The Dawn of Upside Down Equalization

Almost an impressive movie-title, right?

Well, I can frankly say that there has been a dawn of sorts in my progression. And in this year-ending post I would love to tell you about it.

The first proper upside down (or head down) equalizations happened in a pool in (New) Belgrade, Serbia. I grabbed a couple of opportunities to keep up the training while visiting family in November.

Nearby where I stayed was a large facility called “SRC 11 april”. I think it’s been there for quite some time. It stems from communist Yugoslavia, run by Marshal Tito. And you do indeed get that kind of vibe, both walking up to it and inside: sitting up a hill, built in the days of red Yugoslavia it definitely once was an impressive new complex. Probably exemplary of some supposed superiority and one of the many structures that prided – or at least had to pride – every single Yugoslav citizen.

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SRC 11 April – JP Sportski Centar Novi Beograd

I don’t know exactly why it’s named “11 April”. I can’t find the explanation on its website, but searching the internet narrowed it down to a most likely option. Even though the facility was opened on the 20th of December 1979, it is probably named after the 11th of April in 1948 when the ground was broken on a huge construction project that would give birth to what is known today as New Belgrade. This is a part of Belgrade on the other side of the Sava river and also the part where this facility stands.

Now it’s in moderate to poor upkeep. It probably looks better than it did in the 90’s and right after, but it doesn’t look like it fares as well under capitalism as it did during the particular times of its origin. Be that as it may, it has a bunch of pools, including two Olympic (50 meter) pools. One inside and one outside!

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The Olympic size pool inside

At the pool I did some DNF warm-ups and then started to hang from the side to practice upside down equalizations. I started doing some Frenzel equalizations upright to later push my upper body below the surface and upside down to try it that way. If you read the previous post, you know I was already able to do it this way, but not get a lot further than that, unfortunately.

To help improve my Frenzel equalization technique I did a lot of dry training. It pretty much comes down to practicing your equalizations a couple of times a day, on dry land, wherever, whenever. There are three things that helped and still help me a lot. First is the Step-by-Step Frenzel Technique document by Eric Fattah. Second is a document on Freedive Equalization Training by Oli Christen. And last but not least, also mentioned in the aforementioned document by Christen: the Otovent. Make sure you take a look at these if you have similar problems.

Starting out with the equalization practice at SRC 11 April I had pretty much the same disappointing sensations I had before, but quite quickly something just clicked! I was able to do an equalization hanging upside down the side of the pool, pretty much at will. This gave me the moxie I needed! I kept repeating the equalization in this position. Come up for air, breathe a bit, push the upper body back down, and repeat…

After a while I started to let myself go of the edge and float to the bottom to equalize. The pool wasn’t too deep at around 2 meters, but perfect to equalize at least once at the bottom. This now also went well and gave me more and more confidence. So I tried it on empty lungs (with a cheek-fill) a couple of times, which I managed off-and-on.

The second time I went to SRC 11 April I found out the previous visit was not (on) just a lucky day with once-only successes. I managed again and again, also on empty lungs, and felt increasingly pleased and positively excited to try upside down equalizations in deeper pools.

To finish off this happy session I decided to try to DNF the length of the Olympic pool. Since I had no buddy, I asked the lifeguard to keep an eye on me. I put my neck-weight on and after a two minute breathe-up I went under and swam the length of the pool without pushing myself all too hard. So I did it again and measured the swim time: a decent 58 seconds.

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Since the lifeguard wasn’t walking alongside the pool with me, I didn’t fully trust the situation to try an even further push. Nevertheless, I was quite happy with the 50 meters and it was a great conclusion to the day.

Back in the Netherlands I was quick to practice again in the 5 meter deep pool I told you about in my previous post. The first time back started out quite disappointing. I was not immediately able to reach the bottom equalizing head down. F*ck this man…, I thought. Somehow I tensed up. Not being relaxed clearly has a detrimental effect to whatever you’re planning below the surface of any body of water. It’s so incredibly contra-productive. And it’s probably also the most confrontational aspect of freediving…

Didn’t some freediver once say: “The scuba diver dives to look around. The freediver dives to look inside.” This quote was definitely not born out of thin air. To even become more than just a novice at this sport – if you can even call it a sport – it’s paramount to be able to look inside and find out what mental barriers hamper and bother you. Which, if you really examine them, they probably do as much on the surface as they do below it.

