If I train to hold my breath longer, what am I changing in myself?

I guess I should ask first: Is there such a thing as breath-holding training? One possibility is that people who can hold their breaths for a long time have just learned that “one simple trick” and I could learn that too. Another possibility is that it’s genetic and I could never do it.

Anyway, assuming that I could train and progressively get better at holding my breath, what would be happening to me? Would I just be learning to ignore the desire to breath? Would I be learning to relax and slow my metabolism? Or would my body actually undergo some kind of physiological changes?

You would be changing into a toddler.

Ahh, don’t you just love helpful people?

I would assume you would be forcefully expanding the capacity of your lungs, or possibly training your biology to absorb oxygen more efficiently? I do know holding your breath for a really long time* without* proper training will unnecessarily damage your brain cells, so… make of that what you will.

Perhaps you’re mastering your control over the reflex to take a breath, much like you could (I suppose) train yourself to hold your hand over a candle without recoiling. You might still be damaging yourself, just practicing not minding the damage.

I’d suggest that if you want to be able to hold your breath longer, you performs lots of cardiovascular exercise with the goal of improving your body’s ability to inhale deeper and process oxygen more efficiently, rather than just practice holding your breath.

There was an article in the April 2012 Scientific American about breath holding. The main point was that, contrary to intuition, the inability to keep holding your breath beyond some point does not seem to be directly caused by either the amount of oxygen or the amount of carbon dioxide in your blood, but is rather caused primarily by neural signals from the diaphragm. The lungs alone hold enough oxygen to supply the body for about 4 minutes but few people can hold their breath that long.

A very surprising (to me) 1954 study at the Mayo Clinic showed that after holding their breath, then gasping for air, subjects could immediately hold their breath again for a fairly long period EVEN IF THE AIR THEY GASPED CONTAINED NO OXYGEN! Apparently it is the relaxation of the diaphragm during gasping that is the key.


The world record holding freediver who just recently died, could hold her breath for over 9 minutes!!

Here’s a link about her. Natalia Molchanova.

I have a recollection of reading that freedivers hold their breath after exhalation because it’s more sustainable if you can train yourself to ignore the stronger impulse to breath, but I can’t find anything to back this up.

Practising breath-holding will improve your body’s biochemical adaptation to hypoxia, for example, your bone marrow will be stimulated to produce more red blood cells which increases the oxygen-carrying capacity of your body. At least this happens when people move to high altitude and exposed to mild hypoxia continuously. It might require a lot of breath-holding practice to replicate this.

One trick might be learning to better trigger the Mammalian Diving Reflex. But I don’t know if that’s a thing you can make yourself more susceptible to, other than by being an infant.

A lack of oxygen does not trigger a desire to breathe. If you inhale a lungful of pure inert gas (e.g. helium or nitrogen) and hold it, you’ll get dizzy and pass out within 20 seconds or so, having never felt an urge to breathe.

My experience has been that if I inhale a gas with high CO2 concentration, I do develop an urge to breathe sooner than you otherwise would.

My experience has also been that if I am engaged in strenuous aerobic activity that has me breathing deeply/frequently, I am unable to hold my breath for very long. Not saying diaphragm immobility doesn’t cause an urge to breathe, but high CO2 concentration in the lungs definitely does.

Absolutely. When possible, it’s best to dope the inert atmosphere of large, walk-in instruments with CO[sub]2[/sub] to keep your technicians from dropping dead.

The male record is 22 minutes without a breath. I’m surprised the female record is less than half of that.

Wiki Cite for Stig Severinsen

I can hold my breath for about 2:30 or so (2:38 is my record). I used to practice this as a kid so maybe that had something to do with it. The previous posts that reference the diaphragm signals are probably right. I’m in pretty average shape and I don’t do too much cardio at all, so I doubt I can really hold or process much more oxygen than a normal person.

A very important part of it is keeping your mind occupied on something other than the fact you want to take a breath. One trick I learned that helps a lot is from David Blaine when he did his attempt at the breath-holding record. You go through the alphabet from A to Z and try to figure out a person’s name you know that matches. Abby, Bobby, Chris, Dave… etc. You probably won’t get past z but if you do then do the same thing but with last names. Before you know it you’re at P and its been two and a half minutes.

