When watching the shark cage diving movie, 47 Meters Down, I held my breath for what seemed like the entire duration of the film. If that were true, however, I would have suffered seizures and possible brain damage.
In reality, I only held my breath for a minute or two, which is about how long most people can survive without breathing.
Free divers are something of an anomaly. They can hold their breath for over 10 times longer than the average person through intense training.
How Long Can Free Divers Hold Their Breath?
Without any training, the average person can only hold their breath for around 30 seconds before gasping for air.
If we stop breathing for five to 10 minutes, we’re liable to develop potentially irreversible brain damage. So, how do the top freedivers hold their breath for so long?
Free divers train hard to achieve their breath-holding abilities. Not only do they require intense physical training, but they also use relaxation and meditation techniques to control the desire to breathe.
What is the Longest Time a Free Diver has Held Their Breath?
The longest static breath hold currently stands at 24 minutes and 37.36 seconds. However, 56-year-old Budimir Šobat from Croatia broke the previous world record last year after training for over three years.
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Although the physical training was critical, Budimir believes the mental challenges were even greater. He states, “Freediving is, first of all, a mental sport. If you can be stronger than your mind you will succeed.”
Brazilian free diver Karoline Mariechen Meyer has clearly mastered this skill, having secured the Guinness World Record for the longest time any woman has heald her breath voluntarily.
Meyer performed her record-breaking feat in 2009, holding her breath underwater for an impressive 18 minutes and 32 seconds.
These static apnea dives last much longer than any of the other freediving disciplines because the competitors are completely inactive during the event.
Freedivers competing in deep diving events have other issues to deal with, like the rapid pressure changes that occur as they descend.
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Herbert Nitsch has dived deeper than any other person on earth. Holding his breath for just over nine minutes, he was able to dive deeper than scientists believed possible.
His record dive reached a depth of 831 feet, proving just how far you can push the human body.
How do Freedivers Hold their Breath so Long?
For Nitsch, training begins on the couch, but that doesn’t make it easy. Nitsch’s couch training focuses on developing breathing techniques that maximize the body’s oxygen usage, while simultaneously removing excess carbon dioxide.
Surprisingly enough, it’s not a lack of oxygen that triggers the urge to breathe or gasp for breath, but a build-up of carbon dioxide in the system.
High carbon dioxide levels acidify the blood, so experienced divers use a process known as “controlled hyperventilation” to expel as much carbon dioxide as possible before a dive.
Nitsch also uses “buccal pumping,” a technique many fish and shark species utilize, to pack as much oxygen into his lungs as possible.
These techniques can be extremely dangerous if you haven’t the physical fitness and flexibility to support them.
As divers descend, their bodies are exposed to rapidly changing pressure differences. The deeper they dive, the greater the pressure exerted on their bodies, compressing them and shrinking the spaces their bodies naturally store oxygen.
Because they’re holding their breath when diving underwater, free divers’ heart rates slow down to “preserve blood-oxygen levels.”
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A recent study revealed that the best free divers can reduce their heart rates to just “11 beats per minute,” while a normal resting adult’s heart rate hovers around 60 to 100.
To keep the vital organs functioning in such extreme circumstances, the body moves blood away from peripheral blood vessels in a process known as peripheral vasoconstriction.
Do Free Divers Breathe Out?
Experienced free divers can dive for up to 10 minutes on a single breath, using no breathing apparatus at all. The breathing exercises they perform to achieve these impressive feats.
Although they use air to equalize underwater, they don’t exhale at all during the dive. Doing so could be extremely dangerous.
Equalizing is necessary to balance the pressure inside your ears with that of the underwater environment you’re free diving in.
If you don’t equalize, the surrounding pressure increases while the pressure inside your ears remains the same. Not only is this extremely painful, but it can also cause cells to rupture and, in extreme cases, eardrums to burst.
Holding your breath underwater helps you maintain some buoyancy, which can be a problem for free divers but is also an advantage when you want to return to the surface.
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Exhaling on the way up from a deep dive “deprives your body of oxygen and can make you more negatively buoyant.” Even after you’ve surfaced, “Forceful and complete exhales can cause you to blackout,” which is why experienced divers practice recovery breathing after every dive.