So… with hindsight it was no surprise that as soon as I started to focus less on frenetically training the upside down equalizations and more on just having fun, blowing some bubble rings and stuff, I suddenly managed! All the way to the bottom! All I had to do next time was to remember to have fun and not allow my high expectations of myself make me tense up again. Hashtag mental note.

In the meantime I have been back to train a couple of times now, with more and more succes. The dawn has solidified. As this winter crosses the border from 2017 to 2018 I’ll keep practicing and hopefully (finally) shoot a couple of vids to show you.

Guys! Have a great party tonight! Happy new year and hasta luego!

 

PS If you’re new to this blog, you can start with my first post here.

A place to train

It has been a while since my last post. But don’t fear, I have not been sitting still!

Before the last deep diving day in Germany one of our group members bought all of us some lead grain to make our own neck-weights. There is still a market for those things, because you can’t really buy them anywhere.

So I watched this video by an old bossman called Aharon Solomons and bought the rest of the necessary materials:

It looked something like this when I started out:

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The vaseline and the balloons were for a different method of making the neck-weight, as shown in this video:

But… because I’m pretty lazy and the lead dust that came with the lead grain made me freak out a bit (sure, I’m also a bit of an hypochondriac), I decided to follow the Solomons method. Nevertheless, the end result was something to be proud of:

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So now all I had to do was find a place to train!

If you have read my previous blog post, you know I have to practice my head-down equalization technique. It might be a partly mechanical and partly physiological problem, but nothing that can’t be fixed. Browsing the internet you can find loads of freedivers (even instructors) that struggled with the same problems when they started out. They are usually keen to share lessons they learned during their journey to eventual success.

What I needed was a pool with decent depth, where I can easily feel if my equalizations are working. Turns out I have a swimming complex nearby with a pool for competitive diving. You know, for the kind of salto diving they do at the Olympics. Those pools need to be a bit deeper than average and this one is 5 meters deep. Should do the job, right?

2trert08Last Thursday I took the car and drove there. Walking towards the locker rooms I saw some old fellas (and obviously one grandson) snorkelling in the diving pool. Yes(!), I thought, this means I can go in there (for the website of the swimming complex mentioned the diving pool was usually not open to the public). Once changed into my swimming shorts I immediately entered the area of de diving pool and started going about my business, legs hanging on the edge of the pool and pushing my head down to practice the upside down equalization (slowly). When I managed to do so in this position I let my legs go to slowly drift down to the bottom, meanwhile trying to keep equalizing. Unfortunately I only managed to get half way.

I was trying and doing all sorts of exercises when one of the old guys came up to me to tell me they were from an association of divers that rented this pool for the hour every Thursday evening. He was very interested in what I was doing and I was free to stay and practice, but he also tried to plug me a membership. It finally started to dawn on me why the pool was not completely filled with people having fun jumping from the diving platforms.

I kept practicing until I got too cold to continue. The necessity of a wetsuit became quite clear. I definitely wanted to continue, but simply couldn’t. I did a couple of fast laps freestyle to warm up a bit and ended this evening of practice.

In the meantime I found out how it works with the diving pool and I found some associations that use it for training purposes in the evenings. They are mostly open to new members and have reasonable prices, which means I might still find a good place and time to train this winter, all before I go for the retry to get my SSI level 1 freediver certification at the beginning of next year.

Cheers!

 

PS For the people new to this blog: you can start with my first post here!

SSI level 1 – fourth course day (the deep)

If you are new to this blog, you can start with the first post here!

Here we come Dive4Life Germany!

It was a two-and-a-half to three hour drive away from Amsterdam, so I had to rise and shine well before dawn last Friday morning. At a carpooling spot south of Amsterdam three of us two drove to Arnhem in an old-school Volkswagen van. There we switched to a Peugeot (with sky roof) of a fourth member of our group of freediving-students.

