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.