How to Free Dive: A Complete Beginner’s Guide

How to Free Dive
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Learning how to free dive can be a life-changing experience, as it teaches you a level of discipline you’ve never experienced before. You’ll be able to see marine life in a new light and have a highly physical activity that many people haven’t tried before. With the help of this guide, you’ll know the best tips for beginners, how to take advantage of professional breathing techniques, and more.

Free Diving for Beginners

If you’re an experienced diver, you likely won’t need to refer back to the most basic beginner’s tips. However, for those of you who are interested in starting this amazing activity, this part of the guide is invaluable.

The idea of free diving can seem overwhelming at first, especially as you won’t be using regular scuba equipment. You’ll quickly realize though it’s one of the best ways to explore the ocean.

As a beginner, it is your responsibility to make sure you have the right equipment, that you understand the importance of water conditions, and that you always dive with a partner or group. The following points are essential to learning free diving for beginners in the safest and simplest way.

1. Finding Essential Equipment

There are a few cultures around the whole world of free dive without any equipment other than goggles and weights, such as the Bajau sea nomads in Southeast Asia. That said, free diving is essentially ingrained into their DNA and for everyone else, you’ll need a few extra items at your disposal. When you’re gathering your equipment, you’re going to need fins and a mask.

  • Fins

The fins that you choose give you the ability to easily navigate through the water by using as little energy as possible, which helps you to reserve your oxygen. You’ll want to make sure you choose fins specifically designed for free diving, as they are substantially longer than those used for scuba diving. Also, there are multiple materials to choose from which can affect how easy the fins are to work with.

For beginners, it’s highly recommended you start free diving with a pair of polypropylene free diving fins, as they are the least expensive and the easiest to get your hands on.

Polypropylene is plastic, and it’s far softer than other fin materials, such as carbon fiber or fiberglass. Thus, in situations where you may scrape your fins on a rock, which happens quite often as a beginner, you won’t have to worry about snapping your fins in half.

  • Masks

The second piece of equipment needed for free diving is surely a mask. This not only gives you a clear field of view when under the water, but it also allows you to keep your eyes open.

The best masks are made from silicone, as they suction comfortably to your face and create a waterproof seal when you are submerged. You’ll also want to make sure they are incredibly low-volume, as this allows you to equalize easier and reserve more oxygen in your lungs.

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2. Taking a Course

With plenty of water activities, taking a course can be one of the best tips if you’re learning about free diving for beginners. In these courses, you will be guided by a certified and trained professional who will teach you the ins and outs of free diving, including basic safety standards.

Before heading out onto the water, you’ll typically train in a pool and have far more experience with the fundamentals of the activity so you can have better confidence.

3. Getting a Diving Partner

This is a tip that applies to both experienced and novice free divers alike, as you should never go out into the water on your own. You should act as a rescue diver for your buddy and they should be your rescue person as well. By diving with someone else, you’ll always have an eye on each other’s condition and your surroundings.

Free Diving Dangers

As liberating and beautiful as free diving can be, it also comes with plenty of dangers, so you should take courses and always have a rescue diver with you. Being aware of the hazards is what will help to make you a more cautious diver, as a single mistake could cost you your life. There are multiple personal, pressure-related, and environmental risks associated with the activity.

1. Dehydration

Two of the most common issues experienced by novice free divers are dehydration and exhaustion. Did you know that the dive reflex of mammals causes our bodies to excrete more fluids (urinate) than what we take in?

With that said, it’s far easier than you’d think to get dehydrated, especially if you don’t take the time to ingest more fluids as you continually submerge yourself in water.

It’s also common to get dehydrated from sweating through your wetsuit and breathing through your mouth. You might feel like you’re hydrated enough, but it’s surely not the case. Divers need to consume small amounts of water during their trip to ensure they’re always at their peak performance.

2. Exhaustion

Exhaustion, the second most common issue, occurs simply because you are exerting too much energy without giving yourself time to rest. This causes both your mind and body to stop functioning, which is why you should limit the amount of time you’re out on the water.

After your free diving session, make sure you take a nap to help your body recuperate so that you’re ready to get back on the water the following day.

3. Hypothermia

When your body is in the water, you’ll lose heat 25x faster, so it’s highly recommended you wear a wetsuit even if you’re diving in warm water for long periods. Most beginner divers will lose half-a-degree of core body temperature after a single dive session. The tricky thing about hypothermia is that it progresses quite quickly and before you know it, your body will be colder than it feels.

Over time, you’ll begin to acclimatize to the water and you’ll be able to listen to your body better. This can help you to avoid the risks of getting too cold when you’re in the water.