A long drive is a great way to get to know people. We definitely had a special group of students, all with fascinating life stories, exactly like you’d imagine of a group of people trying out this niche sport. Talking about and listening to our background stories and the occasional sanitary stop in-between, time flew by pretty fast.

We arrived at the pool in Siegburg around 10 ‘o clock in the morning. Nanja (our instructor) was already there and guided us upstairs where the entrance to the pool was. I rented a wetsuit and walked up to the pool to scout it out.

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It looked so amazing I got excited immediately! The pool is 20 meters deep, decorated with caves and statues and there is a large (fake) shark hanging somewhere in the middle. I’ve truly never seen anything like it.

Before we slipped in our wetsuits Nanja guided us (and some other freedivers that joined this day to have fun and practice) through some stretching and visualisation exercises as a preparation for the dives we were about to make. This relaxed us through and through, but my state of relaxation evaporated pretty much immediately when I tried to get the rented freedive wetsuit on. What a terrible undertaking!

After a lot of hustle the wetsuit finally agreed to constrict my body and I proceeded a bit stiffly towards the edge of the pool to put my fins, weights and mask on. Here Nanja taught us how to check if we had the right amount of weight on our belts. Where I had 4.5kg on my belt in the pool (to be neutrally buoyant at a depth of 10 meters without a suit), I had to lose about 2kg to be (theoretically) neutral at a depth of 10 meters.

Then our group split up in two. The people that were expected to have some troubles with equalization joined Nanja and the others joined the co-instructor. If you read my previous blog posts you can probably guess which group I joined.

We started at the edge of the pool near a buoy that was attached to a 6 meter long rope. Here Nanja asked us to pull ourselves down with our arms and equalize after every pull. This immediately posed a problem for two of us, one being myself (of course, sigh…).

The whole morning Nanja spent figuring out our problem with the equalization. I even went down without a mask for her to see if I could get the pressure to my nose/nostrils, which didn’t seem to be the issue. In the meantime the equalization riddle was solved for my fellow “problem-child”. He was even able to equalize handsfree eventually!

Shortly before lunch Nanja gently informed me that if this equalization problem wouldn’t be solved soon I had to take into account that it might be necessary to come along to Dive4Life another time for a retry. I had already thought of this possibility beforehand to be completely honest, but it would be disappointing nonetheless.

During lunch we did our theoretical exam and all of us passed. So now we all were certified pool-freedivers. Great, I thought, but that’s not what I came to do this course for of course (no pun intended)! I want to master this equalization thing and not have it feel like a boundary to my fun in the water.

I decided to use some Otrivin (nose-spray) to maybe loosen some stuff up that was bothering me, but after a few tries it was clear this wasn’t going to be my day. Nanja told me to go to the 6 meter line where we started at in the morning and keep trying over there. The student that waited for his or her turn at their practice buoy then buddied in the meantime.

As my fellow students were practicing buddy techniques and rescue dives, I was slowly getting a feel for the equalization being head up. My middle ear squeaked and crackled some pretty impressive symphonies and I feel my Eustachian tubes were just very inflexible and rusty (if something like that is even possible).

Soon I went down with ease to the 6 meter anchor point of the buoy. Not too fast, but steadily. I got confident enough to try it upside down again, but no such luck… Back to my reversed free immersion again! With hindsight I think I can acknowledge that my Eustachian tubes need some practice and flexing up, because I have kept trying to dry equalize the last two days and now it goes way easier than last Friday. But now I also realize that I didn’t know how to recognize a successful surface or dry-equalization.

I could allow myself to get sad because I didn’t get the hang of dry-equalization before the deep diving day, but I just learned this last Friday how it’s done and what it feels like. So step by step in the right direction. You win or you learn. And now, hopefully, I have enough awareness to practice equalizing extensively AND upside down before I go for the retry.

