“Apnoea” means “respiratory arrest” in ancient Greek. Apnoea diving (also called free-diving) is probably the oldest form of diving, which certainly belongs to the most dangerous disciplines: Because with just one breath, extreme athletes dive to depths of up to 300 m. The best apnoea divers stay under water for more than 10 minutes.
No doubt: Free-diving is as fascinating as it is demanding. However, how does this peak performance work medically? And how does one train for such a challenge? We clarify some important facts about apnoea diving for you and give tips for beginners.
History of apnoea diving
Before scuba diving was technically possible, free-diving was the only possibility to explore the underwater world. For that reason, apnoea diving presumably existed already during the Stone Age. In the process, mussels and pearls were collected or fish hunted. Today apnoea diving is a fascinating niche sport. The fascination is probably due to the fact that particularly careful training is required for free-diving and the sport is associated with high risks.
How is apnoea diving medically possible?
With free-diving there are numerous physical challenges: On one hand, the diver does not only delay breathing as long as possible, but pressure compensation also takes place particularly quickly. In order to suppress respiration, apnoea divers use special breathing techniques. In addition, special breathing exercises help to increase the volume of the lungs and to keep the diaphragm elastic. Thus the diver can take in more air from the start. An elastic diaphragm is also helpful for pressure compensation. In the case of trained apnoea divers, the so-called phenomenon of “Blood Shift” often occurs: Here lymph fluid is temporarily stored in the alveoli, which helps to keep the volume of the lungs constant. Such effects though can only be reached with long-term training.
Apnoea diving competitions
Professional free-diving is regulated in accordance with the guidelines of Aida, the association of free divers, and it is divided into pool and open water disciplines. Thereby, competitions are only held in the disciplines where the risks are relatively low.
In a pool, the following competitions take place:
- Static (timed diving): The time which the diver can stay under water with one breath is measured. For this purpose, he lies motionless in the water.
- Dynamic (endurance diving): Here the distance which the diver can cover in just one breath is measured. Here there are competitions with and without fins.
In open water bodies, the following competitions in free-diving exist:
- Constant (deep diving with constant weight): The idea here is to dive as deeply as possible. Thereby, the apnoea diver may use weights to overcome buoyancy, however these must also be taken back up. Constant is possible with or without fins, as well as with a rope.
Due to the high risks, the following free-diving disciplines are not competitive disciplines:
- Variable Weight (deep diving with variable weight): For a particularly fast descent, a diving sled is used here, which is then left behind at the bottom. For the ascent, a rope or fins can be used for instance.
- No Limit: Here all technical aids possible are allowed. Often a particularly powerful sled pulls the diver quickly downwards and for the ascent a rope winch can help for example. In the case of “No Limit” apnoea diving, the pressure compensation is particularly important. Due to the unpredictable risks, accidents often happen with No Limit.
The best apnoea divers in the world
Today the early apnoea divers are legendary, especially the two eternal rivals Jacques Mayol and Enzo Maiorca, whose mutual incentive for maximum performance inspired the movie “The Big Blue”. The Italian Umberto Pelizzari is also a familiar name in the free-diving scene, since he established free-diving records in all disciplines in the 90s.
Today William Trubridge and Alexei Moltschanow, among others, are considered to be the best apnoea divers of their time.
If you are interested in apnoea diving, you should never “simply” get started! Training with a diving instructor is especially important for free-diving. In our databank, you will find the appropriate diving instructor.