Take Your Vitamin Freediving Daily
By Kirk Krack
Who would have known that 2020-21 would look the way it does now? I am sure we all made some sort of diving plan for this year only to have us studying every crack and crevice of our homes and yards as we suffer diving withdrawal. I’ve actually enjoyed this time with my family after a hectic 20 years developing PFI and being on the road for 9 months out of year. For the first time I’ve actually seen where I live transition from winter into spring and I’m fully enjoying the seeing the first days of summer. My yard has never looked better and my raised beds have never been more fully functioning and ready for food supply disruptions at any minute. I’m also in the middle of a tele-meeting renaissance, having been a guest and conducting hour-long Facebook live events. I am now fielding questions daily as to ‘What does it all look like for freedivers and freediving?’ The one common question is ‘Does freediving have any benefit in the age of COVID-19?’ and my opinion will be a rounding YES!
By now we all have watched the news and understand that COVID-19 is short for coronavirus disease with the number 19 referring to the fact that the disease was first detected in 2019, though the global outbreak occurred in 2020. The technical name of the virus is severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, abbreviated as SARS-CoV-2. As we all know, this virus attacks the lungs and is characterized in the lungs by coughing and difficulty breathing.
The key point for this pandemic should be prevention, which means doing whatever we can to avoid transmission. We as freedivers are no exception. Freediving is generally not considered a team sport or recreation and seems to be an individual endeavour; however, we do know it needs to be practiced with a buddy. This seems to contradict the physical distancing requirements of 6 ft (2m) apart, but transmission of the virus under water does not seem to be an issue; however, the virus can survive and be transported for some time on the surface. There is no evidence that COVID-19 spreads through pool water as proper operation, maintenance, and disinfection with chlorine and bromine should remove or inactivate the virus. There are questions about salt-water vs fresh water regarding the virus, and its ability to pass through wastewater that could be jettisoned into the ocean and end up near our favourite diving areas.
People who do contract this virus and become symptomatic generally fall into either ‘mild’ or ‘severe’ categories, with mild cases accounting for 80% and usually lasting 1-2 weeks in duration. Those with severe cases make up the balance (approximately 20%) and can expect to be dealing with it for 3-6 weeks. COVID-19 targets the epithelium (tissue layer) of the alveoli within the lungs, which can disrupt gas exchange causing hypoxemia or lower than normal O2 in the blood along with scarring and tissue fibrosis to the lungs. Signs and symptoms include: tachapnea (fast breathing), shortness of breath, cyanosis (blueness of the lips), confusion, and drowsiness. In addition to this, other organs such as blood vessels, heart, liver, and kidney also can be attacked.
Specific to the diving community, what long term health affects are there? What we do know is that it’s like other diseases such as pneumonia and ARDS (acute respiratory distress syndrome) and we can risk cardiac issues such as cardiomyopathy and arrhythmias, exercise intolerance, decreased lung function, lung fibrosis (scar tissue) and possible heart problems. Recently Dr. Frank Hardig at Innsbruck University Hospital in Austria (who is also a scuba diver) encountered problems as a physician with six scuba divers who were hospitalized with COVID-19. Upon returning 5-6 weeks later and appearing healthy, a closer examination showed two had significant oxygen deficiency when under stress, the bronchial tubes of another two were still irritated during exercise, and four of the six still had significant lung changes. This is only six divers and preliminary. Time and a greater number of divers contracting (and recovering) will tell the full story, but until then it’s safe to say we should all exercise appropriate precautions.
This means that should you contract and subsequently recover from COVID-19 and you are wondering about your fitness to dive, likely your family doctor won’t be in a position to sign-off and you should be seeking the help from a doctor knowledgeable in diving medicine. Divers Alert Network can assist in helping you find qualified physicians (www.diversalertnetwork.org). Recently the University of California San Diego came out with ‘Guidelines for Evaluation of Divers during COVID-19 pandemic’, in which they identified potential long term consequences from COVID-19 to include: “decreased exercise tolerance, increased susceptibility to cardiac events such as heart failure, pulmonary edema, and arrhythmia, structural changes of the lung leading to increased risk for barotrauma, and increased risk of decompression sickness from underlying hypercoagulability.” They state that their guidelines “are referring to divers who are completely asymptomatic after their illness, including exercise tolerance” and they’ve created ‘Guidelines For Diver Evaluation’ which has categories 0 – 3 based on the history of the illness. They layout the diver categories of ‘Commercial Divers’, Scientific Divers’ and ‘Recreational Divers’ and recommendations for testing. After category 1 (“Asymptomatic Diver who had a mild COVID-19 SUSPECTED illness”) increasing degrees of testing are recommended, including spirometry, chest radiograph, and exercise tolerance tests.
Do Freedivers have advantages in the fight against COVID-19? Short answer in my opinion and that of several diving doctors is YES. First off, will we be less susceptible to contracting COVID-19? No, not if you are not taking all the precautions of social distancing, hand hygiene, and the other recommendations we know we should. However, if you do contract it, what advantages do you enjoy during the fight?