Although it sounds like a day filled with problems and disappointment, it definitely doesn’t mean I haven’t had fun! I moved to a longer rope and started doing these free immersions deeper and deeper, successfully equalizing. At one point I borrowed a dive-computer to see how deep I went. Clearly the breath-hold or fear are not going to be issues, since it was a minute plus dive to a reasonable 11.3 meters and that with no stress at all.

Below you can see one of my dives that was possibly even deeper:

We finished the pool session of the day with some play like in the video above. All other group members passed their tests for the full SSI level 1 freediver certification and can now safely buddy each other. I congratulate you! Good work guys!

The adventure didn’t end there however. Back in the locker room I had an even harder time getting the wetsuit off! This is an essential skill in itself. With some help I got the dreaded thing off in the end, even though I almost drowned when it got stuck while I was pulling it over my head in the shower. Wow, definitely not looking forward to doing that again… Another one of the hardships of a freediver 🙂

We had a good dinner with the whole group at a nearby Cuban restaurant before driving back to the Netherlands. Everyone of us was totally knackered. The early rise, excitement, physical effort and amount of breath-holds took their toll.

Looking back it was a very instructive day that taught me a lot. Looking ahead there is still some work to do and I would actually like to practice some more in this awesome pool! It would be good to be certain I can do it when I come along with Nanja for the retry somewhere in the nearby future.

Obviously I’ll keep you guys informed about my progress and all the lessons I learn along the way. But thank god for the internet and Adam Stern:

If you have any questions, tips or suggestions don’t hesitate to comment below! And if you want to get to know a bit more about our freediving instructor, Nanja, you can listen to this podcast by Donny (whose podcasts are absolutely amazing if you are (getting) interested in freediving).

Peace!

SSI level 1 – third course day

If you are new to this blog you can start from the first post by clicking here!

The third course day was all about safety and rescue procedures in the pool disciples (static and dynamic apnea). The theory focused on the importance of the buddy system and what happens to the body when you get a loss of motor control or black-out. To get a good understanding of these phenomena we were shown a long video with stuff going wrong.

This is what a loss of motor control (LMC), also called samba, looks like (skip to 2:30 if you’re bored by the swimming):

In the above video there is clearly no adequate safety near the diver, so at the same time it is an example how these attempts shouldn’t be done. If this diver’s LMC would have been stronger he could have hit his head on the edge of the pool and in the process he’d probably lose some of his teeth. Ouch.

You can probably imagine what a black-out looks like. Sometimes a black-out just occurs without a warning, but especially in the pool disciplines they can follow the LMC:

Generally they say a black-out is when you have a short gap in your memory (even if it just looks like a samba). Of course you want to avoid these situations altogether, but you have to know how to rescue your buddy when something like this happens to him or her.

So last Wednesdays course day was all about saving your buddy when they black-out. We practiced something called blow tap talk extensively in the static and dynamic setting. It was great fun and it’s definitely no exaggeration when I say that some of us are quite talented actors. Unfortunately I have no filmed documentation of this statement, but just trust me… 🙂

If you want to get a better picture of how to get someone out of a black-out, another great video by Adam Stern will show you how:

After we practiced the rescue procedures and Nanja was satisfied – also with our execution of the forceful advice to the blacked-out freediver that he is not allowed to freedive anymore for the day -, we did a timed static apnea and some more dynamic apnea’s.

My static attempt was a repeat of my previous personal best of 3:10 minutes. Even though I think I could have held out quite a bit longer if I had known I passed the three minute mark, I’m quite satisfied about this consolidation of my static ability. It was a relaxed and nice breath-hold where the contractions at the end didn’t bother me too much.

The evening ended with some more fine-tuning of the duck-dives and – while we filled in our logbooks – Nanja (our instructor) treated us to some bitterballs and chicken-nuggets because it was exactly two years ago that she did her world record variable weight dive, which is a record until this day!

If you read my previous post you know I was a bit concerned about my ability to equalize the middle ear when we would go deep diving in Dive4Life. As I write and now conclude this post, I already had the deep diving day yesterday and know how I fared. Even though I will have to keep you in just a little bit of suspense (at least until my next post tomorrow), I’ll leave you with a picture of the pool from the edge as a teaser:

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SSI level 1 – second course day

If you’re new to this blog, start with my first blog post by clicking here!

