How to manage a surf hold-down

Pere Campistol Agustí

What are hold-downs in surfing?

A surf hold-down makes reference to the time held underwater by a wave after a surfer wipes out. These apneic efforts can be classified in:

Single - a single breath-hold followed by a paddle back to the peak or shore 
Multiple - more than one single breath-hold. These can be classified in intermittent or continuous.
  • Intermittent - multiple breath-holds interspersed with time to catch one's breath above the ocean surface before the next wave approaches
  • Continuous - multiple breath-holds without the chance of re-surfacing before the next wave arrives (usually a maximum of two waves). A two wave hold down is a "badge of honour" according to 11-times world champ Kelly Slater

How long does a wave hold-down last?

Contrary to breath-hold training in a controlled environment, surf hold-down times are somewhat hard to predict. The time surfers will spent underwater will be subjected to different variables, such as surf break type and swell conditions. For instance, a hold down at your local beach break will differ to getting pounded at The Right, in Western Australia. 

According to research, miscellaneous periods typically include 3±1.4 seconds of continuous breath holds directly after wave riding (Farley 2012). As a general guideline, average wave hold downs range between five and eight seconds in small waves, and twelve to fifteen seconds in head-high plus waves according to SurferToday.

How long should surfers be able to hold their breath to surf?

With the above mentioned times in mind, it would seem obvious that surfers who are capable of holding their breath for 20s are more than prepared to withstand a single hold-down. 

However, this doesn't truly represent a surf scenario. Surf hold-downs are different to performing a 20s breath-hold from a resting state. Factors such as elevated levels of pCO2 prior to the breath-hold or the adrenaline of riding an over-head barrel can influence the intensity of the urge to breathe. Add to these multiple hold-downs and the situation now becomes more challenging.

At THE SURF PENTAGON we like to prepare our surfers for the worst case scenario. Using a controlled environment (and always keeping training safer than the activity of surfing itself) we expose our surfers to breath-holds of different categories to mimic different situations experienced in the surf.

What's the difference between free diving and surf apnea training?

In the world of free diving athletes compete in a controlled and meticulously planned environment, with a clear goal in mind. Before the dive, they know the exact depth and the number of strokes they need to resurface.

Surfing lies on the other side of the certainty spectrum. The activity itself is uncontrolled and unpredictable, with surfers often seeking for greater challenges (sometimes above their capabilities) as their wave-riding skills progress. 

The Surf Foundation Specialist online course takes the concepts of the well-established world of free-diving and transforms them so they meet the requirements of surfing.

Thanks to Jacuzzi Surfer and Free diver for allowing us to share their youtube videos to outline the differences between these two worlds. 
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How do you train to hold your breath when surfing?

Like any other training modality, surf-specific breath-hold training requires a structured program that allows for progressive overload, individualisation, specificity and reversibility. 

The Surf Foundation Specialist course divides surf breath-holds into these categories:

Static training includes hypoxic apneas performed in a relaxed state and is purely a mental effort. It is not a matter of technique, since success depends on the ability to manage our concentration and control thought processes to remain calm even the fact that we are holding our breath. It has a powerful potential to boost a surfer's confidence in the ocean and their understanding of the air hunger. It can include, but is not limited to, using O2 & CO2 tables, with regressions and progressions.

On the other hand, dynamics are more surf-specific. We’ve divided this into 5 categories. 
  • Category 0 includes technical drills: these will help the surfer make decisions during disorientated situations or improve their under-water swimming economy to become more oxygen-efficient.
  • Category 1 involves low-intensity drills that are suitable for warm-ups. These will activate the human dive reflex (if performed in the water), activate muscles required to swim and get the surfer mentally prepared for the training session. Categories 2 & 3 all involve hypercapnic CO2 tolerance drills.
  • Category 2 – endurance, will combine variations of low or middle-intensity exercises with longer breath hold durations. These sessions usually involve high volumes.
  • Category 3 – High-intensity, as the name suggests, entails efforts of greater magnitude performed in shorter times. These sessions generally include lower training volumes.
  • Category 4 – is oxygen specific, and as the name suggests, will include hypoxic-type exercises.

In the video below, you will learn the over-under drills from category 2. 
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Please do not use this drill if you are not qualified to do so. The Surf Foundation Specialist course will review all safety protocols so that you become competent and confident at prescribing safe and efficient breath-hold training programs.