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Breathwork for surfers: 6 minute practice to expand lung capacity + tolerance to co2

If you’ve read our Plan of Action for Hold Downs and Surfing Wipeouts and want to take the next step to prepare yourself for conditions a little beyond your comfort zone, this is it: breathwork for surfers. Start a daily breathwork practice that is specifically for surfers will help you connect with your breath and increase your maximum resting breath hold.

I hope you’ll agree that spending a few minutes each day breathing can have a tremendous effect on your surfing and your life. I really did a deep dive into breathwork when I did my breathwork instructor training. I became obsessed. Breathwork is what I do when I wake up everyday,

 Breathing is the first thing we do when we die and the last thing we do when we leave. In between, you can chose to breathe consciously to conquer your fear instinct, diminish stress, and stay centered even in the most tremulous seas.

“Conscious breathing is my anchor.”

– Thich Nhat Hahn

ACTIVATING YOUR “SUBCONSCIOUS AUTOPILOT:”

Is there a way in which breathwork can serve our surfing skills? Short answer: yes there is. For the long one, you can keep on reading how Breathwork for surfers can change how you feel in the ocean.

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Victor Frenkel

I recently saw an incredible video of a big wave surfer at Maui’s Jaws getting absolutely pummeled by a 30-foot monster wave. Incredibly, just before the lip of the wave detonates on his head, he stands on his board, and uses it as a diving board to dive as deep as possible. The most interesting thing about the snippet was that the surfer narrated his experience as the beatdown unfolded before my eyes. He said, “I knew the situation was serious, but something like a subconscious autopilot takes control. What followed was definitely the most aggressive beating and rag-dolling, that’s for sure.”

I’ve been surfing all my life but I’ve never gone anywhere near a 30 foot wave.  Nonetheless, the sea has shaken me to my core more times than I can count.  As anyone who has taken a surf lesson will tell you, the ocean can be a very, very scary place.  You can cop a beating in small waves when you least expect it. You need to know how to react and control yourself at any given moment with very little warning.

This concept of a “subconscious autopilot” is where breathwork for surfers comes in. Breathwork teaches us that it is possible to respond in a calm, collected, purposeful way to our greatest fears.  Breathwork creates the space between the monster waves of life and your reaction. Breathwork allows you to make the right choice no matter what is bearing down on you.

If you break it down, here’s how to get started with breathwork for surfers from 1 ft to 30 ft.

OWN YOUR PARASYMPATHETIC NERVOUS SYSTEM

Start here.  I want you to check in with your breathing throughout the day. How are you breathing while you are reading this article, driving, sitting on your surfboard waiting for a wave, or doing exercise? If you are breathing through your mouth, you’ve got work to do.

Nasal breathing is essential to your wellbeing. Nose breathing has a whole host of benefits including better sleep, unblocked sinuses, reduced anxiety and depression, and faster recovery from physical exercise. Most important for surfers, nose breathing will help you control instinctual survival reactions and create an on-demand connection to the parasympathetic nervous system.   

Mouth breathing triggers your sympathetic nervous system.  Big set on the horizon?  Your reptile brain brain steps in and activates your fight or flight instinct. Immediately, you start breathing quick, shallow breaths through your mouth.  Your heart rate goes crazy.  You either freeze and wait to be demolished or start paddling as hard as you can away from the wave.   You are out of control physically and mentally.

Contrast this state with the “subconscious autopilot” the surfer described as he took the beat down of his life.  How did he survive? He trained to focus on what he could control.  He activated his parasympathetic nervous system through breathing to ride it out. Way before the monster wave, he in-built an adaptation. His mind and body learned to respond to stress in a way that helped his body conserve oxygen and handle hold downs.  

The surfer understood that the way our body and mind react to a situation can affect our energy and O2 consumption rate. As he saw the looming set, he breathed as deep to calm himself to conserve oxygen. Next, he may have used affirmations or triggers like, “you’re going to be ok,” “you’ve got plenty of oxygen,” or “you’ve trained for this,” to calm his brain down. The brain uses around 25-30% of the body’s total energy and O2 consumption. Being able to calm his mind and body, even in an incredible situation like this, can reduce the use of O2 and energy and extend your survivability time under water.

How do you stay cool as a cucumber in the water?  (This could certainly be a part of your system of goals for becoming a better surfer and becoming a true waterwoman.)

  1. Become a nose breather
  2. Learn how to relax your mind and body using deep, slow belly breathing and breath-holds on land
  3. Rehearse stressful situations in the water
    1. Learn how to get a full lung last breath + prevent air leaks before you go under
    2. Learn how to take 3 -5 superventilation breaths following and before to a short intense breath hold (hold down) to safely bring ‘excess’ CO2 levels back to ‘normal’ resting levels without inducing any risk of black out. The surfer will be in a more relaxed and less stressed state. 
People running while holding breath
Breathhold sprints really prepare you for a solid wipeout.

BECOME FRIENDS WITH CO2 

Many people think that CO2 is just a waste product of respiration.  Little do they know that CO2 is an essential part of our body chemistry. CO2 balances your body’s PH levels, oxygenates your blood and tissues, and stabilizes and calms your neurons.  To the untrained mind, CO2 is all bad. When you hold your breath, increased CO2 triggers an innate sympathetic nervous system response (fight or flight) and the fear of suffocation. That’s why many people feel anxiety or panic during breath-holds. 