This day the theory was about the physiology of freediving. In the pool we further improved our techniques and practiced some buddy skills.

We talked about oxygen and carbon dioxide and their functions and influence on the body. It might surprise some of you that it is not the lack of oxygen that gives you the “urge to breathe”, but it’s the rising carbon dioxide level in the body that does so. This means it is actually the “urge to exhale”. This also means that you are easily able to prolong your breath-hold from the moment you normally feel that urge, because the oxygen level in your body would still be fine. But remember: never dive alone!

The mammalian diving reflex is fascinating as well. In this interesting TED-talk by Guillaume Néry the starts explaining about the mammalian diving reflex from minute 3:43, but the whole video is cool to watch for anyone even slightly interested in freediving:

What did I tell ya!? Cool, no?

At the pool we started with some static apnea’s, but mainly focused on a proper breathe-up, buddy skills and (of course) the recovery breath. My buddy, Peter, had some troubles with the breathe-up and signals. Since I already did the introduction to the static apnea and he didn’t, I decided to let him practice a bit more. I did no warm-ups and did a breath-hold of 2:20, not really pushing myself. Warm-ups are good to do though, because the first breath hold – to me at least – is always the least comfortable.

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The static apnea pool – “pierenbadje”

After the static apnea’s we geared up to do some dynamic swims, also with focus on the buddy skills. When you buddy a diver who’s doing a dynamic, you need to swim a bit in front of him and on your side so you can make a full kick with the fins on. This way you can keep up with the diver, check on the diver, check if the lane ahead is empty and without obstacles, help the diver when in trouble or when finishing the dive or cut the diver off if so necessary for whatever reason. When the diver surfaces, you (as a buddy) need to stay close and place his (or her) hand on the edge of the pool and do so as near to his head as possible. This way, if there is any loss of motor control (or black-out), you avoid the diver banging his head on the steel or concrete of the edge of the pool.

Nanja (our instructor) was impressed with our progression and the way we picked up the techniques she taught us. This meant we already got to practice some duck-dives:

The pool we practice in is only 3 meters deep, so with a decent duck dive you are at the bottom almost immediately. Even without an armstroke. Eventually I got the hang of it and the speed with which I descended was too fast for me to get my IMG_0472equalization in order. Shitballs!

This worried me a bit, since equalizing has been an issue for me, also in scuba-diving. I usually have the most trouble the first couple of meters. After that it’s smooth sailing, at least when scuba-diving. With freediving I have no experience with depth yet and I do feel equalizing will be harder since you are hanging upside down and the descend speed will (probably) be faster. Practice, practice! But only in Dive4Life next week we’ll know if I’ll actually be able do it!

Cheers! Hope you guys liked this post and don’t be shy to comment or ask anything!

 

SSI level 1 – first course day

If you’re new to this blog you can start with my first blog post by clicking here!

Last Wednesday night everything unsatisfactory about previous week’s introduction to static apnea was made good in the first session of the SSI level 1 course. I think a big part of this was caused by a conscious decision to let all expectations go and to rely on my natural relaxation. This way – I figured – I’d probably have most fun and have the presence of mind to learn the most.

I didn’t want to focus too much on breath-hold performance anymore and even decided to just have a gruelling kickboxing training the night before. This ment a rising muscle soreness in my legs when I left work for diveshop The Wave. Not ideal I guess, as muscle pains probably ask for their share of oxygen during the recovery process.

Mischa the dog recognized me as I entered the diveshop and was rewarded with a last bite of the dried sausage stick I was still chewing on. The owner of the shop also recognized me, but wasn’t rewarded…

This time the class (consisting of a group of six enthusiastic newbies and our instructor Nanja) did start around 18:30 hours; with some theory. Nanja was now clearly teaching within the confines of the SSI training program. The first powerpoint slide clearly displayed the SSI Diver Diamond with the SSI training philosophy and we had to fill in and sign some SSI forms before beginning with the fun part.

