How Do Freedivers Train to Break World Records?
Tips from the free immersion record-holder on training his body and mind for freediving
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On April 30, 2016, at Grotto Bay in the Bahamas, freediver William Trubridge took a few gaping breaths and descended into the Atlantic Ocean wearing nothing but a wetsuit and a nose plug. Four minutes and thirty-four seconds later, he reappeared, having dived 122 meters below the surface. That set a new “free immersion” world record, besting his 2011 mark of 121 meters. (In the freediving discipline of free immersion, a diver pulls on a weighted rope, without the assistance of fins, to descend and ascend.)
But just two days later, Trubridge, feeling recovered but not at all content, dove again. This time, he plunged to 124 meters, or just shy of 407 feet. Many agree it is a record that ought to stand for quite some time—that is, until Trubridge decides otherwise. I recently caught up with the New Zealander from his current home in the Bahamas, where he runs a diving school called Vertical Blue, to learn how he prepares his body and mind for a pursuit where the most minor error could have lethal consequences.
I was brought up on a boat, home schooled and all, so I have always been at peace in the water. But it wasn’t until I was 22 years old, on holiday in the Caribbean, that I tried freediving. I completely fell in love. I spent about three months in the Caribbean and dove every single day.
My approach is similar to other endurance sports: I have a base, build, peak, and taper phase. Most of my training takes place in a 25-meter pool. I swim horizontally underwater, trying to mimic the same motions of a vertical dive. Physiologically, it is very similar. I’ll do shorter distances (25 to 50 meters) with short recoveries. I can get in a lot of quality work with intervals like this.
But as I approach big dives, I get more specific and start doing longer reps in the pool and vertical dives in the ocean. I also do dry-land work: resistance training that mimics the kick and arm stroke, and yoga and breathing exercises to increase flexibility in my rib-cage. This helps when it comes to dealing with the pressure that builds during a deep dive. All told, I probably train four to six hours a day.
I love “training tables,” or sets of vertical dives. For example, eight dives down to 30 meters with decreasing recovery time—from a few minutes down to 35 seconds.
Working with minimal oxygen creates acidity and carbonic acid in the body—prime conditions for muscle breakdown. I try to contrast this with a highly alkalizing diet. I eat lots of greens, fruits, chia seeds, and hemp protein. I also focus on building red blood cells, which store and transport oxygen. Spirulina, Vitamin B-12, Folic acid, and iron-heavy foods are key here.
I never feel fear—there are numerous safety precautions in the sport, from spotters to sonar tracking—but I do feel nervous. Whereas in some sports excitement is a positive, in freediving, that’s not the case: adrenaline accelerates your heart rate, which is the last thing I want.
The most important thing is to stay relaxed; I just focus on what I am doing in the moment. Experience is key here. The more you are in a pre-dive scenario, the more comfortable you become.
“Whereas in some sports excitement is a positive, in freediving, that’s not the case: Adrenaline accelerates your heart rate, which is the last thing I want.”
On the Way Down
During the first part of a dive, I’m still buoyant, so I focus on technique, propelling myself down. When I get to the free fall part, I focus on shutting down my body and mind. [As a diver descends, pressure builds and eventually he or she becomes “heavier” than the water and begins to sink.] There is no sound and hardly any light down there—I enter a deep flow state.
Time to Enjoy the Bottom?
No way. It’s easy to get down—most of the work is getting up. I turn around as efficiently as possible.
In order for a dive to count, I need to perform the surface protocol: goggles off, give the OK sign, and say, “I’m OK.” At this point, I’m still far from 100 percent, so I just try to read the body language of the judges to see if I did it correctly. Fifteen seconds later, the judges flash a card scoring the dive. Then I know I did it. Not long after that, I regain my faculties.
I’ve always been fascinated with exploring and discovering new things. Freediving is a sport where we are learning new things about the human body and our potential to be aquatic. To be on the forefront of that is really exhilarating.
For those wanting to get into the sport, I’d recommend first reading The Manual of Freediving, then take a course or get involved with a club. Learn from people with more experience. Never do any kind of training in the water by yourself, even if it’s just holding your breath in the bath or in the pool.