When it comes to becoming a better spearo, one of the most popular topics that comes up is how to increase your bottom time. Or, how to hold your breath underwater.
Because once you learn how to hold your breath underwater for longer on a dive, the higher chances you’ll come across the perfect fish to spear.
Right? Well, sort of.
Today, I’m going to teach you a number of techniques that will show you how to hold your breath underwater. But before we get started I need to make one thing very clear. Maximizing your time underwater is a good goal, but it needs to be done safely.
Everything you learn today is highly advanced, and should never be practiced alone. I harp on about the importance of dive buddies, but this is no joke. Pushing your limits will eventually result in you pushing yourself a little too far. Push too far alone, and you’ll black out underwater with no help for miles. This is a recipe for disaster.
When I was just getting started I used to spearfish on my own all the time. But after a close friend lost his life on a shallow dive, I realized how dangerous this sport really is. He blacked out after trying to pull a crayfish out of a cave in just 18 feet of water. Being a lone wolf there was no dive-buddy nearby to get him back to the surface.
These days, it’s very, very rare that I’ll do a solo dive, and if I go alone you can bet I’m not trying to set any records for bottom time. It’s just not worth the risk. Safety comes first.
Right. Now let’s get into it. There’s two key rules with holding your breath underwater for spearfishing.
How to hold your breath underwater:
- Don’t burn oxygen if you don’t need to.
- Make good use of your time in the “kill” zone
All of the following tips for how to hold your breath underwater are geared around serving these two rules. Get the fundamentals right, and you’ll maximize the time you can spend in the killing zone.
Find a way to relax your breathing
When you’re tense or pushing yourself, your heartrate escalates. Which burns more oxygen, and will cut the amount of time you can hold your breath underwater considerably. I like to do a few warm-up stretches to loosen up before I even get in the water, along with a series of deep breathing exercises.
Here’s my favorite.
- Place your right hand on your chest, and your left on the top of your stomach
- Inhale for 5 to 7 seconds, imagining the air is filling your stomach first
- You should notice your left hand is moving while your right is not
- Once your lower lungs are full, shift and start filling the top part of your lungs
- You should notice your right hand has started moving and your left is stable
- When you’re almost done, look straight up and gasp in one more mouthful of air
- Hold this for 10 seconds, before you start a controlled exhale for 15 seconds
- You want to release the air from the top of your lungs first
- Once this is clear, push your abdominal muscles and release the rest of the air
- Repeat 5 times
Once I’m in the water, I try to follow a regular pattern with my breaths and keep my muscles as loose and relaxed as possible. I’ve usually only got a light grip on my gun, and I tend to let the boat and the currents pull me where I need to dive, instead of fighting the ocean I roll with it. This sometimes means getting dropped off up-current from where I want to dive, but that’s not an issue. It’s just a matter of planning accordingly.
Equalize before you start to hold your breath
I didn’t realize I did this until I took a freediving course, but it helps a lot and many novice spearos don’t follow this advice. Before even diving down, you want to “pre-equalize.” Basically, before you break the surface and start to dive to the bottom, equalize first. It’s a neat little trick that means you don’t have to start worrying about equalizing again till you’re a good 5 to 7 feet deeper, you can concentrate solely on making a clean duck-dive.
Don’t try to do too much while underwater
Swimming around underwater may seem like the best way to explore and hunt your fish, but it’s the wrong strategy. Moving around burns oxygen faster, and you’re more likely to scare the fish away. I’ve found that fish rarely like to be chased, instead the best plan of action is to simply settle down and wait. Of course, you need a good spot where there’s plenty of fish activity, but by staying still you’ll last much longer on the bottom so any interested fish have more time to come and check you out.
Personally, I find that once I’m on the bottom I rarely use my fins to propel me around. Instead, I grip a rock with my hand, and use my arms to pull me around. This technique burns less oxygen than kicking, and is also less likely to spook any fish hanging about.
Make calm and controlled movements
Again, if you’re causing a huge ruckus underwater you’re going to scare the fish away, and there’s no point pushing yourself to stay underwater so long that you’ve got to make a frantic dash for the surface at the end of your dive. I’ve had much more success by staying calm and in control, and leaving a fish on the bottom when my dive is timing out, so I can resurface, prep again, and dive down with a fresh breath and make the shot on my second dive.
