Relax, You've Got Plenty of Air to Spare

As a Santa Cruz transplant, I did not grow up near the water. It took a stoked ex-girlfriend who surfed better than I could to get me motivated enough to drive over the hill to get wet. But now, a few years down the road, having moved to Santa Cruz, I’ve been fully converted and have been baptizing myself in the waters off East Cliff on a near-daily basis.

But my journey from kook to waterman has not been easy or short. One of the biggest challenges I’ve had to face, and in fact still confront on a regular basis, is a natural fear of the ocean. Watch any Shipstern or Teahupoo wipeout and I think you’ll agree with me: the ocean can be a scary place.

We’ve all been out on days where the waves were just a hint too mean for our abilities. Maybe it was the first time you had to climb your leash to the surface, or possibly the double-overhead day at two-six that left you concussed, or it could have been the two-wave hold-down at OB that gave you a new appreciation for life. Whatever the memory or scar, it's telling that even the best of us have our upper limits.

I am by no means a big wave rider, but through my own development as a surfer, I’ve picked up a few lessons along the way that have helped me take bigger strides on the scared to stoked scale. I hope the following five suggestions will help you, as they’ve helped me, condition your mind and body to better last under adverse conditions and to quell the nagging fear that keeps you from going out on bigger days.

1. Knowledge is power. Every time we wipe out and get held under, a combination of physiological factors elicit our reflexive urge to breathe. Adrenaline release, elevated heart rate, muscular oxygen deficit are all involved and culpable, with the greatest trigger being elevated levels of CO². But when it comes down to survival, the only factor that matters is the level of O² in our system. This simple understanding that your urge to breathe is not directly correlated with your oxygen levels is a GAME CHANGER. The time difference between that first urge to breathe and the actual exhaustion of your oxygen stores can literally be minutes. Combining this with the knowledge that with just a few hours of proper instruction almost all of us have the innate ability to hold our breaths for three-plus minutes can make an incredible difference in your mental stability during water emergencies. 

2. Plan & practice. When that urge to breathe does actually present itself, everything in your being will tell you to thrash and fight for the surface. But your survival depends on your ability to stay calm, to relax every muscle in your body, and to slow your heart rate. Research tells us that panic is the first step to drowning, so it is imperative that you teach your mind to master the ability to relax through the urge to breathe. This is no easy feat and a hefty topic best left to a dedicated article, but for now, know that the best way to do this is in a controlled environment, in a pool with a buddy that is familiar with freediving safety protocols, NOT by carrying heavy rocks around underwater. If you don’t have a buddy or don’t know the proper safety protocols for training wet, CO² tolerance tables are a simple and proven way to improve your breath-hold times and can be performed dry, while sitting safely on your couch.

3. Breathe correctly. It only makes sense that learning to breathe correctly can help you when you need to hold your breath. Considering that the average adult takes between 17,000 – 28,000 breaths on a daily basis, you can imagine how dramatic an effect breathing patterns can have on posture, muscle tone, pain, and autonomic nervous system regulation. Incorrect breathing strategies can up-regulate your sympathetic nervous system, cause unconscious tensing of postural muscles, and prevent you from taking a full inhalation into the bottom of your lungs, where the majority of gas exchange takes place. These are all things we are actively trying to avoid as we pursue longer bottom times and increased comfort levels in the water. As with managing your urge to breathe, a lesson on proper diaphragmatic breathing goes a bit beyond the scope of this article, but Men's Health magazine recently wrote a piece on the subject that is a great primer for those of you who are interested:

Change the Way You Breathe to Relieve Stress, Boost Energy, and Get Stronger

You're breathing all wrong. Here's why you should fix the way you suck wind

4. Get uncomfortable. If you are always surfing the same break under the same conditions, you will never gain the confidence to surf in bigger and more challenging conditions. If you always surf right points, go find yourself a few lefts at the closest beach break. If you longboard, go leashless when the waves are less crowded. Pushing yourself in these small ways will expand your comfort zone and force you to become a more well-rounded surfer. But bear in mind: while a little discomfort in challenging conditions can be a vehicle for growth, a lot of discomfort in challenging conditions can be dangerous, for both you and others. So be smart about how you progress and use common sense. But do get uncomfortable, because I promise you paddling out in 10-12 foot Haleiwa will make 6-8 foot Pleasure Point much less intimidating.

5. Cross-train. There are several sports that have excellent transfer to surfing in terms of their ability to increase CO² tolerance (delaying the urge to breathe) and general water comfort. A few that might be worth exploring: freediving, bodysurfing, and open water swimming. Becoming a proficient freediver will create a relative mental safety net for you in larger conditions. What’s a 20 second hold-down under ten feet of water when you’ve been down to 100 feet and held your breath for five minutes? Bodysurfing forces you to ditch your reliance on your surfboard as a flotation device and gives you a much more intimate understanding of wave mechanics as you learn to navigate the peaks and troughs of breaking waves with just your body. And open water swimming can give you the confidence that you can survive in the open ocean for an extended period of time and help prevent the onset of panic if you are ever caught in a rip current and pulled out to sea.

With only a few years of surfing under my belt, I am by no means an expert surfer. But I’ve made a commitment to push myself and challenge myself on a consistent basis to better my mind and my body. Progressing through these five lessons have helped me gain a better understanding of my own capabilities and limitations, and has also brought me a greater familiarity and respect for the ocean. I hope they will do the same for you.

Caleb Chiu