Do you need to be fit to dive?

Do you need to be fit to dive?

Photographs courtesy of Andy Torbet

Adventurer, technical diver, stuntman, climber and all-round Action Man Andy Torbet knows a thing or two about keeping fit. Here he gives some basic advice to help us all get back into shape for when we can hit the water again.

Following on from Nick Lyon’s article last month, I was asked about my own approach to dive fitness. It’s a question that I’ve been asked, in different formats and forums, many times. Do you need to be fit to dive? And to answer this question, I want to tell you a story about Hitler.

When I was in training in the Forces, we were asked to write an essay entitled ‘Was Hitler a good leader?’. We all went on to conclude ‘no, he was not’. And we were all wrong. We’d mistaken ‘capable’ for ‘ethical’. History shows Hitler was excellent at leadership. He used his skills of command to rule over some of history’s greatest atrocities. He was evil, both as a human being and leader. He was not a ‘good’ leader, however, he was good at leading. So, now I have your attention, what has this to do with dive fitness? It is simple, one cannot say ‘you have to be fit to dive’, because a significant number of recreational divers over the last five decades have been neither physically fit nor healthy by any sensible measure. But they have still managed to dive. It takes skill to dive, it takes a certain psychology to dive, but – as has been proven by history – although one can argue you should be fit to dive, you don’t actually have to be fit to dive… provided everything goes perfectly.

I have used a line in the talks and Q&A sessions I’ve given over the years on diving, risk and emergencies – ‘everyone’s a great diver… until something goes wrong’. In diving, as in life, we truly find how good people are when adversity hits. I am not trying to convince you to become super-fit athletes, there’s no need. But I am saying that you need to be fit enough to rescue yourself and your buddy from the types of situations you may find yourself and, most importantly, to ensure these situations aren’t directly caused by your lack of health. After all, the most-effective way to limit your future diving is to be dead.

I’m not suggesting you join a gym, hire a personal trainer or start on the latest evidence-less diet hack. You just have to be fit enough to dive safely, and this means not only in perfect conditions, but also be able to cope with all the things that could go wrong. The term ‘fit enough’ is a subjective one and, for our sport, is determined by the type of diving you do. If you only dive to 20m in static, tropical seas from a boat, then the level of fitness required is less than that of an active British cave diver (in a recent example, myself and Chris Jewell had to dive into a cave system on twin 15-litre cylinders carrying another four cylinders, metal dry tube with camping kit inside, drills and batteries, and dive kit. All this equipment then had to be carried and dived through various dry cave sections and four more underwater sumps – a bit like a 12-hour cross-fit session in a wetsuit).

I think there are two benchmarks for measuring your fitness to dive. The first is ‘can you begin your dive without undue stress’. If carrying whatever equipment you normally use, kitting up and getting to the water forces you to the limit of your physical capacity, perhaps you need to improve your abilities. The second is ‘can you cope with problems you’re likely to encounter on your dives’, e.g. cramp, current picks up, broken lift on the dive boat, towing an unconscious or exhausted casualty, long walks with kit. As a rule of thumb, I’ve found the more technical the diving, the greater the physical requirement.

There is also evidence that a greater level of health and fitness can help us reduce the effects of things like decompression illness and immersion pulmonary oedema. And the best way to improve our diving, both short and long term, is to avoid getting dead.

This is not meant to be an article on training or nutrition, but having just lectured you, it would seem remiss not to offer some basic guidance on where to start for those who are complete beginners. Training and nutrition has been made very complicated, mostly because people are trying to make money. For the high-end athlete, it is complicated, but for the other 99.9 percent of people, it is not. Keep it simple and don’t worry about perfection or the details. As long as you’re doing something, regardless of how imperfect, you’re ahead of the curve.

If you have no idea where to start, consider that, from a strength perspective, your body does five basic things – push, pull, squat, hinge and carry.

This is not a fitness magazine and there are an inordinate amount of videos online that will show simple exercises to work these basic movement and how to make them easier or harder. A simple example of each, that you can do at home with no kit or just a weight belt or cylinder, would be:

– Push – Press Up and Over Head Press with weight belt.

– Single Arm Bent Over Row – Using a weight belt.

– Squat – Stick to body weight.

– Dead Lift – Body weight only to minimise risk of injury from poor technique. If you want to lift big, then see a professional for a coaching session. Trust me – avoiding poor, injury-inducing technique is worth £40.

– Farmers Walk – Grab a couple of cylinders. They’ll work well and are exactly what you’ll use in the real world.

To improve cardiovascular ability, which will help in strong currents, towing casualties and general health and performance, it can be as simple as going for a walk. Or even better, when the pools re-open, a swim.

And finally, one of the best ways to reduce unnecessary body fat (we do need some, too little is just as dangerous as too much), is eat better food. There is endless information out there on nutrition, but at this stage keep it simple – eat like your Gran. Buy actual food and cook it. And by food, I mean fruit, veg, meat, fish, etc. Pringles is not food. Haribo is not food. But don’t worry about eating perfectly. I spoke to an Olympic nutritionist once and he recommended the 80 percent rule – i.e. try and eat like a grown-up 80 percent of the time. If you’re eating three meals a day, 21 meals a week, you can ‘cheat’ on about four of them.  The important thing, with both exercise and food, is long term consistency. Having a bad day or even week doesn’t matter in the slightest if you’ve been doing okay over the weeks that preceded and followed. One gym session won’t make your muscles grow, but missing one won’t make them shrink. And one salad won’t make you healthy, but one pizza won’t kill you either. Judge yourself, kindly, by how well you’ve done this month rather than today.

Now… which way’s the beach?

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One Response

  1. I found this article on keeping fit for diving very interesting. My husband and I are older divers – he is 80 years old, weighs 73 kg, cycles and works out for 30 mins each day on a cross-trainer. I am 67 years old, weigh 68 kg, cycle, do the cross-trainer also for 30 mins or 3km with some weights for my arms, walk and swim regularly. I have osteo-arthritis in hands and feet and some meniscus damage in my left knee. We both have stress tests with ECG every year and are both professionally family insured by DAN. My husband still teaches diving (one of the oldest SSI instructors in Europe); I stopped instructing two years ago when I felt my arthritis might prevent me from doing a full rescue and tow on a heavy person. We live on an island in the Atlantic where conditions in winter especially can be challenging. He dives throughout the year (about 100 dives a year in water varying from 16 to 24 degrees); I dive once the water is 19+ degrees. We are moderately fit, can cope with swimming against currents, but because of my knee I do not ascend a vertical ladder fully equipped any more. The excellent article forgot to mention flexibility – the ability to reach your tank valve when equipped, or put on or fix your fins in and out of the water. Also, the attitudes of others. People we dive with regularly know our capabilities, but trying to book holidays, especially liveaboards (even though we both have well over 1000 dives in very variable conditions) can be challenging once people see our ages. We are used to having to do ‘try dives’ and are happy to do so, but we are also capable of handling our equipment, getting on and off boats in rough seas, and asking for assistance if and when we need it. We have also looked at changed conditions when out on a boat and cancelled dives where younger, stronger people have gone in, and not objected to paying, because we had booked after all. So for me the most important point made implicitly was to know your limits and not exceed them, but so long as you are fit and flexible, keep diving for as long as you can.

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