Nanja mainly discussed the equipment side of the Diver Diamond and she taught us the differences between conventional scuba- and freediving-gear. It helped we were in an actual diveshop that had some of the stuff. She made us guess at almost all the reasons for differences between scuba- and freediving-gear. The majority of the story sounded quite familiar, since I studied the digital course material over the weekend, but time flew by nevertheless and before we knew it we had to relocate to the swimming complex a couple of towns away.

“Look for the white VW Polo in the parking lot and come and get the gear you don’t have yourselves,” Nanja had said before we left the diveshop. And indeed, upon arrival at the pool’s parking lot there she stood, ready with the trunk of the white Polo open, totally stuffed with lead, fins, masks etc. I practically handbrake-turned my old barrel into one of the parking bays, grabbed a lead belt and anxiously rushed inside to get changed.

A bunch of waterpolo players were still training in the big pool. In the shallow kids-area (us Dutch call it: “pierenbadje“) there were some profi-looking people in black wetsuits doing something I (since last week) immediately recognized as static apnea’s. It turned out they were members of a freediving club that rents the big pool for training on Wednesday evenings. Nanja in turn rents a couple of lanes for these SSI courses from the club so she can guarantee the space necessary for our pool-sessions.

As the waterpolo players finished up their training, we started doing some breathing exercises while seated on our towels. The goal was to get a relaxed breathing rhythm going, all “through the belly”, where the exhale had to be twice as long as the inhale.

So, for example: you put one hand on your chest and one on your stomach to check whether you truly solely breathe with/through your belly and then you count the time of your inhale and try to make a passive but controlled exhale that takes twice as long. You should find a rhythm that doesn’t make you really-really-really want to breathe normal again after doing it for a couple of minutes or so. For most people the ratio is 3/6, 4/8 or 5/10 inhale to exhale.

Let Adam Stern explain you something about this:

Next up was practicing the full inhale. A full (100%) inhale is done in three stages, with pursed lips (as if sucking through a large (thick smoothy) straw) and is the last inhale you do before going under. The first stage being: totally filling up the lower part of the lungs with the inhale through the belly; the second: continuing or expanding the inhale to the chest; and the last: using the last bit of the upper lungs you have by kind of feeling as if you are filling up your throat on the last part of the inhalation.

The notorious recovery-breath was last but not least of the breathing exercises. The recovery-breath is the way you have to execute your first three in- and exhales when you surface from a breath-hold dive. It is hugely important to re-oxygenate the right way after surfacing, since it prevents blackouts and loss of motor control. So extremely important even, that Nanja keeps telling us: “Merely learning a decent recovery-breath is worth the course-fee.”

And then Nanja said: “Put three kilograms on your weight-belt and wear it cool, like a teenager does his trousers.” Followed by: “Fins and mask on and jump in the pool!”

Now we came to fine-tune the amount of weight we needed on our belts to stay under without too much effort. I had to put on an extra kilo to make it doable, but I still felt a bit too positively buoyant. It might be some remnant of fat here and there, but for my ego I’ll keep carefully maintaining the big lungs theory.

As soon as everyone was weighted properly we started doing dynamic swims to the other side of the pool. Meanwhile Nanja swam along above us and gave us (physical) tips to (also) fine-tune our techniques. Sometimes I felt hands pushing my head in a different position or pulling my arms more alongside my body than I had been holding them. It’s quite a strange experience to get these kind of directions while being under water, but it works wonders for your awareness of what you’re actually doing (wrong).

Of course every now and then I made mistakes even before disappearing under water. It provoked some hard laughs from Nanja and the group when I did an awesome, highly focused, huge motherf*cking full inhale and dove under to realize I forgot to put my mask on! Sigh… Start over.

