Is it Possible to Hold Your Breath for 20 Minutes?

Illusionist and stunt performer Harry Houdini was famously capable of holding his breath for over three minutes. But today, competitive breath-hold divers can squeeze ten, fifteen, even twenty minutes out of a single lungful of air. How do these divers do it — and how can you train to hold your breath for longer?

“My best static breath hold is pretty crap,” says surfer Mark Healey in an article on breath-holding from the September 2011 issue of Surfer Magazine. “I think it’s about 5:30.”

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If that sounds like a long time to you, that’s because it is, and Healey is being modest (some would say irresponsibly so).

But to the world’s foremost practitioners of “static apnea” — a competitive discipline in the sport of freediving in which a person holds his or her breath underwater, without moving, for as long as possible — five minutes is small change.

In 2001, renowned freediver Martin Štěpánek held his breath for a then-unprecedented 8 minutes 6 seconds. His record stood for nearly three years, until June of 2004, when freediver Tom Sietas bested it by 41 seconds with a time of 8:47. The record has since been broken eight times (five of them by Sietas, himself), but the title currently belongs to French freediver Stéphane Mifsud. In 2009, Mifsud spent a lung-searing 11 minutes 35 seconds below water on a single gulp of air.

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Static apnea is the only discipline in freediving measured in units of time, but it is arguably the purest manifestation of the sport. It is also, inarguably, the skill most essential to the practice of the seven other sea- and pool-based disciplines officially recognized by the International Association for Development of Apnea, or “AIDA,” the global sanctioning body for competitive breath-holding events.

These events include “No Limit” (the “absolute depth” discipline, whereby the freediver descends with the help of a ballast weight and ascends via a method of her choice) and “Dynamic Without Fins” (whereby the freediver travels in a horizontal position under water attempting to cover the greatest possible distance in the absence of propulsive aids), and are measured in units of depth and distance. Other events allow for the use of fins, ropes, weights, sleds and even specialized vests with inflatable compartments, but every single one boils down to the athlete’s ability to make the most that he or she can out of a single breath’s worth of oxygen.

Freedivers subject themselves to years of training to achieve such breath-defying feats. In the process, they actually modify their biology.

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