Surfers use breathwork to learn to withstand increasing levels of CO2 and control their natural urge to breathe in a safe way.  Building a higher CO2 tolerance allows you to keep calm and control your breathing on demand.  Becoming CO2 tolerant can also improve performance. The ability to handle CO2 comes with a lower respiratory rate, a lower heart rate, better form and composure, and a more efficient use of oxygen. 

CO2 tolerance training is all about controlling the urge to breathe.  When you hold your breath, whether with full or empty lungs, you’ll reach a point where you feel a strong urge to breathe. This is often accompanied by spasms of your diaphragm and throat. Breath training for surfers incrementally increases the amount of time between the start of the breath hold and when the urge to breath becomes unbearable. Add stress from physical activity to breath-holding and you’ve got a recipe for preparing your body and mind for wipeouts and hold downs. 

A good place to start is doing CO2 tables and working on your static max hold.  Below is an example of a beginner CO2 table that you can do at home, lying down, in a relaxed environment. After going through the table, you can spend a couple minutes relaxing your mind (breathe 5 seconds in, 5 seconds out).  Then measure your maximum static breath hold. This will give you a good idea of your tolerance to CO2.

RestHold
1:001:00
:451:00
:301:00
:151:00
1 breath1:00

Beyond the basics, you need training to practice in the water.  Dedicated surfers will couple moderate to high physical activity and short breath holds to their practice either on land or in the water.  It’s important to remember, if you train in water, you must train with a buddy.  

Any surfer who surfs waves of consequence should consider breathwork for surfers training in the water.  It’s the only way to handle situations like the one described above and survive.   

You can get more information on this here.

A woman doing breathwork.
Guided breathwork for surfers takes your mind to the next level.

ON YOUR WAY TO YOUR VERY OWN “SUBCONSCIOUS AUTOPILOT” 

A strong foundation in breathwork gives me an invisible superpower when I am surfing.  When I know that I can hold my breath for 2:00 minutes, 8 second wipeouts are laughable. Breathwork for surfers has also helped me navigate extreme physical discomfort like unmedicated childbirth.  I know that breathwork is always there for me and I hope you can see what it can do for you as a surfer and human being.

Giving yourself the gift of space between stimulus and reaction is invaluable in surfing and life.  Imagine if everyone could connect with their parasympathetic nervous system on demand… An endless number of arguments, fights, accidents, and drownings could be avoided.  Inevitably, you’ll face unexpected situations and conflicts where knowing how to calm yourself down will be the difference between success and disaster.  Building CO2 tolerance supports this mission to control your responses.  You only need to do one round of Wim Hoff-style superventilation and you’ll experience the feelgood benefits of CO2! 

6 Minute Breathwork for Surfers Practice

Here is a 6-Minute Breathing Routine that I use everyday to improve my breathing for surfing and prime myself for success during the day.

STEP 1 – RELAX

Sit in a comfy chair or lay on the floor.  Start by taking a few deep breaths through your nose and out your mouth.  Breathing deeply and slowly allows you to activate your parasympathetic system and counter your fight-or-flight instinct and stress.  You can do this for 60 seconds or 10 minutes if you like. I use this practice as part of a longer meditation routine or as a standalone meditation when I am short on time.  Thus, I reap the benefits twofold. First, by being able to hold my breath longer for wipeouts and hold downs while surfing and second, by connecting with my breath and the present moment to reduce stress and anxiety in my life.

STEP 2 – PRANAYAMA BREATHING

I find this kind of breathing wakes me up and energizes me.  It also helps me get ready for my Practice.

STEP 3 – DIAPHRAGM PUMPS

The best way to breath is to use our diaphragm and engage our core muscles, rather than breathing shallowly. These exercises help strengthen our diaphragm muscles and a more powerful diaphragm allows for more even, rhythmic breathing in times of stress or high exertion. A stronger diaphragm also increases the uptake of oxygen and elimination of CO2, enhancing both mental and physical performance.  

STEP 4 – LUNG STRETCHES

We do this exercise to improve our lung capacity by slowly stretching and strengthening our lungs. This is basically stretching for the lungs just like you’d stretch your body before you surf.

STEP 5 – BREATH HOLDS

  1. 30 Second, followed by recovery breathing
  2. 1:00 Minute, followed by recovery breathing
  3. Go for time, followed by recovery breathing
  4. Repeat if desired

STEP 6 – RECOVERY BREATHING

After each breath hold, when you’ve held your breath as long as you can, you take three recovery breaths. They are strong active inhales where you hold your breath at the top for one second followed by a relaxed passive exhale.  This trains your body to start automatically breathing if you were held under and loss consciousness.

This is the process:  Active inhale, Brief pause, Passive exhale.

After you’ve done a few rounds of Recovery Breathing. Close your eyes, breath in and out through your nose, and concentrate on relaxing and bringing your heart rate down.

Do this after every single breath hold.

STEP 7 – RECORD PROGRESS:

Keep a record of all your breath holds on our Breath Hold Worksheet or in your phone to chart your progress.  

Download the Breath Hold Worksheet Here:

Breathwork for surfers sheet for recording times

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