Freediving is 90% mental, 10% physical
I use the term Relaxation for a broad-spectrum mindset in freediving. Relaxation starts with lifestyle, not just as we get to the poolside. It has so much influence on everything we do and a big impact on what we can do in the sport. It is also affected by several external factors.
I chose to write about relaxation as it is the most underutilized tool in the freediving toolbox for beginners to intermediate divers. It’s something that I think everybody can check regularly, and when people do a freediving course, they get given all the tools to begin the journey for when they join us at the pool and beach. But, the majority are so keen for distance or bottom time that they overlook a very important aspect of freediving. Relaxation can impact equalization, technique, breath-hold and overall performance, not to mention the enjoyment of a dive. I have had a few periods myself where I feel like I have been going backwards and my friend and mentor, Jody Fisher, has had a look at the subtleties and picked up that I’m tense and not relaxed. One of the most important breath holds I have performed was with Jody around five years ago. It was my second static I had ever done, and Jody talked me through it. She pointed out when she saw tension in my shoulders, neck, jaw, back and legs. And each time, when I mentally focused on that part of the body and relaxed it, I realized that it had become tense without me feeling it. The reason it was so important to me was that it made me aware of how tension can creep into our diving. Nowadays, if I am going backwards, l do a series of dives, working through each part of the body and asking myself if each part of the body I focus on is relaxed. We all get so focused on the goal, timing, technique or streamline, that a state of tension creeps into our form and hinders our progress. At the club, we have had several divers who have had the same obstacle, becoming frustrated with their lack of progress. A “Back to Basics” approach using relaxation can work wonders. To reach a deeper level of control, I have also taken up meditation, stretch regularly and exercise often as part of a more lifestyle-based approach to relaxation. I work in a very stressful environment with a constant pressure to perform. Work had a major impact on me a couple years ago, and I chose to sort out the issues with management. The last couple of years, they have left me alone to work with my own systems and I have since flourished.
Relaxation starts with general physical/mental wellbeing, which can be impacted by diet, and is achieved while freediving by physical awareness, focus, and control in the water.
Relaxation is not just sitting as still as you can or watching television. Relaxation can be influenced by several factors, and have influence on everything in your day, week or year. Practicing relaxation will help achieve a buildup of confidence and belief before a dive. Part of the process is listening to and learning about the body through the day and at training. Your everyday activities, be they work or play, will influence your ability to relax when at training. We can’t have a stressed out, fast paced day at work, have a tense traffic-filled trip home, and expect to get in the pool, instantly relax and have an enjoyable session. Relaxation can be profoundly influenced by lifestyle choices, helped through a balance of work/play, and looking after mental and physical wellbeing through things like diet, exercise and stress management.
Mental and Physical wellbeing
In a society overstimulated by sugar, caffeine, technology, chemicals, media, work and competitive drive, we are in a flat out race every day that we lose our ability to stop and be calm and collected. There are several ways to create calm in our lives and quiet the mind. Meditation, Mindfulness, Yoga and visualization are just a few. Take, for instance, meditation. Studies have found that it can have a relaxing influence in children, so much so that schools in Europe are making it part of the curriculum. It has a marked influence on class behavior and mental focus of the individual children. According to studies done by the University of California, meditation has been found to reduce stress and help improve your focus and attention. It improves information processing and decision making, creates mental strength and helps us keep focused despite distractions, which is invaluable to the sport of freediving. Yoga has a benefit to our mental and physical wellbeing by generating calm and focus and also helps us physically by improving flexibility, strength and balance.
Stress can also influence our ability to relax. Common effects of stress are muscle pain, fatigue, sleep problems, anxiety, and a lack of motivation, to name a few. These affect your body, mood and your behavior. Stress causes anxiety and a lack of focus. According to the American Psychological Association, stress has a negative effect on the musculoskeletal system. Constant stress causes muscle tension, which in turn hampers relaxation. Constant stress over a prolonged period of time can contribute to long term problems in the heart and blood vessels. A consistent increase in heart rate and elevated levels of stress hormones coupled with blood pressure can lead to hypertension, or even worse, heart attack and stroke. That same prolonged stress can also cause long term drain on the body by continually activating the nervous system, making it extremely difficult to switch off and relax while diving.
I have included diet in my relaxation write up as “we are what we eat”. And, we are a society which has large amounts of sugar, salt, saturated fats, chemicals, caffeine and alcohol, to name some common dietary vices. During times of high stress, we tend to eat these comfort foods. So, staying away from high fat foods, caffeine, sugar and alcohol is a good start. High fat foods make us lethargic, drive up our blood pressure, and have a large part to play in bad health overall. Many of us also use caffeine as crutch to help us when we have stress-influenced lack of sleep, but it stays in our system longer than we expect and can cause more sleep problems than it is helping. So, lowering the intake of caffeine can help with sleeping problems which are causing even more stress, restlessness and anxiety. Sugar, being a simple carbohydrate does calm us, but leaves the bloodstream rapidly causing us to crash and needing another “fix” of sugar and the vicious circle begins again. Soon we are up to the eyeballs in sugar!
Diet can be used to reduce stress and fortify our physical wellbeing. By eating a low fat, high fiber, and complex-carb rich diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables, we can get the nutrients we need to boost our immune system and get the energy we need to stay alert and focused and be at the top of our game physically and mentally. As stress can weaken our ability to fight disease, we can also boost our immune system by eating more fruit and vegetables high in antioxidants. Citrus fruits are also high in vitamin C, another stress-busting antioxidant.
Relaxation at training
Now that external influences on relaxation have been discussed, I will discuss the relaxation at poolside. Whether doing a static, dynamic, constant weight, the relaxation is all the same approach. Some people prefer a quiet mind, by switching off everything and just being in the dark in their head. Others have a happy place, or a place of reflection. I like to have the first couple of minutes of quiet to get focused and then visualize doing something I love, like coloring in with my daughters. Another visualization I like for static is being at the beach and stepping down each step of a 10 step staircase toward the sand. As each step down is taken, I will try to drop the body further into a more relaxed state than it was before. Once I get onto the sand, I look around and start to imagine what is taken in by each of my senses – sight at first. My sight takes in all the colors, textures and tones. Then I work through what I can touch, hear, and smell, as well as the feel of sand underfoot, the breath of the wind, sensation of the water or sun on my skin, etc. I process the surroundings with all of my senses until it’s time to leave – which is near the end of the breath hold. If one system is not working for me I will use one of several other “journeys” – a body-scan is another effective method. Most of my tension, like many divers, is in my neck, jaw, shoulders and lower back, glutes and hamstrings. I will move from one area to the next and make a concerted effort to “drop” each area towards the bottom of the pool. Once I feel it is all relaxed I try to imagine a shining warm light entering the top of the head and working its way down the body with it stopping in the forehead, jaw, neck, chest, solar plexus, diaphragm, pelvis, knees and feet, and then have it work its way up again.
My conclusion in what I have experienced and worked with is that relaxation starts with lifestyle. Physical health can be improved through exercise fortified by a healthy diet. Mental health can be improved by using tools like meditation to help with stress management and ensuring a reasonable work/life balance. In the water, these come together to help us get better control over our minds and bodies to get into a deeper state of relaxation, and gives us the ability to achieve our best performances.