Free your mind

IF I SAID THAT YOU COULD instantly double your breath-hold just by the application of mind over matter, what would you say? “What? No need to take up jogging, yoga, healthy breakfasts, or cut out caffeine?”
No need. Just like that. As I found out one weekend in Cornwall last year, it’s really all in the mind.

A New Perspective on Freediving

When I first learnt that an AIDA qualification was a prerequisite for most UK freediving clubs, I was sceptical. It seemed like yet another formalisation and commercialisation of an activity we’ve all been dabbling in for years – for free.

First Impressions of AIDA Training

The cynical part of my mind put this down to insurance companies, and that insidious fear of litigation that hangs over all even slightly adventurous activities, since we all got wrapped in cotton wool.
I’ll say right off that I was wrong about all of that. In fact, I absolutely loved the two-day AIDA 1*/2* course run by Freedive UK in Newquay. And I learnt a lot.

Growing up by the sea as I did, I’ve been breath-holding since I was a child, graduating to deeper and longer dives, but never taking it very seriously, and never with any formal training. Only ever going to around 12-15 m, even in the tropics, you could say that when it comes to freediving, I’ve been dabbling in the shallows. The opportunity to learn some proper technique was enticing.

The Beauty of Freedive UK

The really nice thing about Freedive UK is that you get to train in the sea – and in Cornwall. I may be a little bit biased, having grown up there, but I’d rather gaze up at a beautiful bit of Cornish coast while bobbing about between dives than survey the inside of a chlorinated sports facility.

Granted, the sea itself is a little more “big green” than Big Blue, but it’s still so much more amazing to be out in the sunshine.

The Course and Instructors

THE COURSE IS RUN BY Ian Donald with help from long-time pal Rich Marsh, and the training style at Freedive UK is informal and easy-going, but no less informative for that.
It kicked off in their hip shipping-container office, with a cup of tea and a chat through some of the basics.

We had all been instructed to read the AIDA manual ahead of time, so this was really a run-through to make sure that everyone around the table had a general understanding, combined with a practical knowledge, of basic breathing techniques.

Partly as research for the article, and partly out of concern that I might embarrass myself, I had timed my breath-hold while reading the AIDA manual the day before.

One minute 30 seconds – nothing to show off about, but thankfully not what I had feared, as someone out of practice and using scuba rather more than snorkel in recent times.

Diving Deeper into Breathing Techniques

In the container-office we practised relaxing before breath-holding – breathing slowly out for longer than you breath in, then taking just two large slow breaths at full capacity. Unlike when I was growing up, hyperventilation before diving is now completely frowned upon.

The Science Behind Hyperventilation

Ian explained that, at rest, your blood is 96-99% oxygenated, so it’s not possible to massively “load up” your blood with O2 ahead of a dive.

As most scuba-divers will already know, the trigger for your body to want to breathe isn’t being low on oxygen, but actually increasing CO2 concentrations in the blood plasma. This happens as your body uses oxygen in metabolism, making CO2 as a waste-product.

The Dangers of Hyperventilation

Most of what hyperventilation does is flush CO2 from your bloodstream, delaying the onset of your urge to breathe, and making it easier for you to delay breathing again.

Obviously, this can be dangerous if you delay too long – low oxygen means black-outs, and no one wants that under water.

Because there is no mechanism within your body to tell you when you’re dangerously low on oxygen, not having a reliable CO2 trigger is dangerous. We’ve all heard of the freedivers who never came back up. So, if hyperventilation means tricking your body into a potentially dangerous false sense of security, what is the alternative?

The AIDA Techniques

At the basic introductory level, the AIDA techniques focus on getting to know your body, and your mind, and relaxing both as much as possible in order to conserve energy.
It’s about knowing that you can go a lot longer than you think, and not giving in to your first urges to breathe.

We also learn about CO2 contractions – convulsions (often small) that are one of your body’s ways of trying to get you to breathe, and something that it turns out you don’t always need to act on. It is about mind over matter.

Practical Experiences and Testing

AFTER AN INFORMATIVE morning of discussion and practice around the table, we moved quickly on to the multiple-choice test, where a score of 70% is needed to pass the course.
For scuba-divers with a basic knowledge of first aid, biochemistry and partial pressures, it’s not too tricky. The AIDA manual is genuinely interesting and informative, and there are specific freediving practices you need to know.

From Theory to Practice

Test done, and passes all round, the afternoon took us straight on to the in-water stuff. Teaching ratios are small with freediving, so the maximum number of students per instructor is four, and we had a total of six students – two spearfishers and four freedivers.

Experiencing Static Apnea

Reassuringly, the first bits of training are in a pool. In buddy-pairs, we ran through procedures for “static apnea” – the practice of floating face-down and motionless in water while holding your breath.
The clue is in the name and, as a result, one of the initially surprising signals to agree on is the one that immobile static apneists will use to confirm to their buddy that they are, in fact, still alive. Typically, this might be raising an index finger when asked.

While keeping still is simple, relaxing your mind is something else. In practice, the urge to breathe is apparently so strong that it’s almost impossible to voluntarily hold your breath until you pass out from lack of oxygen (although please don’t try this at home).

It’s the onset of that urge that you’re trying to ignore. We’ve already run through some common techniques you can employ to try to relax and distract your mind for a while.
Underwater photographers might be familiar with the feeling that they hold their breath a lot longer when they’re trying to take a picture. It’s the same principle, but also involves trying to be as… relaxed… as… possible.

