Laying Some Context
Breathing is something that I’ve had a mild obsession with for quite some time.
To me, it’s the most fundamental skill and movement out there, and one of the few you are doing literally all the time.
Identifying as an athlete the majority of my life, most of the breath work I do is organic in my training.
I’ve found anything too stressful or taxing (like the supraventilation of the Wim Hof Method) has often detracted from the quality of my immediate training, despite offering valuable lessons on breath control, awareness and state.
Besides past experiences with breath work and in the name of athletic prowess, I have a final thing that spurred me to this challenge.
Several times in the past few years I have gone on trips where I went snorkeling, and I wanted to be able to do deeper dives and spend longer “hanging out” under the surface on breath hold. Being underwater, in the silence, is simultaneously peaceful and fear-inducing.
So this experiment is part about improving my ability to enjoy my snorkeling / diving hobby, part Sports performance, and part just because it’s a cool objective number associated with exercising conscious control over my body.
Hypothesis (Day 1)
- If I train ~20 minutes a day (my plan) specifically for static apnea (a breath hold), I will be very pleased with a 5 minute breath hold.
- Overall, I feel confident in my ability to “be tough” and fight my way through the urge to breathe. I believe most of the changes I will see that allow me to hold my breath longer will be mental coping mechanisms.
- I would like to see my physiology start to shift rather than me just “working harder” to hold my breath longer. However, I do not believe 30 days is enough time to see significant improvements in physiology.
The Training (30 Days)
Results (Day 30)
- I completed the 5:00 Static Hold.
- While I’ve learned Apnea does require being “tough,” it’s in a much different way than I had originally conceptualized. Rather than fighting the urge to breathe, it’s about being disciplined in staying still, and allowing yourself to be relaxed, even at the ends of your capacity.
- Interestingly, while 30 days certainly was not enough time to generate significant, lasting changes in the structure of my biology, it was long enough for me to see some physiological changes. Frist, I was able to take in more air on a single breath (i.e. vital capacity). Second, I was able to lower my heart rate to a greater extent in the first phase of the hold (into the mid-30s on well-rested days). Third, I was able to keep voluntary muscular input to a minimum while experiencing involuntary contractions. These are all changes I did not anticipate seeing so quickly.
Key Discoveries Along the Way
(1) CO2 & O2 Tables
After day one’s testing, I plugged my initial results into a spreadsheet I had made in preparation for day one. The first page of the spreadsheet is a common method in the freediving community for improving your breath hold time. It is called a CO2 table, and it’s main purpose is to develop CO2 Tolerance.
CO2 is typically what triggers the urge to breathe, rather than lack of O2. By training my ability to “deal with” a buildup of CO2, I should be able to stay more relaxed (less panicky sensations) and stav off the respiratory contractions for longer.
Only advanced athletes will be tolerant enough of CO2 to have a lack of O2 create a limiter. In practicality, this happens when the person is more likely to black out than simply being forced to breathe. …or so I’ve read.
(See tab’s 2 & 3 of My Apnea Log to view the CO2 and O2 tables.)
(2) The Dive Reflex, Heart Rate and Oxygen Saturation
Several days into the experiment I started tracking using a pulse oximeter. You can get an accurate pulse ox on Amazon for $20-40 USD. This device allows me to see peripheral oxygen saturation and heart rate in real time: two metrics that are very important to static apnea success.
Here’s a quote I found in a 2008 study published in the Journal of Aviation Space and Environmental Medicine…
The Human Diving Response… includes bradycardia, decreased cardiac output, peripheral vasoconstriction, and increased arterial blood pressure. … During apnea, heart rate (HR) is reduced because of an increase in cardiac parasympathetic nerve activity and vasoconstriction of selected vascular beds.”
All kinds of water immersion (face, total body, body only) have been shown to trigger this dive reflex.
Elite FreeDivers show a bi-phasic Heart Rate drop: first is at the onset of the breath hold (~30% drop from initial HR) and another after several minutes into the apnea (~20% addition from phase 1)
Starts at 50bpm, Drops to ~35bpm in phase 1, Drops to 28bpm in phase 2
Starts at 40bpm, Drops to ~28 bpm in phase 1, Drops to 22bpm in phase 2
New trainees only experienced one heart rate drop but it was significant (~50% of initial HR)
For me, I experienced the first drop in heart rate. I was usually in the 55-70bpm range during the slightly elevated respiratory rate prior to the hold, then my HR would drop over the first 30-45s of the hold, often to the low 40s and occasionally as low as the mid-30s.
However, unlike the elite divers, in phase 2 (after the contractions started) my heart rate would inevitably begin to climb again, often close to my start values. I believe this was largely due to an inability to stay completely calm combined with the involuntary muscular contractions.
I would imagine that learning to retain (or even increase) my level of relaxation through the onset of those contractions is what would take me from a below average static apnea practitioner to a sub-elite level.
(3) Lung Volume vs. Body Mass
Turns out I have some things against me. There’s a very important ratio in apnea: your muscle mass relative to your functional lung volume (i.e. vital capacity). While in the Sport of Fitness it’s super important to have enough muscle mass to move prescribed loads, people often forget how you must be able to ventilate enough to oxygenate all of that muscle tissue.
Plus, a high metabolism, while traditionally thought of as a “good” thing, hinders your ability to down-regulate (aka. Shift State) and reduce your demand for oxygen and -therefore- creation of CO2.
Based on this it’s not a surprise that elite freedivers have big lungs, a flexible thoracic cage / abdominal wall, are skinny, and don’t overfeed. I have pretty average sized lungs (I’m guessing), sub-optimal flexibility / elasticity in my ribcage, I’m thicc (that’s two C’s), and eat a ton to support my high activity level.