Position your body as flat as possible
The best position I’ve found when spearfishing is to lie flat on the bottom. It cuts your profile down so you’re less affected by the swell and any current, and makes you look like less of a threat to any fish in the area, so they’re more likely to come closer. I also find that when I’m laying flat I’m more relaxed, as I’m not trying to balance on my knees while fighting off the movement in the water, which means I’m able to hold my breath underwater for longer.
Get your spearfishing weight belt right
One of the biggest problems I had when I first started spearfishing was an incorrect amount of weight. I was using far too little lead on my weight belt, which meant I was always fighting. Fighting to push myself to the bottom. Fighting to stay on the bottom. Fighting off the swell of the waves that was always trying to tear me from my position.
All of this struggling meant my average bottom time was around 15 to 20 seconds. Instead, you’ve got to get your weights right, so you’re able to lie calmly on the ocean bottom. Remember, staying calm is key. That’s how to hold your breath underwater the right way.
How to hold your breath underwater (and stay safe)
As you start learning how to hold your breath underwater for longer, it’s going to be easier and easier to start pushing your dives out to a minute, then a minute and a half, or even two, depending on your fitness levels and overall diving abilities.
But just because you can push yourself to have a long bottom time, it doesn’t always mean you should hold your breath underwater for this long.
Remember how I mentioned safety?
The longer you hold your breath underwater, the higher chances you’ll experience a black out.
It’s just your body’s way of saying, “Right mate, you’ve had enough.”
For me, the first time I blacked out underwater I was lucky. I was doing a freediving course, and was under the careful watch of both two close friends, as well as the instructor, at a deep-water pool in a proper training facility. They had me back on the surface in seconds, and there was no long-term damage.
But this could have gone terribly wrong out in the ocean. Or if I was by myself.
These days, I track all of my dives with a simple little freediving watch. The Oceanic F10 V3 Freedive Watch. It’s captured all of my dives over the last three years (since I bought it), and I use these to work out exactly how long I can dive in specific circumstances. Then I program in the alarms, and dive to my watch. This way, I’m not pushing myself to stay down any longer than I ought to, because I’m waiting out a particular fish or simply not aware of the time.
- Freedive Mode Main displays Depth and Elapsed Dive Time with access to either a pre-set countdown timer or lap timer
- User defined surface recovery timer, repeating elapsed dive time alarm, repeating depth interval alarm and 3 max depth alarms
Even with a buddy, if you blackout on a dive you’ve still got to rely on them to get you back on dry land (which could be a problem if you’re a few hundred meters offshore), to get help.
But there’s also a smart reason to not push yourself. Spend too long underwater and you’ll need to spend longer on the surface recovering. Which when you add it all up at the end of the day, means you spend far less time spearfishing in the actual “kill zone.”
It works like this.
- I usually dive a 1:30 surface to surface. In 20 – 30 feet of water, I then need to spend about 2 minutes resting and preparing for the next dive on the surface. Over the course of an hour, (assuming I take 15 seconds to dive and surface) that’s about 17 minutes of bottom time, with 34 minutes of rest on the surface, and 17 dives per hour.
Now let’s imagine a different scenario. I push myself to stay on the bottom for 2 minutes.
- In 20 – 30 feet of water, I run a 2:30 surface to surface dive. This is almost my limit for holding my breath underwater, and I’m buggered when I resurface. It takes me about 5 minutes to recover enough to even attempt the next dive. Over the course of an hour (assuming again I take 15 seconds to dive and surface), that’s only 16 minutes of bottom time. Assuming I am able to continue pushing these long bottom times of course, this means I only get 8 dives per hour.
So to recap. If you hold your breath underwater for as long as possible, you will not only need longer to recover on the surface, you will get far fewer dives in, which may mean you miss out on a potentially great spot because you’re staying in one place for far too long. On my home reef this technique wouldn’t work, as you’ve got to actually dive to find the fish first.
The real key to spearfishing is to master techniques like how to hold your breath underwater, so you can become the most effective hunter possible. Just remember, that staying deeper for longer doesn’t necessarily make you a better hunter. You also need a keen awareness of what’s going on around you, and to make the most of every dive you make. A long dive may be necessary if you’re hiding out in a compression point awaiting some big game fish, but generally I bring home far more fish when I’m simply following my watch. The more good dives you get in, the better your chances of a good catch.