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  • Jean-Luc Tulliez

Hold your breath understand why it's easy

Mis à jour : 27 juil. 2019



The cetaceans we observe in our travels hold the breath for incredible times: from 15 minutes for dolphins, for humpback whales to 45 minutes and even 90 minutes for sperm whales. But the Cuvier whale holds all the records with a dive of 2h17 !

The breathing of marine mammals on the surface is through the vent (a sort of fat pad, a fatty tissue) that opens at the top of the skull through a single or double port to exhale and breathe the air in a single sequence, at full speed and with power. For example, Tursiops dolphins breathe only 3 times on average per minute, compared to 10 to 15 times in humans. Their lung volume is similar to ours.

But they renew 80 to 90% of the lung volume in an inspiration, unlike the man who must breathe at least 6 to 8 times to achieve such recycling. Man uses only 10 to 15% of his lung capacity.


Since the dive time of some species of whales can reach more than one hour, they use other means to breathe: myoglobin, a protein that can transport and store oxygen in the muscle tissue. It works like hemoglobin that carries oxygen in red blood cells. Thus, whales use the oxygen stored in the muscles to dive for long periods. In humans to overcome the lack of myoglobin the body implement the "reflex of the marine mammal". By training in freediving the body become accustomed to oxygen deficiency and increase the rate of myoglobin present in the muscles. Man will adapt to the aquatic environment with the mammalian dive reflex that we have in our genes. It is put in place when the water comes into contact with the face, by bradycardia and decreases the heart rate. Vasoconstriction to reduce energy consumption, the body proceeds with a redistribution of circulating blood for the benefit of vital organs by decreasing the size of the peripheral vessels. Then the spleen will contract to release more red blood cells to help transport O2.


These factors increase with training and go from 20% in novices to more than 30% in trained subjects. Paradoxically, it is not the lack of oxygen that is the first cause of the "need to breathe", but the excess of CO2 (carbon dioxide, waste of the combustion of oxygen) in the blood, during apnea.

Oxygen (O2) is captured in the air of our lungs and is routed through our bloodstream to be transported and delivered to tissues and organs. Our lungs also remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from our blood during exhalation.

In freediving, the rate of CO2 increases during the air retention time, after a certain time depending on the individuals the contractions of the diaphragm occur to signal us this desire to expel the CO2. To improve the CO2 tolerance threshold it is necessary to follow a specific training.

In addition to gaseous and mechanical factors, psychological factors (motivation, attention, relaxation, letting go) play a determining role in the duration of apnea. In this activity, which is not a spontaneous physiological behavior, the physical and mental relaxation, the "letting go" is fundamental. It is worked in particular thanks to relaxation and breathing techniques inspired by Pranayama: Before apnea, complete breathing is necessary to oxygenate the body.


Unlike the usual breathing, here the breathing should not start from the top (shoulders and thorax) but from the bottom (the belly). It is done in three stages: We begin by inspiring by the belly. The diaphragm lowers and the lung volume increases to receive a maximum of air. Then we fill the entire rib cage and finish by filling the last part of the upper lungs. Ditto for expiration, everything is done in a great fluidity like the movement of a wave. During your travels, Bluexperience offers apnea-specific yoga classes: to learn relaxation techniques through breathing and relaxation posture of the body and ribcage.


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