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The Importance of Breath When Preparing to Surf by Matt Rode

What Works, What Doesn’t, and How to Identify Trendy Misinformation

Dave sent me a link to an Instagram video yesterday and wanted to know what I thought about it. It starts with Jack Robinson doing aggressive breathing exercises on the beach before one of his heats, then goes into an explanation of why he is doing these exercises, how to do them, and the purported benefits of doing so. Dave knows that I have done a lot of breathwork, pranayama, and apnea training over the years, and wanted to know if this so-called “piston” training was legit, and if it could actually help hyperoxygenate the body.

Misconceptions About Breathing Exercises

As it turns out, there is a lot in this video that is misleading. First of all, what Jack Robinson appears to be doing is actually a pranayama exercise called kapalbhati. This is a relatively advanced breathing exercise and is not something that should be performed by beginners to pranayama and yoga in general without an informed guide to help them. In addition, it doesn’t hyperoxygenate the body. In fact, that isn’t actually possible! (But more on that in a moment). Instead, what kapalbhati does is help expand lung capacity, clear phlegm and other gunk from the respiratory system, and, according to the yogic/ayurvedic tradition, help stimulate and restore certain organs in the body, increase the metabolism, and help the mind focus.

The Truth About Oxygen Saturation

While it might look like Robinson is super saturating his body by breathing in and out vigorously, the reality is that most healthy people are already naturally saturated with oxygen. Healthy individuals have a blood oxygen saturation level between 95 and 100 percent, with most elite athletes up in the 98 to 100 percent range. This means that our blood and cells are already storing the maximum capacity of oxygen that they can hold, when we are simply at rest, breathing naturally. When people do long breath holds during apnea exercises, they fill their lungs with an extra reservoir of air (which contains oxygen) to help them last a little bit longer without breathing—but the reality is that the majority of the oxygen in their body is already present in the blood and cells. What is drawn into the lungs is a small percentage in comparison. And as you might have realized while watching Robinson puffing in and out really fast, he isn’t actually filling his lungs completely or storing any air in them—so what he is doing is not effectively adding any oxygen to his body.

The Real Purpose of Breathing Exercises

Why is he doing it, then? As with many misunderstood breathing exercises, kapalbhati makes you feel good—even high—despite the fact that it isn’t actually giving your body any extra blood. This breathing exercise heats the body up, gets the blood flowing, and reduces the level of CO2 in the bloodstream. In essence, it is just fancy hyperventilation, which is a practice that some freedivers use to help them hold their breaths longer. But the mechanism by which hyperventilation helps freedivers is another misunderstood concept, and one that is quite dangerous for those who lack training.

Breathing Exercise

The Dangers of Hyperventilation

When we hold our breaths, there are two triggers that cause us to want to breathe. The first is the buildup of CO2 in the bloodstream. This is what most of us think of when it comes to being “out of breath” and wanting to gasp for air, but the reality is, when the CO2 trigger starts to kick in, we actually still have a lot of oxygen left in our bodies. This is the point of the CO2 trigger—to induce us to take a breath long before we ever get to point of running out of oxygen and blacking out. When professional and experienced freedivers hyperventilate before a dive, they are dumping CO2 in order to trick their body into overcoming the CO2 trigger. In other words, they aren’t actually adding any additional oxygen, they are simply doing away with the safety net and giving themselves a mental and psychological advantage, since they won’t feel that urge to breathe quite as soon. But that’s actually an extremely dangerous thing to do, because it gives a person the ability to push further than they normally would and approach the actual point of hypoxia (when the body runs out of oxygen). This greatly increases the chance of shallow water blackout, which will almost always result in death if the diver does not have a dedicated spotter ready to pull them out the moment they begin to have involuntary muscular contractions.

So as it turns out, hyperventilating doesn’t add any oxygen to the body, and it is actually quite dangerous when it is done around water. And that’s not the worst part. As it turns out, the body actually needs CO2 in order to facilitate the efficient uptake of oxygen to the blood. CO2 is sort of the gatekeeper, and without it, cells will not allow oxygen in to feed and fuel them. This is a simplistic explanation of a scientific concept that is covered in depth in a book called Breath that I highly suggest for anyone who would like to better understand the importance of breathing properly, the evolutionary implications of breath, the mechanism by which the respiratory system works, how you can naturally treat issues like sleep apnea, and even how you can improve your athletic performance in a very unexpected and counterintuitive way (here’s a hint—it all involves breathing through your nose!).

The Implications for Athletes

The implications of this for freedivers, endurance athletes, and even surfers who are sitting on the beach hyperventilating before paddling out should be pretty obvious. Instead of “hypersaturating” the body with extra oxygen, hyperventilating is actually impeding the body’s ability to use the oxygen that is already present in the blood and cells.

The Real Reasons for Pre-competition Breathing

So why are Jack Robinson and other athletes doing practices such as these before competition? There are a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that virtually any breathing exercise helps the mind to focus and facilitates a meditative state. Professional surf competitions are extremely mentally fatiguing, as the athletes are forced to perform with a huge amount of pressure on them, both from themselves and the fans watching on shore and at home. In addition, it occurs in a dynamic venue where wave choice and the ability to read the ocean is often as important as ability on the wave. Spending time doing an intensive breathing exercise such as kapalbhati enables the athlete to block out the pressure and distractions around them and enter into the flow state. It also gets the body heated up without doing a lot of strenuous warmup exercises. Finally, it may provide a high feeling (there’s a reason kapalbhati is also known as “skull shining breath”) and a placebo effect that facilitates one’s belief in their strength and stamina.

The Author's Approach to Breathwork

Personally, my breath work is much more focused on relaxing the body and mind, ensuring that I am breathing properly and fully (to avoid reducing blood oxygen saturation by inadvertently holding my breath), establishing an efficient breathing habit and pattern to be maintained while paddling, and reinforcing my confidence in my breath hold abilities. The night before a big swell, I will typically spend an hour meditating and doing an O2 table/static apnea practice, just to show myself that I am still capable of holding my breath for between five and six minutes. This helps reassure me that my fitness and preparation are intact, and prepares me mentally for the next day’s session. I will also spend some time breathing slowly and deeply while focusing on my emotions and ensuring that my mind is in the right place and I am planning to surf big waves for the right reasons (i.e., out of love and passion for the sport, and not out of ego or any sort of obligation).

The morning of the session is usually pretty hectic, as things tend to go into overdrive when the swell is actually in the water and we are preparing to paddle out. However, I still try to find five minutes to spend alone on the beach, sitting comfortably and simply focusing on maintaining a nice, controlled, complete breathing pattern. Then, as I paddle out into the lineup, I try to stay aware of my breathing and ensure that I am focusing on breathing properly. The point here isn’t to super-saturate my body with oxygen—as we have already established, this isn’t really possible. Instead, it is to ensure that I don’t tighten up and stop breathing regularly as the situation and environment become more stressful, which could potentially cause me to hold my breath unconsciously and actually decrease the level of O2 in my blood and cells.

Once the mind is on the breath, everything else clicks into flow mode, and all of the years of training and experience return to me naturally—and that’s when the fun begins!

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