On November 22, 2021, I was an inch away from blackout, after a Canadian bi-fin record attempt dive to 84 m (275 ft) depth. In this article I want to share with you my surface recovery. I will also dispense some useful tips you can use in your freediving, both recreational and competitive.
Please remember, the video you are about to see are of professionals, with full safety teams and years of experience. Don’t be a contender for this year’s Darwin Awards and go freediving without proper training and safety.
In this article I will discuss:
- What I felt during my Loss of Motor Control (LMC)
- How I managed to recover fully and complete the surface protocol (SP)
- A few tips on proper recovery breaths (post-dive ventilation)
- A tip on how to keep your airways above the water
- A little tip given to me by Andrea Zuccari for better recovery
Reading Time: 10 minutes // Knowledge Level: Beginner to Intermediate
The AIDA Freediving World Cup – November 2021 was a competition held in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt. The host, Freediving World, is the home and school of freediving legend Andrea Zuccari, one of the deepest humans of all time.
An Epic Loss of Motor Control (LMC)
An LMC is essentially a pre-cursor to a blackout, and occurs when an athlete is so hypoxic that they are losing motor control but may still be (somewhat) lucid. Molchanovs Wave 1 describes an LMC as follows:
Involuntary contractions generally develop in the neck, shoulders, arms, and occasionally in the leg muscles. A loss of motor control can happen following a freedive if your oxygen levels are too low. Also known as a hypoxic fit, you are often unaware that it is happening.Molchanovs Wave 1 Manual
An LMC occurs when the partial pressure of oxygen (ppO2) drops below a certain level. The brain and nervous system are deprived of oxgen, which causes ‘cerebral hypoxia’ and a loss of motor control.
See video below for a proper LMC.
What is interesting is that you can train your hypoxic tolerance, but also your capacity to gauge it, feel it coming and “get yourself out” of it. There’s several ways to do this, most of which are only recommend to experienced divers, for obvious reasons.
- Training your hypoxic tolerance is the science part: the biochemical adaptations your body undergoes after repeated exposure to hypoxic conditions in specific training exercises. A trained freediver is able to maintain a level of hypoxia above the threshold of blackout for longer.
- Gauging hypoxia: this is done with breathing exercises, meditation and awareness training.
Here’s a cool article about the Sherpas and their genetic ability for enhanced oxygen utilization, superior efficiency in muscle mechanics and less oxidative stress generation.
Snapping (or slapping) out of an LMC
I surprised myself the day of the competition, by slapping myself in the face so hard that I gave myself a nosebleed afterwards (yes, I’m not kidding). I did this instinctively. Thanks to my training I could feel the acute hypoxia and I knew how (to a certain extent of course) to control it. I was conscious enough to remind to “slap myself in the face” and immediately felt lucid.
After that slap I was back 100%, hence the speed I removed my noseclip and gave the “okay” sign. I clearly remember the struggle, the fight, and thinking about how I didn’t want to give up, to give in and simply let go.
I remember thinking to myself, as I felt my body limp and useless, “No Luca, not this time. Hang in there, fight through it. Slap yourself. SLAP NOW!”
This was such a strong mind-over-matter moment for me, that I am still reeling from it. I have not experienced it much, and I am looking forward to test it more – but perhaps not during record and competition events…
Why did this LMC happen?
Competition stress is real.
You’ve invested so much money, time and health into getting here it’s natural you want to give your best shot. Stress and pressure are inevitable, it’s how to learn to manage and handle it that makes a difference.
Like many high-level performance sports, keeping the mind focused, blocking out doubts and surrounding yourself in a positively confident environment is key.
I like to remind myself that stress is simply a chance or opportunity for focus. I replace the word “stress” in my mind with the word “focus”. This type of mental affirmation plays a big role in preparation.
Get yourself a coach.
I really should’ve had a coach here when going for a personal best dive and a National Record Dive to -84 meters (-275 feet). Having someone by your side, as in other sports, is very useful. This person should be a guiding voice during a hypoxic surface protocol, and a clear indicator an athlete must stay with during competition time. This is especially true in freediving, where we have to complete the Surface Protocol (SP) 15 seconds upon resurfacing, often in a mentally impaired state due to hypoxia.
The Surface Protocol (SP) consists of:
- Removing facial equipment (mask and/or noseclip)
- Giving the “okay” sign
- Saying the word “okay”
It must be done exactly like this, and under 15 seconds. I finished my surface protocol in 14.9 seconds. Talk about living on the edge.
Next time, I want someone by my side yelling “breathe Luca, breathe!” so I don’t have to nearly slap myself unconscious to stay conscious.
Don’t dive injured.
After the competition I was diagnosed with a herniated disk between the L4/L5 vertebrae. A herniated disk and painkillers, makes for an epic challenge during a bi-fins dive to 84 meters. The movements required for bi-finning demand use of the hamstrings, abductors, stabilizers and TLF.
My advice? Use mental training to dissociate from these discomforts or they will take too much of a toll on your dive. Unless of course, you’re diving is so impaired that you should call a different depth.
Know yourself, know your body, know your limits.
This is something truly fascinating about freediving: you can train the mental aspects of the sport to reach the point of “disconnecting” from actual physical pain. You can convince yourself the pain is tolerable, or simply part of the process.
Again, not ideal, but a useful tool to have. Expect to roll with the punches, not everything is going to be perfect in training and competitions.
Know the local conditions
If you look at the line prior to the dive, you can see it is not that straight, despite no surface current. At this particular dive site current usually picks up at depth first and rises through the water column gradually. A diver may not feel it at the surface, but it can hit home hard at 50 or 60m depth.
In the present moment, or your “flow-state” as you dive, you have to gauge whether to turn back or manage the current on your descent.
