In issue 1: Time Can you hold your breath for

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11 minutes 35 seconds is the record for a natural breath-hold. Learn about other milestones. Compare human ability to that of other animals. Learn what psysiological factors affect how long you can hold your breath and how to train this ability.

Credit: Karol Meyer (Wikipedia 2012)

Human Breath-Hold Milestones

Humans have been diving for food and pearls for at least 10,000 years and continue to this day. The competitive sport of freediving developed in the 1950's. AIDA is the primary organization that officiates freediving records world-wide.

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Image of infant under water
Generic photo. Credit: MasterFinally (Wikipedia 2010)

Infant

An infant takes 45-60 breaths per minute (3X the adult rate) and can hold his breath for 45 sec (30-45 breaths). An average adult can go 1 minute without breathing at rest.

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Generic photo. Credit: Jayhem (Flickr 2008)

226 m without fins

AIDA record held by Mateusz Malina in the dynamic no-fins discipline of freediving, swimming laps under water in a pool.

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Generic photo. Credit: Jayhem (Flickr 2006)

Motionless

AIDA record held by Stephane Mifsud in the static discipline of freediving, floating motionless in a pool.

22:32 = Hold 300 breaths

The Guiness record breath hold after breathing pure oxygen is 22 min 32 sec, held by Goran Colak. You'd take about 300 breaths in that time!

Records like these challenge our ideas about the breathing reflex. An adult takes a breath about 15 times every minute. However, the urge to breathe is triggered by the build-up of carbon dioxide, not a lack of oxygen. Natural adaptations under water allow us to hold our breaths longer, and training extends the limit even further.

Breath-Holds Across Diving Species

Diving is a natural behavior for many mammals, reptiles, and even birds. Here are rough maximums under ideal conditions and moderate activity. Maximum breath-holds are not typical behavior, as animals normally dive for just a fraction of their maximum time. Times also vary with the unique lifestyle of each species of the same animal.

Photo: US Fish and Wildlife Service

Turtle

If you ever see a turtle at sea, you'll be struck by its grace and economy of movement. It no doubt helps these reptiles hold their breath for up to 7 hours while resting or sleeping. Some turtles can even hibernate under water for months. However, a turtle can drown in minutes if in distress. Turtles can dive 1280 m deep and reach a speed of 22 mph when evading predators (4-5 mph is their normal speed). Guestimated distance per breath: 7.5 mpb 1 2 3

10 Factors Affecting Breath-Hold Time

Longer breath-up period

After a 2 min dive, a diver needs to rest motionless on the surface for 4-10 minutes to expel carbon dioxide from the body and to resaturate tissues with oxygen. Any hyperventillation is dangerous, because it expels too much carbon dioxide from the body and delays the urge to breathe. Always breathe deeply but slowly.

Endurance fitness

Exercise teaches the body to consume oxygen more efficiently and work under conditions of hypoxia (lower oxygen), hypercapnia (high carbon dioxide), and excess lactic acid. It improves the brain's hypoxia tolerance and increases the myoglobin content of muscles.1 High myoglobin is a major reason many aqautic mammals can hold their breath so long.

Increased blood volume

Blood volume increases with athletic exercise. More blood means more hemoglobin to carry oxygen.

Lung capacity

Lung size can't be increased, but you can use your lungs more effectively by stretching the diaphragm and ribcage before breath-holding. Some professional freedivers use a technique called "packing" to push down up to 50% more air into the lungs, but excessive packing can lead to injury.

Economy of movement

Trained divers move gracefully through the water and make no unnecessary movements.

Tolerance of urge to breathe

Holding your breath becomes more comfortable with training, as any physical exercise. It can even be a missed sensation. Learn to relax and tune into the body's signals, like the contractions of the diaphragm and the psychological urge to breathe.

Mental and physical relaxation

Stress, fatigue, and fear tax the body's oxygen reserves. You should only dive when well rested, relaxed, and completely focused on the dive. Even economy of thought can conserve precious oxygen.

Cool water on the face

Water on the face induces slowed heart rate (bradycardia) and oxygen metabolism. You can hold your breath longer after the first "warm-up" breath-holds, as the diving reflexes kick in. You can hold your breath longer in water than on land and in cool water more than in warm water. Water at depth is cooler, so depth of the dives can help stimulate diving reflexes.

Water pressure

Redirected bloodflow from the extremities to the core (peripheral vasoconstriction) is one of the reflexes triggered by water pressure, which affects breath hold time.

Exercises

Never train in water alone.

Endurance

Jogging, swimming, row machine, biking, and high-rep/low-weight exercises are ideal for divers.

Interval training

Alternate work at full power with short periods of rest. Run as fast for 2 minutes, rest for 30 sec, then repeat. Swim the length of the pool under water, rest, then repeat several times (make sure someone is watching you closely).

Underwater Rugby or Hockey

Team sports like underwater rugby or hockey help build breath-holding skills.

Stretching

Learn to stretch your ribcage, abdomen, and diaphragm. This will help you take a fuller breath and hold your breath more comfortably. Yoga is a great source of stretching exercises. Practice slow exhalations as well as forceful exhalations to empty the lungs as much as possible.

Apnea walking

Practice holding your breath while walking or jogging to force your body to adapt to low-oxygen, high carbon dioxide (hypercapnia), and high lactic acid conditions. You can start by taking every second breath, then every third breath. Professional divers can hold their breath for 1 min at rest and then walk up to 400 m all on one breath.1

Negatives

Practice holding your breath after a full exhalation to simulate the effect of water pressure as well as accelerate the onset of the breathing reflex.

The Story of Stathis Chatzi

In 1913, a Greek man named Stathis Chatzi recovered a ship's anchor from 77m after 3 minutes. He had the ability to stay down for 7 minutes at 30 meters and go as deep as 100 meters.

What is remarkable is the man's physical condition: average lung volume, pulmonary emphysema, elevated heart rate and breathing rate, one eardrum ruptured, the other gone. On land, he could barely hold his breath for 1 minute.1