The Hidden Link Between Freediving and Mountaineering

James J. Latham

Ever because reading through James Nestor’s 2014 reserve Deep, I’ve been fascinated by the scarcely plausible feats of freedivers. Plunging 335 ft below the floor of the ocean and making it again on a solitary breath, or basically keeping your breath for eleven minutes and 35 seconds, clearly needs a pretty specific set of techniques and characteristics.

But until eventually a modern meeting talk, I’d by no means thought of whether individuals identical attributes may be useful in other settings where oxygen is scarce—such as the thin air of higher-altitude trekking and mountaineering. At the Medicine in Extremes conference in Amsterdam last thirty day period, Erika Schagatay of Mid Sweden College gave a presentation that summed up far more than two many years of freediving investigate. The twist that caught my notice: being familiar with what tends to make a fantastic freediver could be useful for predicting and potentially even mitigating altitude illness.

Schagatay’s initial investigate interest was in what she phone calls “professional” freedivers, as opposed to leisure or aggressive freedivers. These are folks who dive for fish and shellfish, just as their ancestors have for uncountable generations: like the Ama pearl divers in Japan, and the Bajau subsistence fishers in the Philippines and Malaysia. The latter group do repeated dives to about fifty ft, and at times go as deep as a hundred thirty ft, with this kind of quick recoveries that they shell out about sixty per cent of their time underwater. Above the study course of a nine-hour working day, they may shell out as a great deal as five hrs underwater, not respiration.

These diving populations, Schagatay and some others have uncovered, share 3 exclusive attributes with effective aggressive freedivers, who choose part in contests around the planet sanctioned by AIDA, the intercontinental freediving authority:

  • Significant lungs: In one study of 14 planet championship freedivers, very important capacity—the maximal volume of air you can expel from your lungs—was correlated with their levels of competition scores. The 3 ideal divers in the group experienced an average very important ability of 7.nine liters, even though the 3 worst averaged just six.7 liters. And it’s not just genetic: Schagatay uncovered that an eleven-7 days software of stretching improved lung volume by nearly half a liter.
  • Lots of pink blood cells: Divers do tend to have increased degrees of hemoglobin, the part of pink blood cells that carries oxygen. That’s likely a direct consequence of their diving. Even if you just do a collection of fifteen breath retains, you’ll have a surge of natural EPO an hour later, which triggers pink blood mobile formation.

    But there is a far more direct and quick way of boosting your pink blood mobile count: squeezing your spleen, which can store about three hundred milliliters of concentrated pink blood cells. Seals, who are between the animal kingdom’s most outstanding divers, actually store about half their pink blood cells in their spleens, so they don’t squander energy pumping all that additional blood around when it’s not essential. When you hold your breath (or even just do a difficult exercise), your spleen contracts and sends additional oxygen-loaded blood into circulation. Not shockingly, spleen dimensions is correlated with freediving performance.

  • A sturdy “mammalian diving response”: When you hold your breath, your heart charge drops by about 10 per cent, on average. Submerge your confront in drinking water, and it will fall by about 20 per cent. Your peripheral blood vessels will also constrict, shunting precious oxygen to the mind and heart. Together, these oxygen-conserving reflexes are recognized as the mammalian diving response—and after all over again, the energy of this reaction is correlated with aggressive diving performance.

These 3 elements aid you deal with a entire cessation of respiration for a couple minutes. Do they have any relevance to extended exposure to a mild lessen in oxygen, like you working experience in the mountains? That’s what Schagatay and her colleagues have been checking out in a collection of experiments involving Sherpas, trekkers, and Everest summiters in Nepal.

In a analyze released last year, they adopted eighteen trekkers to Everest Base Camp at seventeen,five hundred ft (5,360 meters). Positive ample, the trekkers with the major lungs, the major spleens, and the major reduction in heart charge all through a breath-hold were the minimum very likely to acquire signs and symptoms of acute mountain illness.

The dimensions of the spleen isn’t the only point that matters—its positive aspects depend on a powerful squeezing reaction to get all the pink blood cells out. In a 2014 analyze of 8 Everest summiters, they uncovered that 3 repeated breath retains prior to the ascent brought about spleen volume to squeeze, on average, from 213 milliliters to 184 milliliters. Just after the ascent, the identical 3 breath retains brought about the spleen to squeeze down to 132 milliliters. Extended exposure to altitude experienced strengthened the spleen’s diving reaction. In actuality, there is also proof that basically arriving at average altitude will lead to a sustained mild spleen contraction, as your overall body struggles to cope with the oxygen-inadequate air.

Some of these adaptations are clearly genetic. Both of those Sherpas and Bajau freedivers have even bigger spleens than other closely similar populations, presumably many thanks to generations put in both higher in the mountains or underwater. But Schagatay doesn’t believe it’s all genetic. Just after all, Sherpas who no more time are living at altitude have even bigger spleens than Nepalese lowlanders, but not as major as Sherpas who even now are living at altitude. Along with other characteristics like the diving reflex, it’s one thing that improves with schooling, she thinks.

What can you do with this details in apply? Here’s some details from the Everest Base Camp analyze, demonstrating the per cent lessen in heart charge all through a a person-moment breath-hold. The members are divided into 3 groups, dependent on their Lake Louise Questionnaire (LLQ) scores, a measure of acute mountain illness all through the trek. Those people with the optimum scores—the sickest, in other words—barely have any reduction in heart charge individuals with the least expensive scores averaged about eighteen per cent lessen:

Data from the Everest Base Camp study, showing the percent decrease in heart rate during a one-minute breath-hold
Knowledge from the Everest Base Camp analyze, demonstrating the per cent lessen in heart charge all through a a person-moment breath-hold (Photo: Frontiers in Physiology)

To check your have heart-charge lessen all through a a person-moment breath hold, you’d will need a appropriate heart-charge watch, because the appropriate details level is the least expensive instantaneous charge you achieve by the close of the moment. It is just a person element between quite a few, but it may give you some sign of whether you’re very likely to go through from altitude ailment on a trek, which could aid tell your conclusion about how intense an itinerary to adhere to or whether you want to choose Diamox prophylactically. (This certain analyze was done in Kathmandu, at 4,800 ft, so it’s doable that the predictions would be different at sea level—grist for a future analyze.)

Even far more intriguing is the likelihood that you can practice these responses. For instance, in a 2013 analyze, Schagatay and her colleagues uncovered that two weeks of 10 maximal breath retains for each working day strengthened the diving reaction, creating a more rapidly and far more pronounced fall in heart charge. The following action: figuring out whether this type of enhancement would make any practical distinction to trekkers.

The even bigger takeaway, for me, is the plan that freediving isn’t as outrageous and unnatural a pastime as I initially assumed when I to start with read through Deep. The mammalian dive reflex originates way again in our evolutionary history—it’s what For every Scholander, a person of the to start with scientists to analyze it, referred to as “the learn swap of lifetime.” And if Schagatay is suitable, the circuitry that allows us to go deep is also what allows us to make it to the top of Mount Everest—because, as she places it, we were born to dive.

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Direct Photo: Getty/iStockphoto

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