4. Heat Exhaustion

Equally as easy to experience is heat exhaustion, which occurs when you are in direct view of the sun for extended periods. Even if you’re diving in cold conditions, there’s a high likelihood the sun is affecting you, which is why sunblock is a necessity.

Also, you should never free dive after consuming an excessive amount of alcohol or caffeine. Heat exhaustion paired with dehydration can lead to fainting, fatigue, extreme dizziness, confusion, muscle cramps, and a rapid heartbeat.

5. Water and Weather Conditions

Similar to any activity you’re doing in the water, you need to be very aware of the water and weather conditions. Tides and currents are a huge factor that can influence your safety, which is why asking for local advice is always a fantastic idea. The locals know their bodies of water better than anyone else, so you can get an insider’s opinion on rip tides, the potential for squalls, currents, and more.

6. Marine Life

Even though it’s incredibly beautiful and likely the reason you’re free diving in the first place, marine life can also be hazardous. This is another thing that you should ask the locals about, as well as do your research into since you’ll want to know what you’re encountering under the water. From jellyfish to fire coral, multiple natural elements could transform a fun free dive into a trip to the local hospital.

7. Barotrauma

There are four main types of barotrauma to think about when free diving, and they are ear, eye, sinus, and lungs.

  • Ear Barotrauma: If you can't get air to your middle ear during your descent, then your eardrum is at risk for rupturing or being filled by fluid, known as a reverse block. This is when you’ll need to have a clear understanding of how to equalize properly, as we’ll discuss below.
  • Eye Barotrauma: When you’re descending into the water, it is important that you put air into your mask; otherwise, your capillaries will burst. This can cause severe redness in the whites of your eyes. To prevent this, you will need to equalize your mask throughout your dive.
  • Sinus Barotrauma: Free diving when sick is one of the worst things you can do for numerous reasons, but especially for your sinuses. As there are blockages, you won’t be able to allow air to travel through your sinuses freely, which causes severe pain. If you continue to dive under these conditions, your sinus capillaries will rupture and cause nose bleeds.
  • Lungs Barotrauma: If your body becomes too cold and too rigid around your rib cage, you’ll find that it will become incredibly difficult to breathe, causing you to feel like you need to cough constantly. This happens because fluid or blood has caused severe pressure in your lungs. Lungs barotrauma is a severe event in which you should be hospitalized, as you’ll need access to rest, pure oxygen, and plenty of fluids.

8. Decompression Sickness

The most dangerous ailment to avoid when free diving is decompression sickness (DCS). It happens when a diver’s body takes in too much nitrogen due to water pressure, which causes severe damage to your blood vessels. Though it sounds like a mild ailment, it could result in death.

By using a free diving computer, you can keep track of the amount of time you spend on the surface compared to under the water. However, it’s important to note there has been minimal research into free diving and decompression sickness, so simply avoid as many deep dives (over 50m) per day as possible.

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Free Diving Breathing Techniques

If you opt to take a free diving course, one of the first things you’ll learn about is how to breathe properly before descending. As you won’t have access to an oxygen tank or snorkel, free diving relies solely on the amount of oxygen you can store in your lungs. This is what makes it such a risky and tricky sport.

The majority of people without training find that they may be able to hold their breath for up to a minute underwater before feeling like they are struggling to breathe. Experienced free divers can ignore the struggling feeling so that they can continue to dive. With that said, everyone’s physiology is different and numerous factors can affect your breathing capabilities ranging from smoking to singing.

1. Daily Training

Before you even consider getting into the water, it’s recommended you take the time to train your body with deep breathing exercises. This will give you the ability to expand your diaphragm and get used to the idea of holding your breath. You should consider doing breathing exercises daily and keep track of your progress on a calendar.

While sitting in a quiet room, allow your mind to be at rest, as you won’t want your heart rate to speed up since it will prevent you from storing oxygen. Breathe deeply, in and out, for five seconds, at least three times, and then on your final inhale, hold your breath. Wait until any fluttering in your chest or stomach goes away and then slowly exhale the breath.

Inhale more oxygen as soon as your body alerts you that it feels like it wants air and then repeat the above process several more times. This exercise should take a few minutes but is invaluable for training your body to not panic when it feels like it needs oxygen.

2. Beginning Water Training

Once you have a good grip on training your breathing when you’re out of the water, it’s time to start training in the water. With that said, you’re still not at the place where you can begin free diving, but this will help you to get a more authentic feeling of what it’s like when you’re submerged. This process will require the help of a friend or family member, though it should ideally be your diving partner.

Lie on your back in the water, whether it’s a pool, bathtub, or the ocean, and face the ceiling with your partner standing beside you. Take several breaths in and out and then take your final breath. Your partner should then roll your body over and put your face into the water while timing you.

