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Relax, you’ve got plenty of air to spare

Ricky Whitlock assists Kyle Thiermann in a 4 minute breath hold.

As a Santa Cruz transplant, I did not grow up near the water. It took a stoked ex-girlfriend who surfed better than I could to get me motivated enough to drive over the hill to get wet. But now, a few years hence, having moved to Santa Cruz I’ve been fully converted and have been baptizing myself in the waters off East Cliff on a near daily basis.

But my journey from kook to waterman has not been easy or short. One of the biggest challenges I’ve been forced to overcome, and in fact still confront on a regular basis, is a natural fear of the ocean. Watch any Shipstern or Teahupoo wipeout and I think you’d agree with me: the ocean can be a scary place.

We’ve all been out on days where the waves were just a hint too mean for our ability levels: the 8-10 foot day when your leash snapped, when you took two on the head with a half lungful of air, the first time you had to climb your leash up to the surface. Unless your name is Garrett McNamara, even the best of us have our upper limits.

I am by no means a big wave surfer like our own Tyler Fox, but through my own development as a surfer, I’ve picked up a few lessons along the way that’s helped me make bigger strides on the scared to stoked scale. I hope the following five suggestions will help you, as they’ve helped me, condition your body and mind to better last under adverse conditions and to quell the nagging fear that keeps you from going out on bigger days.

1. Knowledge is power. Every time we wipe out and get held under, a combination of physiological factors elicit our reflexive urge to breathe. Adrenaline release, elevated heart rate, muscular oxygen deficit are all involved and culpable, with the greatest trigger being elevated levels of CO². But when it comes down to survival, the only factor that matters is the level of O² in our system. This simple understanding that your urge to breathe is not directly correlated with your oxygen levels is a GAME CHANGER. The time difference between that first urge to breathe and the actual exhaustion of your oxygen stores can literally be minutes. Combining this with the knowledge that with a just a few hours of proper instruction almost all of us have the innate ability to hold our breaths for three-plus minutes can make an incredible difference in everyone’s mental stability during water emergencies.

2. Plan & practice. When that urge to breathe does actually present itself, everything in your being will tell you to thrash and fight for the surface. But your survival depends on your ability to stay calm, to relax every muscle in your body, and to slow your heart rate. Research tells us that panic is the first step to drowning, so it is imperative that you teach your mind to master the ability to relax through the urge to breathe. It is no easy feat and a hefty topic best left to a dedicated article. For now, know that the best way to do this is in a controlled environment, in a pool with a buddy that is familiar with freediving safety protocols, NOT by carrying heavy rocks around underwater. If you don’t have a buddy, or don’t know what the proper protocols are, there are CO² tolerance tables that you can perform dry, sitting on your couch watching your dog scratch him/herself.

3. Breathe correctly. It only makes sense that learning to breathe correctly can help you when you aren’t breathing. Considering that the average adult takes between 17,000 – 28,000 breaths on a daily basis, you can imagine how dramatic an effect breathing patterns can have on posture, muscle tone, pain, and autonomic nervous system regulation. Incorrect breathing strategies can prevent you from taking a full inhalation into the bottom of your lungs where the majority of gas exchange takes place, it can cause unconscious tensing of postural muscles, and can also up-regulate your sympathetic nervous system. All things we don’t want to occur when we are trying to extend bottom times and increase comfort levels. Here are two videos to give you an idea of what correct breathing looks like:

Diaphragmatic breathing (beginner)

Apical expansion (advanced)

4. Challenge yourself. If you are always surfing the same break under the same conditions, you will never gain the confidence to surf in bigger and more challenging conditions. If you always surf right points, go find a punchy left beach break. If you longboard, go leashless when the waves are less crowded. All of these things will expand your comfort zone and force you to become a more well-rounded surfer. Of course, do all of it wisely and gradually. Use common sense, paddle out with someone who knows the unfamiliar break, spend time scoping things out, respect the locals, etc. I promise you that paddling out in 10-12 foot Haleiwa will make 6-8 foot Pleasure Point much less intimidating.

5. Cross-train. There are several sports that have excellent transfer to surfing in terms of their ability to increase CO² tolerance (delaying the urge to breathe) and general water comfort. A few that might be worth exploring: freediving/abalone diving/spearfishing, bodysurfing, and open water swimming. Freediving/abalone diving/spearfishing will all create a relative mental safety net for you in larger conditions. What’s a 20 second hold-down under ten feet of water when you’ve been down to 80 feet and held your breath for five minutes before? Bodysurfing forces you to ditch your reliance on your surfboard as a flotation device and gives you a much more intimate understanding of wave mechanics as you learn to navigate the peaks and troughs of breaking waves with just your body. And open water swimming can give you the confidence that you can survive in the open ocean for an extended period of time and help prevent the onset of panic if you are ever caught in a rip current and pulled out to sea.

With only a few years of surfing under my belt, I am by no means an expert surfer. But I’ve made a commitment to push myself and challenge myself on a consistent basis to better my mind and my body. Progressing through these five lessons have helped me gain a better understanding of my own limitations and capabilities, and has also brought me a greater familiarity and respect for the ocean. I hope they will do the same for you.

Caleb Chiu is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist training out of Santa Cruz Strength on the Westside. He also runs the poorly updated Facebook page Surfwise, where he posts the occasional rant/rave on the do’s and don’ts of surf training. For private training please contact Caleb @ 858.361.5218 or calebchiu@gmail.com. Alternatively you can find him in the water at first peak Pleasure Point on a daily basis.

3 Responses to Relax, you’ve got plenty of air to spare

  1. surfsalterpath May 2, 2013 at 11:06 am #

    Interesting article. Thanks for sharing.

    • Caleb Chiu, CSCS May 6, 2013 at 5:43 pm #

      thanks for reading! definitely appreciate any feedback you might have.

  2. JackNeenan May 10, 2013 at 3:03 pm #

    I’ve been surfing for a long time but a couple of weeks ago I got held down at the Lane for longer than I can remember. I panicked a bit before surfacing and felt like I could almost taste blood in my lungs. Thanks for reminding me to stay calm, that was the issue I was struggling with the most.

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