Thursday, 13 October 2011

Coping with contractions

Not of the baby kind, gladly (and impossibly).

I’ve been practising holding my breath for years now and have always shied away from trying to manage the inevitable contractions during apnea (breath hold). Mine can range from being quite subtle and regular to more irregular and strong during a breath hold and usually starting at around the 1.45 to 2 minute mark. The more relaxed I feel the more I seem able to ignore what’s happening, telling myself at the time that ‘CO2 is not important’ and ‘this is a normal reaction to what I’m doing to my body’. It helps me to think like this.

During my 4 minute static the other day, the contractions started at precisely 1.40, a bit earlier than I was hoping, and continued for the rest of the hold, not changing in frequency or intensity. I’m looking forward to seeing how my body will learn to cope with the contractions – given practice, will they eventually stop or will they start later during a hold or will I simply become more accustomed to coping with them? Patience and practice are the key, I imagine.

I've been trying to distract myself during a breath hold with happy thoughts, singinf a song to myself, or if that fails, counting backwards from 1000 in multiples of 13. I've got quite good at that now and can do it quite quickly, which is beginning to defeat the purpose. Maybe I'll try 17s?

Check out some fantastic advice I have received here

Monday, 10 October 2011

Sea monkeys - the first freedivers

Aquatic Ape Theory
The theory, put forward in 1960, suggests that humans spent a good deal of their evolutionary history living a semi-aquatic life. This is notion that has intrigued me for a long time, especially as the theory, in my experience at least as a graduate of Zoology, does not form part of the modern teaching. Instead we are taught that the evolution of humans took place primarily on the savannah.

The theory is based on the idea that a branch of primates began to exploit the sea shore environment after probably being forced from the forest and savannah as a result of competition. Firstly paddling in the shallow water searching for fish and sea urchins for food, we moved into deeper water to search further, using the water itself to support our not yet fully upright bodies. This is thought to explain how we became bipedal, which is easy to imagine, given the need to keep one’s head clear of the water to breathe.

An interesting study found that in order for a brain to grow and develop fully it requires a supply of Omega 3 (found in fish oil) and Iodine. These nutrient can only be found in the marine food chain. The theory suggested that nutrient from the marine environment were essential for brain growth.

Breath control
Very few land mammals, including other primates, have the capability to hold their breath. Humans breathe involuntarily most of the time, as you probably are now, unconsciously. We breathe voluntarily when our own thoughts take over and breathing becomes a conscious activity.
We are part of a small group of mammals which can both consciously and unconsciously breathe. We share this talent with otters, for example and seals and sea lions. These are what are termed as amphibious or aquatic mammals whose ability to breath hold developed in order to be able to hunt underwater and exploit niches that very few other mammals could. Other mammals, such as brown bears (a seals closest land based relative), are able to hold their breath for short periods while scavenging for fish, and a species of macaque can dive for food.

Being born
The human diving reflex is strongest in new born babies. When water comes into contact with sensory receptors around the cheeks and nose, the throat closes off allowing no water to enter the lungs and heart rate slows down after a time, conserving oxygen.

What next?
The theory of the Aquatic Ape is still to be proven beyond doubt. There exists compelling evidence for the theory, both behavioural and physical and the above is only a snapshot of the basis for the argument. It’s something that will remain of great interest to me while exploring my body’s own ability to adapt further, in the short-term at least, to the aquatic environment.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Training on the Train

I needed to go to Kent for work yesterday and on the way home I decided to try a few breath holds.The train between Ashford and Victoria was pretty quiet and after a good breath up trying to remain as relaxed a possible, I managed to hold my breath between Lenham and Harrietsham and then East Malling and West Malling, the latter a distance of 2 miles. I didn’t time the holds but they felt like a good while. My recovery breathing drew a few strange glances my way, but nobody came running to see if I was ok, worryingly.

I find myself practising now whenever I can, trying to understand what my body needs to relax and my changing tolerance to CO2 build up.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

New Personal Best

I finally managed to break the 4 minute barrier for a Dry Static this morning – 4.03. Very proud of myself. I spent the last 20 seconds of the breath hold clock watching, but the time really did seem to fly by and I felt comfortable enough with the subtle contractions which came every 3 seconds or so. This came on the third of three attempts, with one and two being enforced 2.30 (2 minute breathe up, 2 minute recovery) and 3.30 (2.30 recovery) holds. All out on the last one, making sure that I recovered well after the hold, waking girfriend up in the process. Small price to pay.

A good breathe-up

The Introduction Course I attended with Emma Farrell in Bath gave me a great foundation for a good breathe-up technique. It essentially consists of 2 minutes of relaxation and regular breathing punctuated by short holds.

I try and imagine where the air is going when I inhale using belly breathing and the stages by which my lungs fill – first through the mouth and into the lower portion of my lungs, big belly comes out. When my lower lungs feel full I slowly begin to inflate the upper part of my lungs making a conscious effort to use the muscles in my rib cage to expand my lungs further. Before I feel uncomfortably ‘full’, I start exhaling from the upper part of my lungs finishing by tensing my stomach muscles slightly, squeezing air out of the lower lungs.

I found an excellent introduction to freediving on the DeeperBlue Forum posted by Akoni, which I signed up to the other day. There's loads of useful information in there and tips for improving technique for breathe up and other facets of breath holding. Enjoy

Getting started

So after years of wanting and not knowing, I was finally handed the opportunity to learn a bit more about the sport of freediving. My birthday surprise took me to a location close to Bath in Somerset, where Glebe House provided the facilities. The course leader Emma Farrell met me and three others there and provided us with a fantastic introduction into the history, techniques and safety aspects of the sport.

For me, this course has been a long time coming. I’ve been fascinated by the water and what’s in it, since I can remember. I know a lot of people who SCUBA dive regularly but have always resisted trying myself because I’m convinced the feeling cannot be as free or as natural as being under the water quietly ‘unsupported’. What little ‘free’ diving I have done has always felt like very natural, fun, exciting and where I want to be in the water (not to mention Free ££).

My first ‘lightbulb moment’ during the training came when I was formally introduced to the technique of abdominal or ‘belly’ breathing. I’d heard about this a while ago and have practised regularly on and off. Essentially it’s learning to prioritise the use of the diaphragm to expand the chest cavity to fill the lungs, as opposed to the intercostal muscles of the rib cage when passive breathing. It looks a bit funny when your belly sticks out (especially in public) but it really makes you appreciate that extra capacity you have for air to enter. Probably the most important and useful thing I took away from the course is an understanding for a good regulated preparation for a breath hold, called by those in the know a ‘breathe-up’. This is not something I was previously doing during my (amateurish) preparation for long breath holds and is probably the single thing that has allowed me understand my body more and helped to progress in the meantime.