Allow your body to relax as you float on the water and release all tension from your body as you enter a meditative state. Have your partner tap you at regular intervals, whether it’s every 10 seconds or five seconds so you can give a signal that you are okay. See how long you can stay submerged in the facedown position.

Once you have held your breath for as long as you possibly can, roll over and stand up in the water, allowing your heart rate and breathing to normalize. Repeat this process two to three times per week until your body learns how to positively manage higher levels of carbon dioxide.

3. Breathing When Diving

At this point, you should have all the pre-free diving breathing techniques down pat and it’s now time to discuss breathing up and recovery breathing. Before a dive, you will need to perform your breathing up ritual and this process should be as simple as possible so that it doesn’t overwhelm you. Many professional divers find that closing their eyes and imagining they’re falling asleep may help.

4. Breathing Up

Lie prone on the water to relax all your muscles and reduce the water pressure on your body. Focus on your breathing, making sure you are relaxed and your stomach muscles aren’t tense. Take longer to exhale than to inhale, as this helps to decrease your heart rate and take a short pause at the end of your inhalation and exhalation.

Expand your stomach, allowing the bottom half of your lungs to fill completely without moving your chest and rib cage. Then focus on expanding your rib cage with every breath, visualizing the central part of your lungs. Finally, fill the upper part of your lungs near your throat and collarbone.

5. Recovery Breathing

When you’ve finished your dive and are making your way back to the surface, you’ll need to do your recovery breathing. During this process, ensure you don’t exhale until your mouth is fully clear of the water’s surface. The main purpose of recovery breathing is to give your body enough oxygen without getting rid of all the air in your lungs; otherwise, you could blackout.

Once you’ve reached the surface, hold onto something for support and exhale a small amount of air quickly. Opening your mouth fully, take a deep breath into your lungs and then close your mouth for one to two seconds. Exhale a short burst of air and repeat these steps until you have completely recovered.

It might be tempting to answer questions or talk to friends or family during this process, but it’s highly advised you focus on your breathing at this point. Make sure your diving buddy is keeping an eye on you for at least a minute after you have surfaced, so you don’t begin to hyperventilate.

You should now have a clear knowledge of breathing techniques for free diving.

How to Lower Heart Rate Free Diving

One trend that has continued through this guide is the importance of lowering your heart rate. When your heart works on circulating your blood too quickly, it is consuming the majority of your oxygen, which can be a detriment to your free diving experience.

When you’re working on training your breathing, you’re also going to want to pay close attention to your heart rate. These tips are highly recommended for learning how to lower your heart rate while free diving.

1. Learn to Relax

If you’ve ever experienced any emotion at all where you don’t feel relaxed, you are likely aware of how easy it is for your heart rate to increase. Having full control over your heart rate is ideal to prevent yourself from panicking.

There are numerous ways for you to manage your relaxation levels such as participating in yoga, visualizing peaceful moments, or picturing your heart rate decreasing physically.

2. Trigger the Mammalian Dive Reflex

Triggering your mammalian dive reflex is something that plenty of professional divers do to automatically slow down their heart rate. With this step, you’ll be engaging the physiological response that all mammals have; such is designed to help them stay underwater for extended periods. By splashing cold water on your face, you can slow your heart rate down by up to 25%.

3. Get Comfortable

If you know you’re the type of person that will focus more on your equipment than the task at hand, you’ll want to make sure you are as comfortable as humanly possible.

With that said, it’s highly recommended you wear your free diving gear far before you head out onto the water so that you can get accustomed to it. Learn the ins and outs of your fins, your mask, as well as your wetsuit so that everything feels like a second skin.

4. Do Recreational Exercises

There are plenty of ways for you to train your heart rate even when you’re not in the water, such as getting involved in yoga and other recreational exercises focused on managing your breathing.

Since slowing your heart rate is one of the key skills to any yoga routine, it’s a highly valuable workout that you should consider. You will also want to take the time to do some meditation during your free time.

By following these four steps, you should be well on your way to learning how to lower your heart rate while free diving. This will enable you to make the most of your oxygen reserves and will prove to be useful in numerous other daily applications.

Free Diving Tips

Even if you have years of free diving experience under your belt, you’ll always rely on the tips that you learned when you started. There’s nothing more valuable than having insider knowledge to help make free diving an activity that works for you, especially in dangerous situations. When it comes to free diving tips, these are surely the most important to know:

1. Protect Your Airway

Aside from diving with a partner, as we discussed in the beginner’s tips to free diving, it is essential that you always protect your airway. Blackouts are common among novice and experienced divers alike, and ensuring your airway is away from the water is of the utmost importance. You and your partner should be well aware of the importance of protecting your airway no matter what situation you’re in.

