently had a Chinese student that had a perfectly fine static performance, but just didn’t seem completely relaxed, so I knew she could do better. On her last performance, I asked her partner to walk her through visualization during her breath-hold, which he naturally did in Chinese; instantly I could see the remaining tension melt away. My visualization just wasn’t as impactful because it wasn’t in her native language. She added 30 seconds to her performance. For some students, a verbal cue to “relax the arms” might be enough and others might better respond to a gentle tap on the shoulders with the verbal cue “drop the shoulders” to make them aware of the tension they otherwise didn’t realize they were holding.

The last phase of the static is recovery breathing. This is really a topic on its own, but I’ll sum it up to say that to help prevent near-blackout or blackout, we should use six cleansing breaths (one-second breaths, exchanging roughly 30% of our lung volume) as opposed to dives to a depth where we use three hook breaths followed by three cleansing breaths.

Static apnea is a great way to safely explore our potential. It also gives us an opportunity to learn how to deal with some of the physiological responses to extended apnea (like contractions) and how to work through the anxiety that can be present. Some freedivers view it as a training tool, for just those reasons, where, to others, it represents the best part of freediving. Whatever your experience level is or whatever your feelings about static apnea are, it can be an incredibly rewarding part of any freediving course.

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