Most surfers I’ve coached never do much to prepare themselves for what they’ll experience and do underwater. Of course, big wave surfers do this as a prerequisite for their jobs, but your average weekend warrior tends to go through life fear wipeouts rather than preparing for them.
One of the reasons for this is that there’s no obvious way to “train” for wiping out. Breath hold training is usually done in static, calm environments, like jumping into a still pool and seeing how long you can stay underwater. There are no waves, you’re not tumbling around, or being dragged further and further away from the surface. Even if you can hold your breath for 1-2 minutes without training, getting dragged through the washing machine is entirely different.
My 3-Step Formula for Breath Hold Training
1. In Normal Conditions
A good target for training is to be able to hold your breath for a minimum of 2-3 minutes.
This goal can easily be reached with a little bit of practice. Personally, I used the method popularized by Wim Hof, the guy commonly nicknamed “The Iceman” for his ability to hold his breath for six minutes underwater. You can hear Laird Hamilton talk about what he’s learned from him here.
You can start doing this even without going to a pool. Just sit on the floor/ground, take at least 20 deep breaths (deep inhale through the nose, exhale through your mouth). Once you start to feel a little dizzy or reached 20 exhales, exhale and hold your breath and see how long you can do it.
Try 3-4 times with some rests in between. Write up your results in your phone or use my Breath holding cheat sheet. Keep track of your progress every time you do this.
After three days of practice, you will improve (my own times doubled) and start to become more accustomed to fighting the mental fear response when oxygen is running low. You will find that you’re able to push through the boundary of the first panic reactions and have plenty of time before you actually need to breathe. This will give you more confidence the next time you are tumbling around underwater. As you practice this, be clear of the warnings here.
Once you feel comfortable holding your breath in the water, aim for multiple 1-minute breath holds with very short surface intervals, just like getting pounded throughout a heavy set.
Those who want to become really good at this, I recommend doing the entire Wim Hof course. It is really amazing what all of us are capable of with just a little bit of training.
2. Getting Dragged Underwater
Holding your breath while you are getting dragged underwater during a wipeout is way more challenging than in optimal conditions. Ideally, you only have to hold your breath less than 8-10 seconds at a time with smaller waves (less than overhead wave) and for many larger waves. It’s unlikely that you will ever have to hold your breath for more than one full minute after a wipeout.
While you are getting pounded by the waves, your muscles use more oxygen than in static water, instinctively trying to swim for the surface, protect your body from hitting anything (like a reed), etc. This is where learning to relax your body becomes a skillset. Less tension in the body = holding your breath underwater for longer periods.
This is one very unique way to practice and simulate the experience of a wipeout with a friend.
3. Dealing With Fear
The most simple way to overcome your fear of wipeouts is knowing you are prepared for every outcome. With the above two steps, you’ve already increased your breath hold, now, knowing that you are prepared for anything will give you confidence.
-Briefly recall the breath training when you paddle out next, understanding your limits.
-Remember that it doesn’t take as long to surface as you think after. In total, it will be likely much less than a minute and with all your training you’re actually prepared to hold out for 3-4 minutes.
-You should always prepare yourself to handle not just a single wave, but an entire set, breaching the surface intermittently between waves. You’ll need to stay calm after the second or third wave is pounding you and keep repeating what you’ve practiced.
Your panic and fear is holding you back more than your actual capabilities. Open water is a scary thing for almost everyone. Learning the fundamentals of surfing is one thing, but knowing how to take a set of monster waves on the head is absolutely essential. Print my Breath holding cheat sheet and hang it near your desk. Prepare for it, so you can have more fun and confidence surfing next time.
The biggest thing you could take away from this whole breath holding exercise is that you are now able to control yourself and your body, even when the conditions are not ideal. Now go enjoy your next surfing session with more confidence.