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Natalie Gibb

Improve Your Breathing Technique

By June 27, 2011

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Would you like longer dives? Of course! If your dive times are limited by the amount of air in your tank (as opposed to the no-decompression limit), mastering proper breathing technique will lengthen your dives. A diver who breathes correctly also maximizes the gas exchange in his lungs, which reduces the likelihood of post-dive headaches, exhaustion, carbon dioxide build-up, and decompression sickness. This article explains why proper breathing technique doesn't always come naturally to divers, and includes an exercise (provided by an instructor friend of mine) to help you master breath control.

Many divers are never taught a breath control technique. During the open water certification course, most students are simply instructed to "breathe normally." Yeah right. Unless the student diver is a scuba prodigy, breathing "normally" is out of the question. Humans are not meant to breathe underwater, of course it feels strange! Not only must a diver breathe entirely through his mouth, he must do it while biting down on the regulator mouthpiece. As he exhales, bubbles whoosh noisily past his cheeks. Is breathing underwater easy? Yes. Is it normal? No.

The novelty of breathing underwater tends to focus a diver's attention on his breathing. Since most people don't pay attention to their breathing in everyday life, focusing on respiration makes breathing "normally" difficult. The diver begins to second guess his breathing technique. He thinks, "How do I normally breathe? Am I breathing enough? Am I not breathing enough?" and he begins to consciously mess with his breathing rate.

"Most scuba diving students are simply instructed to breathe 'normally'. Yeah right. Is breathing underwater easy? Yes. Is it normal? No."

Most divers must train themselves to breathe normally despite the excitement of being underwater. They must learn to split their attention between maintaining a steady breathing rate and focusing on other aspects of diving, such as buoyancy control, trim, and fish-watching.

According to my dive instructor friend, she has successfully coached students to improve their breathing techniques by practicing proper scuba breathing outside of the water while preforming mundane activities (such as driving and washing the dishes). This helps divers become accustomed to splitting their attention between maintaining a steady breathing rate and attending to other tasks. Eventually, divers should be able to launch themselves into calm, rhythmic scuba breathing and maintain their breathing rate automatically while their attention is on other activities.

More tips for safe and better diving:

What Your Hands Tell You About Your Buoyancy
Does Orally Inflating Your BCD Really Save Air?
What Are Trim Weights?

Practice scuba breathing while engaging in an easy, mindless task. Begin by inhaling slowly for about 4 seconds - to the point that your lungs are comfortably - but not abnormally - full. Count to four in your head as you inhale. Then exhale slowly for four seconds. Inevitably, you will become distracted by the task you are performing. That's okay! Notice if you maintained your breathing pattern, and if not, restart by exhaling fully and then beginning to count again. Once you get a rhythm down, extend the count. Try counting for 5 seconds, then six. If you start to feel starved for air, shorten the count. Starving yourself for air will eventually lead to hyperventilation, which is unhealthy and wastes more air then it saves.

Practice is required to master proper breathing technique, but divers will find the results well worth the effort. Learning controlled, rhythmic breathing will not only improve your diving, it is beneficial for your general health as a relaxation technique and as a method of increasing a your oxygen intake. This is one of the reasons that divers with good breathing technique find being underwater a calming, almost meditative experience.

Speak up! What method do you use to control your breathing rate while scuba diving?

Image copyright istockphoto.com, richcarey


June 27, 2011 at 12:20 pm
(1) Tom Haythornthwaite says:

Thanks, Nat! As you know from our dive, I need to improve this. Expect me to dive longer next time I visit!

June 30, 2011 at 2:46 pm
(2) Jan Doggen says:

Yes, I’m also one of those people who were told to “just breathe regularly”. Thanks for the exercise tip!

July 3, 2011 at 1:09 am
(3) Mike says:

Your articles are very helpful and great! I am a scuba instructor, have been diving since 1986 and teaching since 1999, close to 800 certifications.
I agree with most of this article but you do not mention that breath control will affect buoyancy.
A good “breath rate” will help the diver achieve good buoyancy control.
The task you propose may be good for some divers but not for all, diving is not cut out for every one the same way, the size of lungs may vary and some divers when reaching second 4 of the count may have their lungs so full that they start ascending and may even be harmful, with all due respect, this is not a skill part of any course or sanctioned diving practice.
About the comment :” most students are simply instructed to “breathe normally.” Yeah right.” :
All certification agencies entry level courses manuals do mention that breathing should be IN A LONG, DEEP, RELAXING WAY, so when you say MOST SCUBA DIVERS ARE SIMPLY INSTRUCTED…..meaning Scuba divers you met in YOUR experience? or is this information a fact from a survey from the World Recreational Scuba Training Council?
Or are this divers students that did not read their manual and passed a test and still did not understand?

Or is it a way to say MOST SCUBA DIVERS did not learn from you??

It is not so great to present negativity, peril and incorrect facts to then provide a helpful solution and have people who do not have great experience on the subject believe this specially if this is exposed on a great ranking website.

Your articles are very good, I have been reading you for quite some time but this one is not as accurate as others.