How Deep can Free Divers Go?
When people first start free diving, they rarely exceed depths of around 13 feet, and the average swimmer will probably only go as far as 20 feet.
Those with a little experience can descend as far as 40 feet, although even this level of freediving is dangerous. At these depths, the water pressure is so great it can cause barotrauma of the eyes, ears, and lungs.
Free divers also risk nitrogen narcosis and decompression sickness.
Highly trained free divers can reach depths of around 60 feet, but it takes years of training and dedication to do this safely. In the National Geographic book Exploring the Deep Frontier the authors noted that “oxygen deprivation much longer (than four minutes)… can be damaging or fatal.”
Achieving depths of over 100 feet requires an almost super-human body and, even then, is fraught with danger.
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Herbert Nitsch may have achieved world records in all eight freediving disciplines, but even he’s been hospitalized by his excursions.
During his deepest dive record-setting attempt, Herbert temporarily fell asleep due to nitrogen narcosis, missing his planned one-minute decompression stop.
As a result, he suffered decompression sickness that “resulted in multiple strokes in the temporal lobes and cerebellum.”
As a result, he spent several months in a wheelchair and took two years to recover to the point he could return to the water.
5 Deepest Free Dives
#1 Deepest No-Limit Freedive (Male)
Herbert Nitsch holds the record for the deepest free dive ever, having reached 702 feet in Spetses, Greece in 2007.
No Limits freediving allows contestants to use “any mode of locomotion” to make their descents and ascents. Most use a weighted sled to descend and an inflatable balloon to help them resurface.
#2 Freediving No-Limit (Women)
Before Nitsche’s dive in 2007, Tanya Streeter held the record for the deepest free dive by any diver, male or female.
Streeter completed her record-winning dive in 2002, choosing the clear waters of Turks and Caicos for her attempt.
She reached a depth of 525 feet, which remains the women’s record for No Limits Apnea.
#3 Freediving – Constant Weight (Men)
Unlike No-Limit free divers, constant-weight divers use only fins to assist their descents and ascents. Constant Weight Apnea is “widely regarded as the most prestigious of the freediving disciplines.”
The current record in this discipline is held by the Russian diver Alexey Molchanov who descended to 426 ft 6 inches at the Vertical Blue freediving competition in 2018.
Until recently, Molchanov also held the record for the deepest constant weight dive with bi-fins. Diving with bi-fins rather than a mono fin is less energy efficient, forcing the diver to use more oxygen.
#4 Freediving – Constant Weight with Bi-fins (Men)
French freediver Arnaud Jerald set a new world record for this discipline earlier this year when he descended to 120 meters (393 feet) in three minutes and 34 seconds.
Diving in the Bahamas at the annual Vertical Blue competition, he beat Molochanov’s 2021 record by nearly 16 feet.
#5 Freediving – Constant Weight (Women)
Hot on Jerald’s heels is Alenka Artnik of Slovenia, who set a new women’s world record by descending 374 feet into the Red Sea in 2020.
Free diving is a relatively new sport, even though people have been doing it for thousands of years. In the past, people free-dived to get food and pearls, and it’s only recently that it became a sport in its own right.
The first international freediving championships took place in 1996. Since then, freediving courses have started to pop up worldwide, and an estimated 5,000 registered freedivers are competing internationally.
It may not be natural for people to spend long minutes submerged underwater, but those who love the sport say the experience is addictive and liberating.
The deep breathing exercises used by experienced freedivers slow down your breath, helping you relax your mind and nervous system. In turn, this lowers your stress levels and boosts your mood.
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There are many benefits to free diving but an almost equal amount of dangers. It takes a lot of training and commitment to reach the levels reached by internationally acclaimed free divers.
Yet, all of us can benefit from their breathing and meditation techniques, even if we have no intention of going underwater.
Nicky is a British adventurer and animal lover who spends her time exploring the natural world and writing about her experiences. Whether on horseback, underwater, running, hiking or just standing with a fishing rod in hand, she embraces everything her adopted home of South Africa has to offer.