The “body scan” is a technique with which yogis will be familiar, and involves visualising and mentally relaxing each part of your body in turn, often starting with your toes. Another technique is to imagine that you’re on a favourite walk, and picture each part in turn.

I FOUND THAT VISUALISING a magical breath-hold dive I once did to photograph a mother humpback whale and her calf helped to transport me away – conjuring the dancing light and tropical blue waters in my mind.

When my body became too distracting, I opened my eyes and began counting the small tiled squares on the bottom of the pool.

My First Breath-Holding Achievements

On my second attempt, I stayed long enough to experience several CO2 contractions – smaller and less sudden than I had expected and, being right at the surface, they didn’t feel concerning.

As everyone took turns in their buddy pairs we made two proper breath-hold attempts, in addition to the short practice run-through. At the end of the session Ian took pleasure in revealing our times to us, adding: “I love this bit.”

Everyone had far exceeded their expectations, and I was astonished to find out that I had held my breath for more than three minutes – more than double the time I had recorded sitting at my desk.
It seemed an incredible gain with only two attempts, especially considering that nothing had changed in my physical abilities.

Experiencing Dynamic Apnea

After static apnea, dynamic apnea involves swimming two lengths of the pool under water with fins in order to pass. It’s an excuse to get your feet into those nice long freedive fins.

Open-Water Sessions in Cornwall

SUNDAY, A BEAUTIFUL calm sunny day, was a lot of fun. We headed to Mylor on Cornwall’s south coast for our open-water sessions.

Foraging and Diving

The morning was spent near the shore, practising duck-diving techniques and looking for scallops and other creatures

of interest on the bottom. Ian also runs courses specifically on foraging, and he and Rich are a fund of knowledge on edible marine life, both in the sea and on the shore, from edible snails to urchins, crabs, seaweeds and scallops.

Their trained eyes easily spot camouflaged critters on the seabed way before everyone else does, and they demonstrated to the group what they should look for.

It felt like playtime, and with the water a balmy 15°C – almost tops for Cornwall – and clad in 5mm of neoprene with a hood, the relaxation of floating on my back breathing before diving reminded me of childhood summers in the sea, staring up at the sky.

A Taste of Fresh Catch

On shore after the dive we were treated to fresh scallop sushi, as Rich expertly pried open one of several large king scallops he had picked from the seabed.

The meat was sweet and delicious after our dives, and could hardly have been any fresher. There’s a pleasurable simplicity in what must be the least destructive fishing technique ever, and it’s an infinitely better way of catching scallops than the bottom-trawls that ravage the seabeds around the UK, scarring deep into the sediments and uprooting everything in their path.

Ian is also the author of the well-respected book Underwater Foraging: Freediving for Food, which has a focus on finding sustainable food above and below the water, and he has even made trips to far-flung shores to learn local spear-fishing techniques. I made a mental note that I might have to come back for another instalment.

The Final Challenge

THE AFTERNOON WAS a bit more serious. To achieve the AIDA qualification we needed to dive to 16m vertical depth down a shotline.

Heading out to sea to get some more depth, Ian set up the buoy and line. Again we practised techniques, and discussed airspace-clearing – more of a factor now than in the shallows.

One of the tricks is to clear just before diving – so that you don’t add drag right at the start – by raising your arm to your face. Unlike in scuba-diving, when you can take your time working your way up and down to release a block, with freediving you have only so much time.

Ian says that the main reason people fail the course is that they can’t equalise fast enough to get to the 16m and back on one breath. Knowing that I tend to get a sinus squeeze in cold water, I opted to do the 16m test sooner rather than later, before the chill set in.

My first attempt saw a block at 6m, with pain above my left eye. Returning to the surface, I realised that I had reverted to my usual instincts at the first hurdle, and clearly had yet to train my brain. I can hold my breath for more than three minutes… I have time.

Another attempt saw me slow and stop at 6m, then push on through, only to get another block just a couple of metres from the shot.

Again, my instinct was to turn around, but the shot was close. Taking stock,
I decided to push slowly down. It was painful, but OK, and I completed the turn to come back up to the surface – mission accomplished, despite the chill.

Concluding the Training and Course Impressions

Once everyone was finished, all we had left to do was to practise rescue techniques and have a bit of fun around one of the nearby reefs.

Unfortunately we did have one person who failed on the 16m trial, but Ian said that everyone was allowed another chance to come back and complete it for free.

Although the spearfishers had yet to catch a fish when they joined the course, they said they had learnt the diving techniques they needed, and everyone was unanimous that they had enjoyed the course.
All in all, the weekend was a lot of fun. Ian and Rich are great teachers and incredibly knowledgeable, and parts of the course were a genuine revelation.

Closing Thoughts

Compared to some of the astonishing world records, our 2* training was only scratching the surface, but the advances we made still feel like a gateway into a new world.

I’ve always loved the smooth streamlined freedom of breath-hold diving, and I was left excited by the new possibilities.

AIDA (Association Internationale pour le Développement de l’Apnée) is freediving’s world governing body.
The AIDA scale goes from 1* up to 4* for recreational levels, and there are three levels of instructor certification, up to AIDA Instructor Trainer. Freediving is a growing sport in the UK, with local clubs in various cities around the UK.
The two-day Freedive UK 1*/2* course costs £300 and runs at weekends and on some midweek dates from May to September,


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