I hit this current at about 60 meters on the way down, and at 70 meters the line (my reference point I stay in front of the whole dive) was nowhere to been seen. I managed by staying calm, and turning myself back to the line.
Touchdown! -84 meters! Grab the tag and go back up.
With bi-fins you can feel the current quite well. I felt the additional effort of finning towards the line, trying to keep myself parallel and streamlined. Needless to stay, this used up a bit more oxygen than I anticipated.
Make sure that you know the local conditions. How do currents manifest, what wildlife may distract you, and what thermoclines will you encounter? This way you won’t run into surprises. In an ideal scenario you don’t have to take any decisions on your way down, but in reality these decisions are part of freediving, and noone else can take them for you.
Recovery Breaths! And more tips…
Molchanovs Recovery Breaths
Since I teach the Molchanovs Education Program, I’ve had to re-learn to do correct recovery breaths myself! Not only because I teach this, but also because they’ve been shown (via studies and research) to be the most efficient way to recover from hypoxia and a drop in ppO2!
To practice recovery breathing, follow these steps after you surface:
- Exhale passively and let the air from your lungs flow out.
- Inhale actively with a wide open mouth to allow maximum intake of air into your lungs. This sounds like you are saying ‘hope’ on your inhale.
- Exhale approximately half your air with light resistance. Do this by pursing your lips or by using your tongue to restrict the airflow. This increases air pressure in your lungs and facilitates oxygen transfer to your blood and the removal of carbon dioxide.
- Inhale actively with a wide open mouth to allow maximum intake of air into your lungs.
- Repeat step 3 and 4 a minimum of three times, or until you feel fully recovered and able to resume normal breathing.
Why do this? Two quick reasons for you: better oxygenation and avoid lung squeezes.
Please, please, whether you’re a pro freediver, an amateur spearfisher or recreational freediver learn to perform these and make this a habit. Muscle memory and repetition. Get it done!
Reach for the sky
Simple, this comes from sport and ice climbing! In climbing we teach a very important concept: when you are “pumped” and need a break, you “hang” from your arm full extended.
By doing so, the force is transferred across the bones, and not the muscles. In other words, no muscular flexion, thus no work being done on muscles. Think about how much easier it is to hang off a bar arms extended versus doing a semi-pull up?
So? Well, do like in this picture below!
By hanging and “crimping” (climbing term) onto the line, you almost guarantee that you aren’t going anywhere. Even subconsciously (i.e. literally unconsciously too) you will crimp down harder and not fall into the water with your airways.
If you’re a competitive freediver, or plan to be, you should try to incorporate this “crimp the line” into your training. It’s great, you also learn a useful climbing skill!
A tip from Andrea Zuccari…
This tip was given to me by Andrea Zuccari. Andrea teaches this method of recovery after doing the regular recovery breaths (i.e. mentioned above as the Molchanovs Recovery Breaths).
What to do? Simple:
- After your 3-4 recovery breaths, take one or two deep breaths through the nose. By now you’re removed the facial equipment. These are calm, relaxed inhalations and passive exhalations.
- We know that nasal breathing is far better and more efficient to mouth breath. Nose is for breathing, mouth for eating. Simple.
- We also know nasal breathing stimulates relaxation. The deep nasal breaths generate, “endogenous Nitric Oxide (NO), which attenuates hypoxic pulmonary vasoconstriction but does not augment the CO2-induced vasodilatation.”
This Post Has 2 Comments
Luca, thanks for a great post. First, the recovery breaths. Since I learned another technique long ago, I am working to learn it. I’ll then decide whether it’s worth the effort, but I agree it does come from a good source.
It does lead to another thought. If you used this technique before a dive it might change the dynamics of your time/depth. Oxygen is mostly carried in hemoglobin, but more oxygen can be added dissolved in the plasma. With normal hyperventilation you increase dissolved oxygen, and also drop CO2, potentially leading to serious problems! In practicing the Molchanov technique it may give a boost to dissolved oxygen at the beginning of a dive, but not leading to a drop in CO2.The pressure developed by the controlled exhale would keep the CO2 dissolved. What do you think?
My other thoughts related to your practice of partial blackouts to help you stay in control. Sounds pretty sketchy unless you are about to go for a world record. It can’t be good for you.
Thanks again for the post,
Thanks for you comment! Great feedback and points.
I think you might be confused since you wrote,”If you used this technique before a dive it might change the dynamics of your time/depth.” The recovery breaths are only used AFTER the dive, in order to better recover. The kind of relaxation or “breathe-up” I do before any dive is completely different.
Also, regarding hyperventilation/over-breathing it’s not black and white. Yes, in entry-level courses you are taught to never ever hyperventilate.True. But when you become experienced enough, through thousands of dives and hundreds of total dive hours accumulated underwater, you learn how to tweak this. I’ll leave it at that since this will be a far longer discussion.
Regarding biochemistry, please double-check what you mean by dissolved oxygen? As far as I’m aware of, only a small amount of oxygen is dissolved in the blood plasma, compared to oxygen binded. It’s the CO2 in the form of bicarbonate and dissolved you may be referring to. Please correct me with references if I am wrong in this!!
Have a read at this article regarding CO2 transport: https://www.freedivewire.com/details-co2-tolerance/
Partial blackouts? Nope, that’s not the point here. I agree subjecting oneself to multiple blackouts is NOT a good thing. The idea behind the Intermittent Hypoxic Training (coined I believed by legendary Eric Fattah) is to SLOWLY and GRADUALLY adapt the body/mind over TIME to get used to lower and lower partial pressures of oxygen. So you NEVER EVER PUSH a static breath-hold to blacking out, serves you no purpose, but you train to find that limit and slowly play within it.
Let me know if you have any questions.