As the El-Nino-fueled NPAC big-wave frenzy comes to an end -- with remarkably few injuries and drownings -- we figured it was high time to take a look at how big-wave surfers prepare for heavy situations.
To get the best range of advice, we contacted two guys from different ends of the spectrum: North Shore crazyman Mark Healey and wavesofhealth doctor Clayton Everline.
Breath training for big waves
-- Mark Healey
When it comes to holding my breath in big waves, I think there are three factors involved: lung capacity, cardiovascular fitness, and staying calm. All three are important, but the most important one for me is being in a strong mental state and staying calm. Here are some of the things that I do that I think helps:
I find that freediving helps my lung capacity, and almost more importantly is a mental exercise in being calm. Freediving has done more to teach me how to switch back and forth between an active thought process with a high state of awareness to a state of calmness that I can only liken to meditation. This is very important in big waves because if you are ever staring down a 60ft wall of water you know that your adrenalin will be pumping and your heart will be beating through your chest which are the two most detrimental things I can think of for a good breath hold. So we surfers are really between a rock and a hard place when it comes to this one. You really need to have the ability to "flip the switch" and put yourself into a relaxed mental and physical state when under extreme duress.
Bodysurfing helps because it's great cardio and I like that I am forced into a sporadic breathing pattern. You can practice your breathing pattern all you want on land, but when you are in a real situation in big surf the ocean is in control and you just have to adapt yourself to each situation.
These are exercises done without breathing. BE CAREFUL WHEN DOING THESE -- there is a good chance that you will black out. That's why I do them on land. My favorite one is to find a good stationary bike that shows resistance level, RPMs, and time. First, I'll find a medium/high resistance level and get it going up to an RPM rate that is high -- but at the same time is something that I know I can keep up for 45 minutes. I'll do a five-minute warm-up, and then start my breath-holds.
Where I'm at now, I do 30 seconds holding my breath, then a minute breathing, 30sec hold, one minute breathe. The whole point is to keep the resistance and RPM's the same the whole time. So if there was a printout of what you did on the bike it wouldn't show ups and downs, just a constant even pace. I'll do this for half an hour breathing only through my mouth. This exercise teaches my body to deal with oxygen and carbon dioxide more efficiently and to 'recover on my feet'. When I'm done with the exercise I will have held my breath for 10 minutes out of 30.
Again, be careful! If you black out, you'll hit the ground like a ton of bricks. Find where your limits are before you try to push them. It's not worth fracturing your skull over! The closest I've been to drowning was blacking out in a pool in Florida that was 4ft deep while training.
Editor's note: Mark Healey also likes to swim with sharks for fun.
More thoughts on preparing for heavy situations
--Clayton Everline, MD
About a month and a half ago, I got axed by a top-to-bottom double overhead lip at Alligators. The board snapped in two and I was held under for 20 seconds. The only reason I know it was twenty seconds and did not use up my oxygen in a panic was that I counted "1-1000, 2-1000..." while ragdolling underwater to keep from panicking. Panic is the first step to drowning.
Covering the mouth and nose when possible during a wipeout can help prevent air from being ripped out of the lungs. Practice timed and supervised breath holding both with lungs full of air and lungs emptied of air to count the difference. This information can be crucial to confidence in big-wave situations. Informed confidence in the ability to handle severe situations is so important.
One last thing on hypoxic training for big wave sessions:
In a recent advertisement, a pro surfer is running across the ocean floor carrying rocks, a breath-hold training program popularized by numerous surf films, pro surfers and surfing specialists. Hypoxic training is fairly specific to surfing and freediving and illustrates surfing's divergence from land-based sports when it comes to training.
Breath holding trains the body to ignore signals from the brain that the body needs air. This may lead to increased confidence in the water for paddling into big waves and may reduce risk of panic in hold-down situations. However, it has risks of death from shallow-water blackout and should never be performed unsupervised. "Shallow water blackout" has been described as loss of consciousness from intentional breath holding underwater which could lead to drowning and death.
According to the Wilderness Medical Society's Marine Medicine conference on Maui, the consensus on drowning is that the initial events upon submersion progressing to death are:
1. Panic and struggle
2. Breath holding
3. Inhalation and swallowing of water
4. Reflex laryngospasm to protect the airway
5. Intermittent strong inhalations
6. Hypoventilation, hypoxia, hypercapnia,
7. Asphyxia with loss of consciousness
8. Laryngospasm abates, the glottis opens, and water passively enters airways
9. Up to 15% victims may have persistent laryngospasm
10. Cardiopulmonary arrest, pulmonary edema, neurological asphyxia?
Most near-drowning victims aspirate 3 to 4 ml/kg of body weight (200cc's or about a cup in a 70kg surfer). 22ml/kg is the lethal volume (about 1.5 liters in same surfer). As little as 2.2 ml/kg decrease Pa02 to 60mmHg (a dangerous level where the brain shuts down).
Of course, none of this process matters in the surfer is knocked unconscious by a blow to the head from surfboard, rock, reef, sandbar or lip. Another valid reason to invest in a helmet when planning to roll the dice on heavy days.
Other fun facts:
Rip currents were reported in 22% of surf beach drownings. Surfboard usage does not prevent drowning. Pre-existing cardiovascular conditions were implicated in 26% of surf-related drownings. (Injury Prevention 2008; 14:62-65).
Approximately 20,000 surfers a year will be injured badly enough to require emergency care by analysis of a study documenting ED visits by outdoor sports enthusiasts. (Wilderness and Environmental Medicine, 19:2, June 2008; 91-98)
To contact Dr. Tim Brown, D.C. directly, check out DrBrownDesigns.com. Stay tuned to Surfline for monthly features by Dr. Tim Brown and his staff of experts. Click here to go to Dr. Tim Brown's blog page.)
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