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.
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.
AIDA record held by Mateusz Malina in the dynamic no-fins discipline of freediving, swimming laps under water in a pool.
AIDA record held by Stephane Mifsud in the static discipline of freediving, floating motionless in a pool.
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.
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.
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
Alligators normally dive for 4-15 min but can hide for up to 2h. In freezing water an alligator could stay down for 8 hours. However, an alligator will drown in 20-30 min under stress. Alligators often exhale as they dive and adjust their heart rate and oxygen consumption. There is an X-Ray video showing an alligator breathing.1
Most sea snakes are not able to move on land. They have a flatter body like an eel's but are not fish. They move using a paddle-like tail. These reptiles can regularly hold their breath for 1-2 hours using the air in their lungs and by absorbing some oxygen through the skin. Sea snakes can swim up to 1 m/s when diving or fleeing. 1 2
breathes voluntarily, which means each breath is a conscious decision. Whale lungs extract 90% of the oxygen in a breath, compared to 15% in humans. They also have more myoglobin in the muscles to store larger amounts of oxygen. Cuvier's Beaked Whale, a small dolphin-like whale, holds a whale record with a 2 hour dive. Large humpback whales can hold their breath up to 35 min but typically surface every 7-15 minutes. Sperm Whales can do 90 min. Migrating whales swim at about 17 kph. 1 2 3 4 5
Seals, like whales, have more myoglobin in their muscles to store oxygen. Elephant seals (called so for their trunk-like nose) can hold their breath over 100 minutes. Grey Seals, about 70 minutes. However, about 20 minutes is common for a dive. Seals swim side-to-side, unlike dolphins, which swim up-and-down. 1 2
These distant relatives of elephants are thought to have inspired ancient mermaid stories. Manatee lungs are two-thirds of the body in length. However, they can't hold their breath long, because they have little myglobin in their muscle, unlike cetaceans and seals. Manatees swim up-and-down, like dolphins but unlike seals, which swim side-to-side. 1 2
Penguins are flightless birds that use their wings to literally fly through water. Most species can hold their breath for about 15 minutes but normally stay under water for about 1 minute. Emperor Penguins can hold their breath for up to 22 min, but 2-8 minutes is average. 1
Dolphins, like whales, are conscious breathers. They can hold their breath up to 12 minutes and can descend nearly 1000 feet deep. However, they normally stay under for 1-2 minutes and close to the surface. Dolphins are social, high intelligent, and self-aware, being able to recognize themselves in a mirror. Military (ab)used dolphins for rescue, mine detection, and suicide attacks. Dolphins can swim up to at least 39 kph. 1 2 3
Beavers are rodents with paddle-like tails and webbed feet. They stay down for 3-4 minutes on average but can go as long as 15 minutes. The reason beaves cut down trees and create dams is that they need deep water for protection. Their ability to reshape their environment is second only to humans. 1 2
Despite being distant relatives of whales, hippos can't hold their breath very long and are not conscious breathers. They surface to breathe every 3-5 minutes, even while sleeping. 1
Many monkeys live near water, wade through water, play or wash in water, or cliff-dive into water. Some species are able to swim under water for up to 5 minutes. The controversial "aquatic ape theory" presents evidence that many human characteristics, such as bipedalism, must have evolved in an aquatic environment.
Bajau are among peoples who continue to live and hunt in the water. Practiced fishermen, like Sulbin pictured above, can stay under for over 5 minutes while walking barefoot along the ocean floor. Bajau children can consciously control pupil dialation to see more clearly under water, something humans normally cannot do.
Cormorants are birds that dive for fish by flapping their wings. A camera attached to one bird showed a record dive to 30 meters lasting over 3 minutes.
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.
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.
Blood volume increases with athletic exercise. More blood means more hemoglobin to carry oxygen.
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.
Trained divers move gracefully through the water and make no unnecessary movements.
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.
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.
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.
Redirected bloodflow from the extremities to the core (peripheral vasoconstriction) is one of the reflexes triggered by water pressure, which affects breath hold time.
Never train in water alone.
Jogging, swimming, row machine, biking, and high-rep/low-weight exercises are ideal for divers.
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).
Team sports like underwater rugby or hockey help build breath-holding skills.
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.
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
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.
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