The Hidden Link Between Freediving and Mountaineering

At any time because reading through James Nestor’s 2014 ebook Deep, I’ve been fascinated by the scarcely plausible feats of freedivers. Plunging 335 feet underneath the surface of the ocean and producing it back on a solitary breath, or just keeping your breath for eleven minutes and 35 seconds, evidently necessitates a quite distinctive established of abilities and traits.

But until eventually a current meeting speak, I’d by no means regarded irrespective of whether people similar attributes may be beneficial in other options wherever oxygen is scarce—such as the skinny air of high-altitude trekking and mountaineering. At the Medication in Extremes conference in Amsterdam past month, Erika Schagatay of Mid Sweden College gave a presentation that summed up much more than two many years of freediving study. The twist that caught my attention: comprehending what can make a fantastic freediver could be beneficial for predicting and probably even mitigating altitude sickness.

Schagatay’s initial study desire was in what she phone calls “professional” freedivers, as opposed to leisure or aggressive freedivers. These are persons 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 team do repeated dives to about fifty feet, and from time to time go as deep as 130 feet, with these shorter recoveries that they shell out about sixty p.c of their time underwater. Over the class of a 9-hour day, they may shell out as a great deal as 5 several hours underwater, not respiratory.

These diving populations, Schagatay and many others have found, share 3 distinct attributes with profitable aggressive freedivers, who consider section in contests about the environment sanctioned by AIDA, the intercontinental freediving authority:

  • Big lungs: In one study of fourteen environment championship freedivers, vital capacity—the maximal quantity of air you can expel from your lungs—was correlated with their competitors scores. The 3 finest divers in the team had an common vital capacity of seven.nine liters, when the 3 worst averaged just liters. And it is not just genetic: Schagatay found that an eleven-week system of stretching elevated lung volume by practically 50 % a liter.
  • Plenty of crimson blood cells: Divers do tend to have bigger stages of hemoglobin, the component of crimson blood cells that carries oxygen. Which is probably a direct end result of their diving. Even if you just do a collection of 15 breath holds, you’ll have a surge of pure EPO an hour afterwards, which triggers crimson blood cell formation.

    But there is a much more direct and quick way of boosting your crimson blood cell rely: squeezing your spleen, which can store about 300 milliliters of concentrated crimson blood cells. Seals, who are among the the animal kingdom’s most remarkable divers, actually store about 50 % their crimson blood cells in their spleens, so they really do not squander electricity pumping all that added blood about when it is not essential. When you maintain your breath (or even just do a difficult work out), your spleen contracts and sends added oxygen-wealthy blood into circulation. Not surprisingly, spleen dimension is correlated with freediving effectiveness.

  • A strong “mammalian diving response”: When you maintain your breath, your coronary heart fee drops by about ten p.c, on common. Submerge your deal with in drinking water, and it will drop by about twenty p.c. Your peripheral blood vessels will also constrict, shunting cherished oxygen to the brain and coronary heart. Alongside one another, these oxygen-conserving reflexes are recognised as the mammalian diving response—and the moment again, the toughness of this reaction is correlated with aggressive diving effectiveness.

These 3 components assistance you deal with a entire cessation of respiratory for a couple minutes. Do they have any relevance to prolonged exposure to a moderate reduce in oxygen, like you encounter in the mountains? Which is what Schagatay and her colleagues have been discovering in a collection of studies involving Sherpas, trekkers, and Everest summiters in Nepal.

In a review posted past yr, they followed 18 trekkers to Everest Base Camp at seventeen,five hundred feet (5,360 meters). Guaranteed enough, the trekkers with the biggest lungs, the biggest spleens, and the biggest reduction in coronary heart fee through a breath-maintain were the minimum probably to build signs and symptoms of acute mountain sickness.

The dimension of the spleen isn’t the only detail that matters—its added benefits rely on a powerful squeezing reaction to get all the crimson blood cells out. In a 2014 review of 8 Everest summiters, they found that 3 repeated breath holds prior to the ascent brought about spleen volume to squeeze, on common, from 213 milliliters to 184 milliliters. Following the ascent, the similar 3 breath holds brought about the spleen to squeeze down to 132 milliliters. Prolonged exposure to altitude had strengthened the spleen’s diving reaction. In reality, there is also proof that just arriving at average altitude will induce a sustained moderate spleen contraction, as your body struggles to cope with the oxygen-bad air.

Some of these variations are evidently genetic. Equally Sherpas and Bajau freedivers have greater spleens than other carefully associated populations, presumably thanks to generations put in possibly high in the mountains or underwater. But Schagatay doesn’t believe that it is all genetic. Following all, Sherpas who no extended stay at altitude have greater spleens than Nepalese lowlanders, but not as huge as Sherpas who however stay at altitude. Together with other traits like the diving reflex, it is anything that increases with coaching, she believes.

What can you do with this information and facts in follow? Here’s some information from the Everest Base Camp review, showing the p.c reduce in coronary heart fee through a just one-minute breath-maintain. The participants are divided into 3 teams, primarily based on their Lake Louise Questionnaire (LLQ) scores, a evaluate of acute mountain sickness through the trek. Those people with the greatest scores—the sickest, in other words—barely have any reduction in coronary heart fee people with the lowest scores averaged about 18 p.c lessen:

Data from the Everest Base Camp study, showing the percent decrease in heart rate during a one-minute breath-hold
Data from the Everest Base Camp review, showing the p.c reduce in coronary heart fee through a just one-minute breath-maintain (Image: Frontiers in Physiology)

To test your have coronary heart-fee reduce through a just one-minute breath maintain, you’d want a correct coronary heart-fee observe, because the pertinent information issue is the lowest instantaneous fee you get to by the conclude of the minute. It is just just one variable among the a lot of, but it may give you some indicator of irrespective of whether you’re probably to suffer from altitude disease on a trek, which could assistance notify your conclusion about how aggressive an itinerary to observe or irrespective of whether you want to consider Diamox prophylactically. (This distinct review was carried out in Kathmandu, at four,800 feet, so it is attainable that the predictions would be unique at sea level—grist for a foreseeable future review.)

Even much more intriguing is the probability that you can train these responses. For example, in a 2013 review, Schagatay and her colleagues found that two weeks of ten maximal breath holds for every day strengthened the diving reaction, developing a faster and much more pronounced drop in coronary heart fee. The upcoming action: figuring out irrespective of whether this sort of improvement would make any realistic variance to trekkers.

The greater takeaway, for me, is the thought that freediving isn’t as nuts and unnatural a pastime as I to begin with believed when I initial read through Deep. The mammalian dive reflex originates way back in our evolutionary history—it’s what For every Scholander, just one of the initial experts to review it, identified as “the grasp switch of lifestyle.” And if Schagatay is correct, the circuitry that enables us to go deep is also what enables us to make it to the best of Mount Everest—because, as she puts it, we were born to dive.

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Lead Image: Getty/iStockphoto