The benefits of Freediving skills for Canyoning.

When it counts, the ability to hold your breath for those extra moments can be critical.

As canyoneers we practice our sport in and around water. Yet so many of us lack skills or knowledge to enhance our abilities to spend more time underwater or hold our breath when its most needed.

For me as a canyoneer I’ve always been interested how I can enhance my performance and be more efficient in stressful or high intensity situations. My background is not in freediving but more surface water sports, like kayaking, canyoning and rafting. I’ve had my fair share of uncomfortable moments underwater over the years. In some cases, I remember how it can feel like you are underwater for minutes, when it was more like seconds. You ask any white-water kayaker or surfer about ‘downtime’ they will be able to tell you the same story. You get recirculated for a few moments after a swim, or a big wipe-out on the wave, you resurface, look at you buddies expecting them to have thought you’ve grown gills. To them it was insignificant, where as you felt like those 3 seconds were more like 3 minutes. Free divers can hold their breath under water for 3, 5 even up to 10+ minutes underwater surely this skill can only be beneficial to canyoning?

What is freediving?

‘Freediving’ or as it’s referred to in many countries ‘apena’ means to hold your breath underwater. I’m sure you’ve been snorkelling, at some point decided to dive down to look more closely at something, a crab or a fish or some buried treasure perhaps. This is where freediving begins. Understanding the science, training and psychology behind holding your breath is where the sport of free-diving really becomes interesting.

I teach canyoning as an ICOpro trainer. In the courses we teach a small element of freediving or ‘apena’. I wanted to find out more, to see how useful freediving techniques could be for canyoneers, how it could benefit my trainees and ultimately upskill myself making me more efficient in the canyon. Plus, it looks really cool and I wanted to give it a go. Here’s what I found…

Now first off, I’m not a freediving instructor. My knowledge is limited compared with professional free divers, so in November of 2018 I took a free diving course. The course I chose was an AIDA level 1 and 2 course at Free Dive Flow on the Gili Islands, Indonesia. I couldn’t have chosen a better place, there set up was amazing, the island itself was perfect and very ‘relaxing’ (which is a key thing for freediving) and the Instructor Ollie Christen and his team were great, super professional and a wealth of knowledge.

I personally will not go too much into the science or techniques behind freediving. I will simply share the basic principle with you, and in what situations these skills can be very beneficial.

Here’s the basic science:

At any given point your blood is saturated with oxygen, this leads to a simple conclusion; you don’t need to try and oxygenate your body specifically before a breath hold. We use up oxygen in our blood through physical and mental activity. If this can be reduced before and during a breath hold then the longer your blood is oxygenated. So the longer you will be able to hold your breath. As you start to use the oxygen in your blood, the bi product is CO2, your body naturally wants to get rid of this. This is what can cause the ‘urge to breath’. Co2 build up can also lead to contractions. Trained free divers learn how to manage this ‘urge to breath’, hence they can hold their breath for longer. Being able to relax your body and mid before a breath hold is key. Many free divers practice yoga and meditation and can relax the body effectively before a long free dive. There is much more to the science, but I won’t go into it here.

During canyoning it can be difficult for us to relax our body and mind, especially if we are in an active, stressful or critical situation. But understanding this, taking a few extra moments before holding our breath can be very beneficial. Also recognizing that the ‘urge to breath’ is only the first response from our body. It is highly likely our blood is still oxygenated and by trying to relax will extend the time holding your breath.

There are many situations in canyoning where we need to hold our breath, by having these extra skills from apena, you will only enhance the efficiency, effectiveness and ultimately safety in these situations.

Here are some of the most key situations where free diving techniques are very transferable to canyoning.

Depth Checking

Canyoneers love to jump. It’s a thrilling way to progress down the canyon. But its statistically one of the most dangerous things we practice when canyoning. Before anyone jumps into a pool, we must check the water depth. This can be done in numerous ways, the most effective ways is to dive down with a mask to physically see how deep it is. Duck diving techniques are a core skill to free divers, the ability to do this with minimal effort reduces the amount of oxygen you use…..hence giving you a longer breath hold. Ultimately giving you more time under water to dive deeper and effectively check the jump is safe.

Retrieving Equipment  

For those of you who have been canyoning long enough, you will have dropped a carabiner or something shiny at some point. Ok they can be easily replaced. But what about when your bag doesn’t have buoyancy, and someone forgets and launches it into the pool below, it’s going to sink. Now before I get comments about not having floating bags, we should always try to make sure our bags float. Either using buoyancy barrels, buying a floating bag, or adding floatation. But let’s be realistic, it’s not always the case. I’ve only once thrown a bag off the top of a waterfall to then watch it sink to the depths of the pool, helpless as your team mates try to swim for it. Yep it’s got the ropes in it, yes, it’s got the mobile phone in it and the camera. You’ll only do this once.

This is when freediving skills really come into play. It can be critical to dive for equipment, and in this situation, you often have time to get yourself in the right physical and mental state to commit to a dive. Holding your breath longer and diving deeper is only going to enhance your chances of getting that equipment back. Honestly when it counts, free diving skills in this situation are priceless.

Sumps and siphons 

In some canyons the necessity to pass through a siphon is real. It can be very committing, relaxing your mind and managing your stress during the progression is a powerful skill to have. Remember sumps and siphons can be very dangerous. Make sure you assess any siphon and have the correct knowledge before undertaking this technique.


Where we can we try not to rappel under the water flow. Sometimes it’s inevitable. Abseiling under water flow is a high-risk manoeuvre, we want to spend as little time under the water as possible. Generally, when we are faced with the prospect of spending time under the waterflow we can stop before, this is a great moment to use these apnea techniques and prepare yourself. If we know we can hold our breath for prolonged periods of time, our stress levels will hopefully be reduce. If we are less stressed our mind is more clear and able to make better judgments and decisions.

White-water swimming

Whether crossing a river, swimming out of a waterfall or escaping a trap pool. If we can manage our breathing, duck dive through the flow and stay relaxed when it’s needed all these techniques will become safer and less taxing. Therefor with this extra apnea knowledge we can progress safer into more demanding situations with the knowledge we can push ourselves further.

Emergency situations and Rescue

We make decisions and train in order to avoid getting into these situations. But we are only human. We explore canyons with others who may not be as skilled as you. Ultimately, we practice an adventure sport where risk is always present. Rescue and emergency situations are a huge topic, and something I will not cover in depth in this article. But as a rescuer or victim we know seconds can count. With a little extra training in free diving techniques, the ability to control our breathing, hold our breath for longer and reduce stress levels could be lifesaving.

In conclusion you don’t need to be a free diver to be a canyoneer, but many of the skills are transferable. We teach basic to advanced apnea techniques for canyoning on all our ICOpro courses. As someone who is enjoying canyoning as a recreational sport, this is another skill that can help you develop in canyoning. If you are a professional or guide in canyoning these skills are important. If you want to find out more about the content that is taught on our professional courses you can follow the link here:

Free diving is an amazing sport, but with any adventure sport there is always risk. It is very important if you practice any free diving techniques you should do so with a buddy and learn with someone who is qualified. Understanding blackout knowledge, recovery breathing, and rescue techniques are very important.

If you want to learn free diving, you should undertake a free diving course. I would suggest an AIDA course. I learned so much on this course and had a lot of fun in the process.

My course was with Free Dive Flow in Indonesia, check out their website here:

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