*Disclaimer, apnea training can be dangerous. Do not practice your breath holds in the water.

Kayaking is an incredible sport – making a beautiful, ever-changing, playground out of our planet’s most destructive natural force. While kayaking is largely safe, a flowing river is ultimately a hostile environment to air-breathing mammals. Were it not for our equipment, skill and understanding we would literally be up a creek without a paddle, or worse, underwater without gills.

We have been blessed with many wonderful evolutionary developments, such as opposable thumbs and our prefrontal cortex. Unfortunately, it seems that we may have missed the proverbial boat on aquatic breathing abilities. Fortunately, evolution has given us a hidden superpower – the mammalian dive reflex. Let me share with you how I stumbled across this and learned to hold my breath for almost four minutes.

During my time kayaking I have taken the occasional dunking and experienced that awful time shift, where it feels like you haven’t taken a breath of air in months but in reality, you have been underwater for little more than twelve seconds. I saw this as a limiting factor in my safety as a kayaker and was deeply unnerved by the fact that despite being relatively proficient at a water sport, I would struggle to hold my breath for more than thirty seconds at a time.

A Google search for ‘how to hold my breath longer’ unearthed a whole new world called ‘freediving’ and I was astounded to learn that the world record for breath-holding stands at 22 minutes, 22 seconds! I was also pleasantly surprised that there appeared to be a clear-cut technique for improving your breath hold and that anyone could do it. Following the steps, I was able to increase my breath hold from 36 seconds to 2 minutes in ten days of practice. I was able to get over the three-minute mark a few weeks later and currently, I have plateaued at a max breath hold of 3 minutes and 40 seconds.

Understanding what you are feeling

That painful feeling you get when you are holding your breath is not caused by a lack of oxygen, it is caused by a buildup of carbon dioxide (CO2). Whilst this sensation is uncomfortable you still have plenty of oxygen left in your lungs, blood and muscles. I have found that if you can fight through this initial pain, it will go away for a while. Then if you hold your breath long enough eventually your diaphragm will start to spasm, this is your body encouraging you to release the build-up of CO2, it still does not mean that you need oxygen. Normally by the time my diaphragm is spasming, that painful feeling in my abdomen is becoming unbearable and I will give in and take a breath shortly afterward.

Many people when they start working on their breath holds will be concerned with passing out, not only is this harmless but it is also exceptionally hard to do. I pride myself on being a tough, stubborn person but I have only ever passed out from a single breath hold once. It takes some serious willpower to get there. However, I have woken up many times on the couch after pushing a little bit too hard with repeated breath holds during training (you can get pretty light headed after ten rounds of the apnea training), again this is harmless. The limiting factor in your breath hold is your ability to stay calm.

Static apnea training

I use an app on my phone to guide me through a series of breath holding sequences to increase both your oxygen capacity and CO2 tolerance. You can read more about it here and you can download the same app that I use here. Begin your training session by working on building up your CO2 resistance and then work on your oxygen (O2) capacity. The cycling method of breath holding followed by taking in lots of oxygen means it is easy to start feeling dizzy and you may pass out – this is not dangerous if you are already laying down on a soft surface and are not in the water.

Fragmented breathing

This is the practice of controlled breathing. I do a quick series in the morning and in the evening, you can read more about it here. I also use this app to practice my controlled breathing.

Key things to remember when embarking on your journey toward increasing your breath holds:

Apnea training can be exceedingly dangerous, there is a possibility that you may pass out. I actively recommend that nobody actually train in the water, numerous free divers and surfers have drowned training their breath holds alone in the water. Apnea training is best done laying down, preferably on a soft surface.

Like all forms of training, you can overdo it. Start off slow and build up!

More on the mammalian dive reflex, this bizarre evolutionary trait is triggered when our face comes into contact with cold water it elicits several responses in our body that ultimately enable us to hold our breath longer.

If you are as intrigued as I was about the breath holding world then I highly recommend that you read this book.

I was hesitant to write this blog for a long time, in case the topic seemed like fear-mongering about the dangers of water sports. But I also understand that being able to hold your breath longer has the potential to save your life. In my opinion, it should be a core skill for being safer on the river and I would encourage everyone to invest the time in learning how to hold your breath longer.

See you on the water, Bren