2. Choose a Matching Partner

When you’re deciding on who you want to be your diving partner, it’s best if you opt for someone who is at the same skill level as you and has experience diving at the same depths. Finding a partner who is perfectly matched with your level can give you comfort and security without being too overbearing. Both you and your partner should be well trained in rescue and understanding each other’s limits.

3. Communicate Effectively

Even though you’re under the water, communication is a valuable asset and necessity when free diving. You should be able to tell what your partner is saying to you and vice versa.

Develop specific hand signals you can both use to signal when it’s time for you to head to the surface or if there’s something you both should be aware of in your immediate area.

4. Have Surface Intervals

As someone who free dives recreationally (less than 40m), the amount of time you spend on the surface should be at least twice as long as the time you’ve spent diving. The deeper you go, the longer your surface intervals should be by at least double. This will give your body more than enough time to regulate itself before going back under the water.

5. Rely on Your Weight

Preserving your energy is of the utmost importance with free diving and as such, you’ll want to make sure you’re putting as little effort into the process as possible. Using your weight to your advantage can help you to save precious oxygen needed to explore the world beneath the ocean’s surface. For example, allowing your body weight to submerge your body rather than swimming down.

6. Make Streamlined Movements

Although it might be tempting to let your inner mermaid or merman come out, streamlined movements will be your best friend when free diving. You won’t want to make any excessive movements, as this will result in expelling more energy. It’s best if you’re able to swim slowly, relax your body, and make soft and fluid movements.

How to Equalize Free Diving

The final part of this guide to learn how to free dive is to understand equalization and the steps needed to do it. In the human body, there are many areas where the air is stored.

When you start to go underwater, these areas become smaller and smaller. If you don’t continue to add air into the spaces, you’re likely to experience some type of injury.

There are four main areas to focus on when equalizing: your middle ear, sinuses, lungs, and mask.

1. Equalizing the Sinuses and Middle Ear

We’ll first discuss the best methods of equalizing your sinuses, as this process will also equalize your middle ear as well. It’s common for people to experience nosebleeds when they free dive.

However, in many professional opinions, this process means there is damage that needs to be addressed. It is highly recommended you avoid free diving if you are sick, as your sinuses won’t allow enough air to travel without blockages.

Using the Valsalva technique, you’re going to want to increase the pressure in your nasopharynx by holding your nose and breathing against your closed throat. This will inflate your ears before your descent. When descending into the water, go feet first and continue to gently inflate for the next 15 feet.

2. Equalizing the Mask

Most people wear a mask when free diving and you’ll also need to equalize this as well. You’ll want to invest in a high-quality low-volume mask that allows you to descend deeper with less buoyancy. It is also important you make sure the mask fits you properly; otherwise, you could experience visual distortion and the loss of precious oxygen.

Also, your mask will need to fit you perfectly to avoid mask squeeze. Ensure the seal seals comfortably against your face and when you inhale through your nose, there shouldn’t be any water entering the mask.

During your descent, all you should have to do is breathe out through your nose to equalize the mask. This will help to pump the perfect amount of air inside so that you don’t experience mask squeeze.

3. Equalizing the Lungs

Easily the most important thing to equalize when you’re heading out on a dive, both of your lungs is essential to your overall health and the quality of your dive. Luckily, even though they are the most important, they are also the easiest. When you are descending into the water, all you have to do is breathe slowly, deeply, and calmly.

At this point, you may want to revert to your out-of-water training where you were able to learn how to breathe responsibly to prevent panic and a waste of oxygen.

4. Other Equalization Techniques

There are multiple ways that you can equalize yourself before descending for your free dive. Depending on your experience, you’ll find which method is best for you. Some of the other notable equalization techniques include:

  • Toynbee: While keeping your mouth and nose closed, you will swallow continually. This is commonly used by professional divers when they are beginning to ascend.
  • Frenzel: As an alternative to Valsalva, Frenzel can be done by keeping your throat closed and contracting your throat muscles.
  • Lowry: By combining Toynbee and Valsalva, Lowry is done by holding your nose and gently blowing out air while swallowing. You’ve likely done this before if you’ve ever swum in a pool and needed to clear your ears of water.

How to Free Dive: Final Thoughts

Free diving is a liberating experience that is booming in popularity around the world, but it’s also one of the most dangerous underwater activities for people to do. It is highly recommended you invest in a course prior to heading out on the water, as you’ll have professional advice to turn to.

With the tips and tricks in this guide, you’ll have a better understanding of how to have fun and more importantly, stay safe when free diving.

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