It’s safe to say that properly using bi-fins is not as simple as it might seem, nor is holding your head in the most hydrodynamic position. But the arm stroke Nanja taught us next was even more challenging. Without using our legs we had to swim to the other side of the pool using this newly-learned technique and do so with the least amount of strokes possible. The whole group laughed when I asked whether we had to do this with our heads under or above the water. “What did you sign up for here!” I guess you can blame a guy for thinking that you might practice a technique on the surface first 🙂

After practicing this arm stroke a couple of laps and getting some efficiency pointers, I managed to swim one length in the 25 meter pool using about eight to nine strokes. Which is still quite a lot, but not all too bad. Of course my talented buddy from the previous week (remember her?), who was also the only familiar face in this new level 1 group, managed to do it in a stroke or two less…

Unexpectedly Nanja decided to end the first pool session with a BANG and made us race (yes, again, underwater of course!), which was great fun! And we definitely have some competitive spirits in the group!

Back in our regular human clothes, we gathered around a table near the bar of the swimming complex. We still had to log our first (free)dive in the SSI-app and hadn’t completely finished the theoretical part of this first course day. Nanja nonchalantly sipped from her well deserved post-instruction beverage, opened her laptop and finished the presentation.

Seemingly out of nothing Nanja dropped a big pile of old wetsuit parts on the table, so we could get a feel for the different materials and densities. This was the finale of the first course day, which ended with Nanja giving advice on the right suit to buy for Dutch open waters (brrr…) – after she made us guess, obviously!

Croissants and static apnea

Start with my first blog post here!

Last Tuesday the day came! My first official, real-life contact with Freediving!

I prepared by listening to the podcasts by The Freedive Café and buying myself the Mares Viper freediving and spearfishing mask. So after work, being totally excited, I drove my old little car to diveshop The Wave. There we (being me and some other newbies) would get a pre-level 1 course introduction to static apnea. An example:

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The Mares Viper mask

Upon early arrival (18:00h) at the diveshop I immediately asked if there was any place nearby to get something quick to eat. I figured that going the rest of the evening without dinner would not be all too beneficial for my physical and mental state. I got me some croissants and a small bottle of water at the supermarket around the corner and returned to the diveshop, after all: Nanja’s e-mail stated we would start at 18:30 hours.

Sitting in the diveshop, eating my croissants and reading through some dive-magazines, time went by. 18:30… 18:40… You get the picture. Was I early or did the location change? The owner of the diveshop couldn’t tell me more than that he had indeed received a message from Nanja that she would give the introduction at the diveshop this evening.

Best thing was to text Nanja. It turned out she had made a mistake in the e-mail she had sent me and that the course would start around eight ‘o clock. Hmmm… now I had to entertain myself for at least another hour in a practically empty diveshop, already having eaten all my croissants and not really being grasped by the dive-magazines!

Well… let’s just say this way I at least had plenty of time to digest most of my makeshift dinner and luckily the owner of the shop was quite talkative. And he had a young dog called Mischa, that took a liking to me after I gave her a piece of ham from my ham & cheese croissant. This, together with checking out the freediving corner in the diveshop, made time go by reasonably fast.

Sauntering around the shop and putting some other freediving masks on my face I figured out the Mares X-Free mask fitted me way better than the Mares Viper I bought for this adventure. Just putting the X-Free against my face made it stick like glue and pinching the nose (for eventual equalization) was easy and effortless. So I guess I’ll order one of those in the near future and sell or give away the Mares Viper.

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Mares X-Free masks

Finally Nanja arrived and one by one the other students trickled in. Clearly they were correctly informed about the right time of commencement. In total we were with a group of seven students, consisting of two guys and a girl my age (30) along with a man and woman I respectively estimate being between his mid to late forties and her late fifties. Not all of us would start the SSI level 1 course in October. Some didn’t decide yet and just wanted to get a taste first. Others would start the level 1 course in November.

We took a seat in a small classroom with a large screen and started with writing down our estimates about our breath-hold times on a sheet of paper. Most of us did so conservatively. Then Nanja gave a kind of general presentation about freediving. She showed us a short film of her world record variable weight freedive and told the background story of why and how she came to perform this successful attempt. Next we did some breathing exercises to get us to be more aware of what we do when we breathe, how to get a relaxed ventilation going and how the recovery breath works.

