A practical guide to apnea walking as training for freediving

You have probably heard about apnea walking as a form of training. But how does it really work? What are you actually training? There are a few specific ways to practice apnea walking. Here I will describe the method I use.

As you know from our previous posts on muscle fiber type, and muscle metabolism, different metabolic pathways and muscle fibers are active during different parts of the dive. With apnea walking, you train the ascent phase of your dives. During the ascent phase, your legs are gradually becoming more hypoxic as a result of vasoconstriction and overall oxygen depletion.

If you feel like your legs are always tired when you are coming up, apnea walking is worth a try.

Should I practice apnea walking with full or empty lungs?

Apnea walking is a good way to train the muscles under hypoxic conditions. If you do a static with full lungs, your oxygen saturation only starts to decline after several minutes. It starts to decline within a minute if you do a static with empty lungs. The same thing happens if you are walking. Empty lung apnea walks result in lower oxygen saturation, and will be shorter as a result.

Because I find the dive reflex is hard to initiate on land, I do most of my dry apnea with empty lungs. I always train with an oximeter. If the goal is 85% SaO2 it does not matter whether I get there with full or empty lungs.

For me, training with empty lungs is faster and more comfortable. If you have no problem doing long full lung breath holds on land you can fully inflate your lungs before apnea walks.

apnea walking
A simple oximeter that I use for apnea walking. It is far from perfect, but definitely allows me to track my performance better.

I use an initial static of around 30 seconds to become slightly hypoxic before I start the walk. The reason for this is that my body might maintain blood flow to the muscles if I start walking prior to the onset of the dive reflex (or HR drop). This is an obvious issue if the goal is to train the muscles under hypoxic conditions.

After my 30 seconds empty lung static I walk for approximately a minute while maintaining the breath hold. At the end of my static I try to be at SaO2 80 – 85%. I take about 10 recovery breaths, and note the final SaO2. My total recovery interval is 1:30 between walks. I get a maximum of 5 contractions per breath hold this way and I can easily keep it up for more than 10 repetitions.


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Empty lung apnea walking

Apnea walking in point form:

Get your oximeter and a timer ready. If you do not have an oximeter you can still do the exercise but it will be harder to tweak it to your needs.

  • Warm up with a couple breath holds or simply breathe slowly for a few minutes
  • Do an initial static
  • Walk
  • Take up to 10 recovery breaths (quick breaths) and relax. Your total recovery interval is 1:30
  • While in recovery the numbers on your oximeter may keep dropping. Note the lowest value. If this value is lower than your target, reduce your next static and/or walk
  • Repeat for 12 cycles

I use the ‘runtastic’ timer app for iOS in order to time my training (I am not affiliated with this app in any way).

I use the runtastic timer app for my apnea walks
I use the runtastic timer app for my apnea walks

Tweaking the exercise

Your initial static should be short enough to allow for a decent walk. If you have a strong dive reflex on land you may not even need the static. I suggest starting the static at 30 – 50 % of your onset of contraction time. For example a diver that gets contractions at 1 minute on an empty lung static should start with a static of 20 – 30 seconds. If you have an oximeter with heart rate monitor, stop the static and start the walk when you see your heart rate drop (if you see a heart rate drop at all – I often don’t).

Your oximeter will not show the current oxygen saturation. Rather, it records a moving average. Because of that you will have to keep checking your oximeter during your recovery. The lowest value should show up within 15 seconds after you start breathing. Compare this value to your target value.

Your apnea walks should be of a comfort level that you can keep up for more than 10 repetitions. The reason is that you are simply not going to induce adaptations by only one minute of hypoxic walking per training session.

Before you start training, know the risks. Any exercise involving apnea can lead to loss of consciousness, injury, or even death. Choose a safe site to train. Do not attempt this training with a heart condition. Always train with a buddy/spotter.

How do you train your apnea walks? Leave a comment!

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9 thoughts on “A practical guide to apnea walking as training for freediving”

  1. Nice, I’ll give this a try!

    I also recommend a hypercapnia apnea walk exercise. I hold my breath (sometimes FRC, RV or full lungs) and walk for 40 steps. Exhale slowly, inhale slowly (one breath recovery) and do another 40. Continue for 10 reps. Really try to relax and take advantage of your one recovery breath. Start with 20 steps, in unsure, and then make your way up.

    Great exercise to train high CO2 levels and you can do it while walking to work or a path you take daily. This is a good way to track your improvements and push yourself (very slowly, safely and gradually).

    1. Hi Xbuster, this exercise can be done with any type of lung inflation but I like to do it on a passive exhale. Doing this exercise on an exhale (passive or active) will make you hypoxic faster than doing the exercise on an inhale. As a result the entire training time will be shorter. I take 36 minutes for 12 repetitions.

  2. I tried this first with a few rounds of forced exhale, could hardly get 10 seconds of static and 20 seconds of walk, a real killer. Next tried passive exhale and easily got 25 seconds of static and 40+ seconds of walk, not near so stressful. This will take some tweaking.

    What do you think should have the most effective training response, full exhale and much shorter and harder walks or passive exhale with longer exposure to hypoxic conditions?

  3. I think you are probably best off using a passive exhale with longer exposure time. The reasons are 1) it is less stressful for you and 2) training on a passive exhale makes the exercise more similar to your style of diving if I am not mistaken. This exercise definitely needs to be tweaked for individual divers. Were you using an oximeter?

    1. Don’t have an oximeter. Thought about getting one a while back but never did.

      I’ve been more focused on how to improve and speedup my DR than hypoxic training.

  4. My personnal apnea walking is by walking a certain amount of time with full lungs (say 45 sec) and same amount of time of recovery, still walking.
    I’ll try something with empty lungs and an oxymeter as you suggest

    1. Hi Sylvain, interesting method! Sounds like it would mostly train CO2 tolerance. Let us know how it goes with the oximeter/empty lung exercise.

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