This Freediver’s Advantage Is All in His Mind
Looking for a challenge beyond marathons and Olympic-distance triathlons, Kurt Chambers took up freediving.
By Jen Murphy, Wall Street Journal
Dec. 16, 2017, 7:00 AM

Most athletes embrace the Olympic motto “faster, higher, stronger.” Kurt Chambers used to be one of them. He spent 10 years competing in marathons and Olympic-distance triathlons. Looking for a new challenge, he turned to freediving and adopted the philosophy “slower, deeper, calmer.” Holding your breath “requires a level of fortitude I’ve never had to muster,” he says.

Mr. Chambers, now 36 years old, grew up in Texas. In 2003, he moved to Hawaii to attend graduate school and began dabbling in spearfishing, which required him to hold his breath underwater for sustained periods. “I didn’t display any special talent early on,” he says. Intrigued by the idea of diving deeper, he signed up for a freedive course and educated himself on the science of breath-hold diving.

Five years later, he started competing. In May 2016, he set two U.S. records at the Caribbean Cup in Roatán, Honduras. In the constant weight discipline, where divers are aided by the use of fins, Mr. Chambers dove to a depth of 331 feet in just under 3 minutes. In the free immersion discipline, which doesn’t allow fins but does allow divers to pull themselves down by a guide rope, he reached 308 feet. His personal record for holding his breath underwater without swimming is 7 minutes, 18 seconds.

 “All humans have an inherent mental reflex to breathe,” he says. “Advanced divers learn not to ignore that urge, but to tolerate it amidst discomfort.” He attributes the mental fortitude he developed finishing brutal track workouts, masters swim workouts and cycling hill repeats for giving him an edge in negotiating the intense discomfort, which includes pressure in the chest and ears.

Mr. Chambers, who also teaches freedive courses at home on the Kona coast of the Big Island, believes anyone can learn to hold their breath. The benefits, he says, translate to other sports, like surfing and rowing, and even day-to-day life when we need to stay calm under pressure. “Freediving is like meditation,” he says. “We focus so much on working the physical body we forget to work our mind.”

The Workout

“There is a notion that the source of our secret powers, the mammalian dive reflex, is strengthened by frequent stimulation,” he says, referring to the natural physiological reaction that occurs when mammals are submerged in water. When this reflex kicks in, the heart slows, peripheral blood vessels constrict so that more blood reaches the brain and vital organs and the spleen contracts to release more red blood cells. These reactions, he explains, help to reduce a diver’s consumption of oxygen while continuing to provide sufficient quantities of oxygen to the vital organs. “I try to exercise that reflex every day in the water,” he says. 

Mr. Chambers alternates between ocean and pool. “Supplemental tools, such as monofins, assist freedivers so much that a thorough understanding of swimming technique and muscle patterns isn’t even required to be competitive,” he says. “Many professional freedivers have technique so poor it would make a high school swimmer cringe.”

Technique and strength work, similar to how a swimmer trains, are key to his routine. A pool workout might include 10 reps of 100 yards going every 2 minutes and 30 seconds. Within each 100, he swims the first 50 yards entirely underwater in the “no-fins” discipline, basically an underwater breaststroke. He’ll then surface, take a single breath, and continue with another 50 yards on the surface breathing. “That second part is like how a swimmer feels when he takes the hand paddles off and resumes swimming without the added resistance,” he says.

Unlike many veteran divers who practice a single target dive in the ocean, Mr. Chambers performs many repetitions of a drill. Instead of diving to 200 feet once, he may dive to 100 feet 10 times, focusing intently on his entry, performing the first few strokes as quickly as possible, and trying to minimize the overall number of strokes.

This is the first year he’s added strength and flexibility to his training. “In the gym, I avoid muscle-building exercises like the bench press,” he says. “More muscle mass requires more oxygen.” He focuses on strengthening the back and abdominals, both key to an efficient dolphin kick and no fins stroke, as well as small stabilizing muscles around the shoulders and back to help him swim efficiently with his arms overhead. “That position is challenging with limited shoulder flexibility,” he says.

One of the hardest parts of training, he says, is recovery. “You’re breaking down your body in a different way from running a marathon,” he says. “After two deep dives, you need to be lazy to rebuild your red blood cells. I have to force myself to relax and watch

The Diet

At a freedive camp, Mr. Chambers was roommates with William Trubridge and Ken Kiriyama, two top freedivers who are both vegetarians. “I had to live with them for a week and thought I’d be a jerk to stock our fridge with meat,” he says. He adopted their diet and performed well. A few months later he met his girlfriend, a dedicated vegetarian. He’s been vegan for nearly three years now. “We don’t eat stereotypical rabbit food,” he says.

For breakfast he makes oatmeal with a plant-based milk. Lunch is a sandwich of sliced cucumbers, onion, tomato, avocado and vegan mayo. “Mexican food is extremely adaptable to being vegan,” he says. “We make black bean or tofu tacos for dinner a couple nights a week.

The Gear & Cost

Mr. Chambers recommends a mask and high resistance long-blade fins. “You get a lot colder than expected underwater, even in Hawaii,” he says. “When you swim, you create heat, but breath-holding you lose heat, so you want to invest in a good, buoyant wetsuit,” he says. He trains in a 3mm wetsuit by Merman Custom Gear. He also suggests a snorkel, weight belt and nose clips. His membership at Pacific Island Fitness is $70 a month. He uses free public pools.

Breathing Lessons

Learning to hold your breath under water starts by learning to breathe correctly on land.

“Most of us don’t breathe as well as we could and should,” says Hanli Prinsloo, a South African freediver and ocean conservationist. Slowing down the exhalation both oxygenates us better but also slows down the heart rate, which in turn conserves oxygen, she says.

Deep, slow breaths need to happen in and out of the belly, Ms. Prinsloo says. “To practice this, lie flat on your back and start focusing on feeling your belly rise as you breathe in and drop down as you breathe out,” she says.

“Slow the breath down until you are breathing in for eight counts and out for 10 or 12. Do this for at least three minutes before trying to take a really large breath. First feel your stomach expand again, then your chest and a last little bit in under the collarbones,” she explains. “This three-part breath is the way to fill your full lung volume. It might even feel uncomfortably full, but this is a good lung stretch, so try to relax into it.”

Ms. Prinsloo says holding your breath can help you learn to overcome performance barriers during anaerobic activity. If you want to take the practice into the water, she cautions, always go with a trained freediver or partner to avoid the risk of blackouts.