So I’m far from ideal. However, I think there is something to learn here. Relaxing as much as possible (in posture and mind) will lower my metabolic rate and allow me to hold my breath longer.
Also, don’t do hard training on a full stomach. This would be obvious if I was doing bike sprints and burpees, but with breath training it isn’t something I initially thought of.
This will help two-fold, by (1) allowing full range of motion for my diaphragm, and (2) lowering my muscular demand / activity, since my gut is lined with smooth muscle that churns food.
(4) Respiratory ‘Contractions’
Today I learned that what I have been experiencing as a “gasp reflex” is commonly referred to in the freediving community as ‘contractions.’ And they are an inevitable part of breath holding.
Basically everyone who does max or near-max holds will experience them. In general, the advice seems to be: you can’t stop them, so just get used to dealing with them and/or minimizing their intensity and impact.
My acceptance of contractions greatly increased my overall level of comfort as I felt them approaching and in the moments in the latter portion of the hold when they were ever-present.
In my functional fitness brain, I almost considered the portion of the hold without contractions to be the “buy-in” to the max hold. While it was certainly the easiest part, it’s a mental relief to be past it, and be able to get into the “real work.”
(5) Lung Packing
This is a term I learned a couple days into the experiment, where you fill your lungs entirely with air, and then continue to “gulp” or “sip” air, forcing more gas into the lungs than is normal.
The idea is pretty simple: more air means more oxygen, which means a longer max hold. On average, a person proficient in the skill can add 15%+ to their lung volume.
You can also do “Reverse Lung Packing” where you exhale fully then push the final bits of air out one mouthful at a time. This improves the flexibility of your abdominal wall and allows you to fully expel that ‘expired’ air on your final exhale.
It turns out that this is something I had already been doing -to a degree- to get the last bits of air into my lungs. However, really focusing on maximizing the inhale and stretch of the lungs will both benefit lung volume in the long-term and max breath holds in the short-term.
After several days of lunge packing practice, I found I was able to get marginally more air into my lungs, but I was very uncomfortable while holding my breath. I felt like I was ready to burst due to the air pressure. My rib cage was so expanded I couldn’t find a comfortable resting posture to execute a quality, relaxed hold.
However, I did find big benefits by using reverse lung packing. The ability to expel more air on the breath prior to the hold was very helpful for maximizing the amount of *fresh* air in my lungs at the onset of the hold.
Breath Work for the Sport of Fitness
Do you find yourself resting between movements to catch your breath?
Let me help you plug the holes in your fitness revealing your untapped potential.
Big Picture Takeaways
(1) Even Numbered Goals
I likely could have accomplished my goal of 5:00 prior to Day 30, but I reserved the final day as a test day. I’m also sure that if I had made my goal 5:11, 5:23 or another “random” number, I would have accomplished that too.
It’s funny how we like setting convenient, even numbers for ourselves in our goals. We want to squat 300 pounds or snatch 100 kilos. While these numbers sound good on paper, often they normally aren’t based upon an optimal improvement rooted in our current capacity.
For example, it would have been better for me to aim for a -let’s say- 35-45% improvement, which would have been just shy of 5:00. But, we’d rather aim for that milestone number, even if we miss it.
(2) The Learning Curve
In general, I would not consider myself a novice at breath work. I’ve played around with a lot of different techniques, and each has been valuable at teaching me something new.
However, I really have not dedicated myself to mastering any one particular kind of breath work. 30 Days of Static Apnea training -in the grand scheme of things- is a drop in the bucket.
However, even in such a short period of time, I saw tremendous improvement because I applied myself to learning everything I could about that specific technique. I spent time researching techniques and visualizing what I needed to do.
My point is, it’s completely different when you execute on a program and don’t think about it the rest of your day, versus when you do preparatory work and mindset homework so you can make the most of that session.
Consistency in the habit of going the extra mile is the difference between good and great.
(3) Apnea Performance & Recovery Status
One of the things that became increasingly clear throughout my 30 days was how my heart rate and CO2 tolerance were affected on a daily basis.
On days were my stress was low, I got good sleep and my recovery deficit was minimal, I felt eager to do the breath practice.
However -and perhaps more importantly- I could hold my breath longer at a lower RPE (rating of perceived exertion).
When I had a recovery “debt,” I would often get headaches after long hold, my heart rate wouldn’t drop in phase 1 of the hold, and the contractions came on early.
I believe a simple apnea test could be used for determining overall readiness to train with surprisingly accurate results.
A daily practice and assessment could look like this…
[0:00-5:00] Supine Breathing @4080 tempo
[5:00-6:00] Breathe @ Relaxed, Natural Cadence
[At 7:00] Maximal Inhale + Exhale, As Slow As Possible
*note time of exhale
*note the deviation (+/- X number of seconds) from your average
After tracking score for 7+ consecutive days, you could compare daily scores against the average to determine general readiness to train. Consider assigning a number outside a certain deviation to be unacceptable and require an adjustment to training / deload.
(4) Skill Transfer
During this challenge I had various questions running in my mind…
Does this skill have any utility outside of this singular task?
Will improving my breath hold ability also improve my capacity / potential in other areas?
Will my ability to tolerate hypercapnia, put up with discomfort and ignore the overwhelming urge to stop make me better at the Sport of Fitness?
My answers to these questions are still “I don’t know.” Certainly, I’d like to think my time and energies improved other areas of my fitness, but it’s also possible that spending energy and resources on this area took away from my abilities to train well.
However, just because it might not improve my Sport’s performance doesn’t mean that it couldn’t improve yours.
For a competitive athlete who has an incredibly low Apnea abilities, raising their ceiling of performance in this area could dramatically improve their composure and state in sport-specific tests.