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:
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