It should be pretty easy to test whether it’s diaphragm, CO2, or some combination. All you need is a plastic bag with a capacity equal to at least that of your lungs. Take a deep breath, hold it, and then seal the empty bag over your mouth. Now breath normally, using the bag to capture your exhaled air for the next inhalation. Under this scenario, your diaphragm is in motion as with normal breathing, but the CO2 content will steadily rise. If you can resist the temptation to remove the bag and breathe fresh air longer than you can hold your breath, then it would seem true that diaphragm activity matters.

I can’t swim well and I don’t swim often. However, I realized I could swim with my head under water for a longer duration when I had goggles on. On the same day, I swapped between goggles and no goggles and realized that losing my vision gave me anxiety and caused me to come up for air more often.

I’d imagine there’s a similar psychological (in addition to any physiological/biological efficiency) improvement taking place. By pushing the envelope more often, you’re more comfortable operating near your psychological ceiling. In turn, your psychological ceiling increases, although there’s a practical limit to this, your physiological ceiling.

I just timed myself and was able to hold my breath for 3 minutes. When I was younger I used to see how long I could go for though I haven’t done that in many years. I find the claim that most people can only hold their breath for 30 seconds really odd.

I can hold my breath for three minutes too. It is a great way to freak people out in a pool even if you tell them what you are about to do beforehand. Three minutes is a LONG time when observers are trying to figure out if someone is dead or not. I have had people jump in and “save” me even when I told them not to beforehand because it is causing them much greater distress than it does me.

There are certain techniques to it:

  1. Hyperventilate consistently for a couple of minutes beforehand. It doesn’t need to be anything dramatic and, done well, people can’t even tell that you are doing it. You just breath deeper and more rapidly than you normally would to saturate your blood with oxygen. If you start to feel dizzy, back off because that is too much.

  2. Once in the water, relax every muscle in your body as much as possible and go into meditation mode. You need to be at complete peace and you will be if you do it right. Just float face down and think of nothing like it is the most natural thing in the world. Do not move at all.

  3. This is a trick I came up with but it works. If you feel the need to breath underwater, do it by puffing out your cheeks and then breathing back in like it is a normal breath. I don’t know if it has any real physiological effect or if it is purely psychological but it makes me feel like I really am breathing again.

I demonstrated the technique to some people in a pool in Colorado last summer and made it to three minutes before some kids timing me got really scared and asked me to stop. I wasn’t even winded when I came up and could talk normally immediately. I think I might be able to reach the 5 minute mark if I really had to but things start to get uncomfortable after about the 3 1/2 minute mark.

Do not under any circumstances follow this advice.

It is incredibly dangerous and reasonably likely to kill you if you are not practiced at holding your breath underwater. It’s frighteningly likely to kill you even if you are experienced

There is not a shred of evidence that hyperventilating increases the amount of oxygen in the blood or has any other physical effect that would help you hold your breath longer.

What it does do is screw with your brain’s ability to sense when you need ot breathe. As a result you will feel less urge to breathe and so be able to tolerate longer without breathing. Of course that also means that you don’t know when you need to surface to breathe, and are likely to slip into unconsciousness without feeling any distress.

That may be because they knew that people who hyperventilate before holding their breath under water commonly lapse into unconsciousness without warning. With no signal to breathe there is, as you note, no distress and struggle. The person goes from floating face down in the water conscious to floating face down in the water unconscious with no transition.

Of course once you are unconscious you start breathing normally, which is fatal if you are underwater.

You hyperventilated, then submerged your face for three minutes in a manner that didn’t allow detection of unconscious. Attempting to rescue you wasn’t panicking, it was prudent.

To directly answer the OP, you need to increase VO[sub]2[/sub] capacity. Overall fitness helps. Hypoxia stimulates EPO, which increases red blood cell production, which increases VO[sub]2[/sub]Max.

I have heard that many swimming facilities have now banned underwater swimming - basically, there is no safe or detectable line for the practitioner between swimming and unconsciousness leading to drowning. I used to enjoy doing that sort of thing, but I can see the risks and why pools might ban the practice.