Sorry as a dive instructor I do not agree on what you expose here.



July 3, 2011 at 8:23 pm
(4) Alex Yankelevich says:

I am not an instructor, but I completely agree with the article. It’s not that any breathing suggestions are not in the open water course, it is that that’s typically it the least of the issues OW students experience, espiecially in a shallow pool.

With some experience and deeper diving, air consumption becomes an issue and tips on how to last longer are very helpful.

Of couse, a lot of it is just genetics – I’ve seen oveweight smokers doing great on air and fit divers getting nervous and running out quickly.

But fitness and training to breathe do help – everything else being equal.

Sure, in a precise buyoancy situation in a tight cave passiage or inside a wreck you can’t count on holding full lungs for 4 seconds all the time, but probably majoirty of diving siutations allow for some bounce and furthermore can be controlled with just swimming and body position.

I find this advice helpful. Perhaps, not for your first 20 dives, but certainly something to consider in your future dive training.

– Alex

July 3, 2011 at 9:16 pm
(5) Natalie L Gibb (Editor) says:

Thanks Alex!

Just to be clear, everyone, the exercise is to breathe in slowly for a controlled period of time, and then breathe out slowly. You want to control the rate of your inhalation so that it lasts longer — not inhale and hold the air in your lungs.

Never hold your breath!

But you all know that.

August 17, 2013 at 10:51 am
(6) Canadian gal says:

So true, I tried my first dive class last night and was told to breathe normally which did nothing for me. I felt like I was suffocating the whole time and was quite panicked.
I will practice this and let you know how it goes!

September 28, 2013 at 2:24 am
(7) Henrik says:

Thanks for the advice. I’m a new certified Divemaster and I dive since 10 years. My big hope doing it was also to get better control in breathing. Unfortunately it did not work out at all. I feel calm and comfortable under water. I have a good buyoancy control. I’m quite a tall guy and have whats called ideal weight and I feel fit. I tried meditation – did not work. I have to find a solution as my tank runs out always at first where other divers have in average at least 100 bar left. Have to find a solution, so I try it out. In general if a official course would been offered, Im the first one to sign up. Thanks again

January 24, 2014 at 6:08 pm
(8) Nicholas Weise says:

I think it’s great to get people to proactively think about breath control, and to practice on a daily basis.

However, I find it’s better to focus on a complete exhale. Meaning you breath in for a couple seconds and then slowly trickle the air out until you have nothing left to breath.

Inexperienced divers retain too much air in their lungs. Getting away from this habit is crucial.

I don’t know that there is a “best” way of teaching. But I think far too little emphasis is also put on relaxing and simply *not moving*.

A trick that you can do in a shallow controlled environment (1 meter of water in a pool), is to get them to hover horizontal with NO fins.

I have seen two of the worst divers I have ever encountered – people who love to “popcorn” to the surface, can’t control their buoyancy, and breath through their tank incredibly quickly – become almost literally different people after just playing in a pool for one hour this way. Their air consumption dropped by about a third on open water dives, they got buoyancy control, they could get a feel for actually remaining horizontal. All in an hour of training. And these divers both already had between 15 and 20 dives. So they were not brand new.

They had simply never “got it”. And if you want to take it one small step further, hold the tips of their toes for them as they try to float horizontal.

Unfortunately, training “quiet feet” receives nothing more than a passing phrase here or there in any training manual I have ever read.. It’s mostly not talked about. Consequently, a lot of divers who may look “trimmed” are actually wasting copious amounts of energy by doing subtle foot sculling almost all the time.

Thanks for writing your article, and I think you make some good points. I just wanted to expand a bit on a subject that is near and dear to my heart, because I have worked in a number of places where divers without control of their breathing or trim are destroying the reefs.

Happy Bubbles
Nicholas Weise

February 8, 2014 at 6:26 pm
(9) Will says:

I recently went through the PADI Open Water Certification. They definitely go through breathing, but it’s not explained as clearly like this. After a recent dive, the skipper was questioning why we were still using too much air. He gave us a simple technique to practice, not too different that the one mentioned here.

1) Breathe in over a count of three
2) Start breathing out and count in your head to 5 (at 1 per second)
3) Take a second before taking in a breath

Do this skill no matter where you are, in bed, on the couch. Just do it regularly and it becomes second nature. Within a week of doing this, I went and did 2 practice dives and I didn’t feel tired, I was able to worry about my buoyancy. I was also able to conciously think about not using my arms to swim and kept them close to my body.

The other main thing, is to get your weights right, it makes a huge difference. But not just getting the amount of weight right, but also getting the trim right. My previous dive I was at an angle to the to horizontal and it caused drag, made me tired and then resulted in me breathing more shallower and quicker. In my last 2 dives I was a lot more horizontal and with the breathing technique it ‘just worked’. Even though my last dive was at 4.5 m, I was under for 45 mins and had 100bar still left; we only surfaced as it was getting late and started to get cold, I could have gone for a lot longer.

Simply put, practice the breathing outside of the water allows you to focus on the things you can’t practice outside of the water. And it’s definitely important to try shallow dives and just focus on skills.

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