After this “theoretical” part of the introduction we slipped in some wetsuits the diveshop provided and jumped into a small water tank in the back of the shop. It was not larger than maybe 2.5 by 5 meters and around 2.2 meters deep. The owner of the diveshop told us the waterpump hadn’t been working all day and therefore the water temperature would be colder than expected. It was around 21 degrees Celsius.

Nanja made us “buddy-up” and get the stopwatches out. The idea was that we didn’t focus too much on the breathe-up. Instead we had to spend as much time under water as possible. With our heads below the surface we would learn the most. Not only about all the sensations that go with a breath-hold, but also about how we deal with them, ergo: ourselves. To avoid too much focus on time or competitiveness we had to time our buddies, remember their best time, but not tell them anything about the time or how it compared to their previous breath-hold. We would get to know our best breath-hold times from our buddies at the end of the intro-class, so we had no clue about how long we stayed under water and how it compared to the others until the very end.

Beforehand, during the theoretical part of the evening, Nanja gave us some examples of usable mental techniques to enhance relaxation or distract from the urge to exhale/inhale. She suggested visualizing relaxing previous experiences, singing songs in our heads, conscious muscle relaxation and more. Before we started the water-session, I decided I would try to visualize myself reading a book while laying down. This activity usually makes me so relaxed that I pass out into a peaceful sleep without exception.

In the water however, nothing of the sort worked for me. The little pool was a bit cold, crowded and Nanja was checking on everybody and giving them tips. I was too distracted by the noises around me and couldn’t really shut them out. I realized afterwards that I did my breath-holds with eyes closed, while my personal best was done eyes open, no wetsuit, arms crossed over my belly.

I felt the diaphragm contractions started (too) quickly, but of course I had no idea of time. I didn’t seem to have the focus to consciously do (or force) any of the mental exercises. The lack of focus also showed in the lack of control and right execution of the recovery-breaths. In short: in total I did four breath-holds, all purely on character (read: will-power). I guess this all also told me something about myself, but I’m yet to discover what exactly…

Meanwhile I was really impressed with my buddy! She nailed her recovery-breaths throughout and did a 3:14 minutes breath-hold in her last try!  Even though her last try was quite a chaotic affair, with Nanja talking to her and touching her quite a bit, even holding her hand at one point. But maybe that was exactly the magic freedivers-touch she needed, distracting her from the urge to come up and ventilate.

As the end of the introduction drew near, I got more and more curious about my best breath-hold time of the evening. How did I compare to others and did this older guy indeed hold his breath for over four minutes or did I just imagine so because of how distressed he looked surfacing a couple of times?

My buddy didn’t seem too surprised when I told her she had held her breath for 3:14 minutes. She did however hesitate to tell me my time. This was because it ended up being shorter than hers at a displeasing 3:03 minutes. My buddy probably thought I would be bummed out because I “lost” to a woman, but my disappointed mainly emanated from the fact I just couldn’t focus and didn’t improve on my hobbyist-holiday personal best of 3:10 minutes.

So what did the rest of the group do? The guy I imagined doing over a four minute breath-hold surprisingly had a best breath-hold time of 2:16 minutes. So overall my 3:03 minutes still amounted to the third longest breath-hold of the group. My buddy’s time being the second longest behind an impressive 3:50 minutes by one of the two guys my age. Especially since he estimated his initial breath-hold time at 1:30 minutes at the start of the class and claimed not to have any experience with (free)diving whatsoever. Hats off to you sir!

The evening came to an end after washing out the wetsuits, putting back on our earthly clothes and shortly evaluating with Nanja. As I drove home, even though having mixed feelings about the way this evening went for me, I looked forward to next week, when the level 1 course really starts and the small water tank at the diveshop gets traded in for a proper swimming pool.

“It might be good this whole apnea thing is more difficult than expected,” I remember thinking. I might actually find out some things about myself and the way I handle stuff outside the zone of comfort. After all, wasn’t it T.S. Eliot (sorry, don’t know too much quotes by freedivers yet…) who said: “If you aren’t in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?”

This weekend I’ll finish my digital learning module on the SSI app and you guys will hear more from me soon! Ad interim: don’t eat to many croissants. Carbohydrates are bad for you!