Look at the lifestyle freedivers enjoy as a simple day to day routine of being ‘ready for the game’. Freediving is largely a physical activity and one that allows you to play at any level you wish. However, you still have the ‘work’ of ascending and descending in breath-hold, surface swim significant distances daily and work in an aerobic and anaerobic phase. We see working heart rates both increased and, thanks to bradycardia, decreased and this variable heart rate both on the high and low end provides a significant training advantage. Cardio training also develops a vascular plasticity. As opposed to simply ‘going for a good walk’, which is closer to scuba diving, freedivers enjoy a more physical component much like a hard hike with your backpack on. Also, diet is another important component of freediving. We eat a healthier, well balanced meals; we avoid excessive stimulants and absolutely avoid smoking and other lung-harmful vices. If you’re tired of your unhealthy lifestyle and are ready for a change and a challenge, take your Vitamin Freediving.
“Do Freedivers have advantages in the fight against COVID-19? Short answer in my opinion is YES.”
Segmented breathing and awareness
It’s funny how we must be taught ‘how to breath’ properly, as most of us develop bad and inefficient breathing habits over the years. Awareness and strength of breathing is a significant training component of freediving and we initially practice what is called ‘segmented breathing’. These segmented breaths have you initiating and focusing your breathing on the individual breathing muscles through ‘pursed lips’, which create a back pressure, allowing you to feel and isolate each individual breathing muscle to control and strengthen them. In any segmented breathing exercise, we learn to start our breathing at the diaphragm, gradually moving upwards in the muscles much like filling a vase with water. The diaphragm is our most important breathing muscle. Two thirds of the blood oxygenating our body is in the lower one third of our lungs; deep breathing means more efficient oxygenation. It’s a wonder why we develop bad breathing habits and soon over time become more ‘upper chest’ breathers. Look at a baby within its first year of being born. Babies are ‘belly-breathers’. This is the time at which we are most efficient. Over time due to social pressures and other influences, we develop bad breathing habits. Become a freediver and learn how to breath properly again or simply practice dry at home. Take your Vitamin Freediving.
You don’t have to be a trained competitive freediver who practices both inhalation and exhalation lung stretches to increase lung flexibility to benefit. I know from seven years running the training component of the Simon Fraser University Advanced Freediving Research program that in twelve weeks, through simple daily stretching exercises that take 10-15min a day and can be done dry, an average learning freediver can make a 10-15% increase in vital capacity (biggest lung inhalation from completely empty to completely full). If you were a Toyota Prius, how far could you go on 25% more free fuel efficiency and why not take it? This can be enjoyed be all practicing freedivers at different levels by simply having fun in the water and taking ‘peak inhalations’ (biggest breath right before you dive) as part of your sport. It’s also something easily practiced dry at home. Take your Vitamin Freediving.
Carbon dioxide and oxygen tolerance
Lastly, freedivers develop a tolerance to rising carbon dioxide and lowering oxygen and extend the ranges at which they can work within these increasing and decreasing zones. A serious freediver may practice specific dry breathing programs twice weekly to change their working levels of these gases to make their freedives more enjoyable, longer, and efficient. This set of eight breath tables sets a specific ‘breath-up’ followed by a specific ‘breath-hold’. One may have the breath-holds increasing while the breathing times stay the same; another has the breath-holds staying the same while the time to breath-up decreases. This variation of breathing pattern has either a rising CO2 environment within the body or decreasing O2. When training New York magician David Blaine for both his 2006 Drowned Alive event and his 2008 oxygen breath-hold world record live on the Oprah show, these tables were critical. Such was his training that he finished table 20 where sets #7 and #8 had him breathing for 15sec in which to repeat a 5min 15sec breath-hold.
Meditation and stress relief
To truly have fun and enjoy greater performance while freediving, many freedivers practice different forms of mediation or mindfulness. Static apnea (breath-hold for time) is one discipline where living in the moment and avoiding negative thoughts can be helpful. Recent research shows that mindful meditation can strengthen the immune system. In many people, meditation allows for an increased and better body awareness and this might lead to symptoms being perceived earlier.
Freediving lifestyle vs COVID-19
Am I saying that freediving is the magic bullet to avoid, deal with or recuperate from COVID-19 or any other myriad of lung diseases both self-inflicted, unintendedly, or genetically inherited? No! However if I knew that someday there was a good chance that I’d have no choice but to enter the ring with a trained mixed martial arts fighter for three rounds and my goal was to be able to walk away on my own…. First off, I’d try to avoid the fight in the first place. I’d work on defensive techniques and I would work my endurance so I could stay in the fight and be ready to take the punches. Freediving allows you to enjoy a healthy life style and increase your cardiopulmonary component, learn to breath properly, get a bigger and more efficient breath, and, finally, be able to work on O2/Co2 stressed environments. All while learning an amazing sport and lifestyle.
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