If you’re a surfer, how can you keep your cool in big waves and hold downs? The London Surf club found out on our surf survival course and came away inspired and confident.
Heather Coutts, one of the Go Freediving Instructing team is an experienced surfer and took our surf survival course to the London surf club for the first time in 2015. After fantastic feedback they wanted us back for more, and this time Heather was also joined by the head honcho of Go Freediving, Emma Farrell at The Rainbow Leisure Centre in Epsom, London.
What do surfers need to survive big waves?
The most important skill taught on our surf survival course is confidence and this confidence is brought about firstly by knowledge of how the body works and the best way to survive a hold down, and secondly by showing just what the body is capable of in the pool.
The course started in the classroom where we found out about the experience levels of the group, what their fears were, and what they wanted out of a surf survival course. With sixteen students, there was a variety of experience levels, but everyone wanted to feel capable of taking on bigger waves, or simply more confident if they came off their board.
The first thing we did was to get them to hold their breath with no knowledge of how to effectively do so. We noted the time, and this was used as a comparison to the times they would do at the end of the course.
Taz Knight survives a series of hold downs at Todos Santos
We then showed the group the point-of-view shot of professional surfer, Taz Knight as he was hit by a series of big waves at Todos Santos in Mexico. He was held down by six very large waves in succession and even though it’s a worst case scenario, it shows what it is like for a very experienced surfer in big waves and conveys some of the reality of being held down.
After setting the scene, the London surf club got to find out how the body functions in a breath hold situation. They learned about the physiology of breath holding, what causes the urge to breathe and about the mammalian dive reflex. We also talked about the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous responses and how these can make or break your reaction to a surf survival situation.
Why teach freediving skills to surfers?
Freedivers learn to control their breath and their minds. By teaching surfers how to do the same on a surf survival course, we could equip them with the tools needed to stay relaxed in a stressful situation and burn less oxygen when doing so.
One of the most interesting challenges we set the London Surf Club was to watch the video from Taz Knight whilst standing up, and hold their breath with him for each of the hold downs. The first time we got them to run on the spot, simulating the exercising of swimming with the board and being stressed whilst also having to breath hold.
The second time they stopped moving during the breath hold and remained calm. The difference was amazing. Even though their heart rate was still up, they were able to hold their breath in time with Taz and feel confident that they could do more than they first thought they were capable of.
Breathing techniques for surfers
After the theory, Emma led the group in a breathing and breath holding dry session. This was to show the surfers how to use their lungs in the most effective way, how to do a full, three part breath, and how to relax.
We also got them doing breath holds to contraction, the moment when the diaphragm starts contracting, trying to get you to breathe.
By now they knew that the very strong urge to breathe was caused, not by low oxygen levels, but by high levels of carbon dioxide and so were able to relax more, even though they felt a strong urge to breathe.
Rick told us: ‘I learnt a lot about oxygen in the body and the process of breathing and how to manage and improve it. I also learnt how to apply this to surfing, which was great.’
Pool training for surfers
The final stage of the surf survival course was in the pool for a static apnea breath holding session, followed by a swim training session targeting carbon dioxide levels and build up of lactic acid.
This was a chance for the surfers to use the freediving techniques they had learned in the water and see just what a difference it made to their breath hold.
We had some amazing breath hold times in the water, with several over three minutes, and everyone was pleasantly surprised at how well they did.
‘The course gave me confidence that I can stay under water (2 minutes 13 secs) for longer than I thought (30 secs) which should help me next time I get caught under water while surfing; however it also made me realise that this time can be improved some more so I’d like to pursue this a bit more in the future’ Cave M
We then taught them about pyramid training, using decreasing and then increasing rest times between lengths, as well as freediving swim training techniques that were very hard but very effective.
At the end of the course we debriefed in the coffee shop and revealed to everyone what times they had held their breath for. There were smiles and high fives all round and we then went out for a meal in a local restaurant to celebrate!
Want to come on a surf survival course?
If you’re interested in coming on our next surf survival course, or bringing one to your club then please get in touch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. All we need is a classroom and a pool, and of course some surfers keen to improve their surf survival skills! And if you want to learn more about freediving skills and how to apply them to surfing, then come along to one of our two day beginner freediver courses!
Surf survival course testimonials
We’re very proud of our courses and teaching. Here are some more testimonials from members of the London Surf Club about our surf survival course:
‘Although I wasn’t exactly a natural at the art of breath holding I have taken a lot of positives from that course and when I was in the water at the weekend I felt an added confidence as a result of the information you gave us and as a result the usual panic level wasn’t as high!
The thing I got most out of the surf survival course was the added confidence from knowledge, which in turn calms any potential panic to enhance calm and oxygen levels. I really liked the way it was linked back to surfing with the Todos Santos thing. That really brought to mind the reality that hold downs aren’t actually as long as they feel like at the time.
The biggest benefits to me were the exposure to elements of freediving, the ways to improve your lung capacity – eg the pyramid training, and the correct technique of breathing when you are in between sets/waves to make the most of the time you have to get your breath back.
I’d definitely recommend the course. I really think it’s something that surfers or in fact anyone who spends a fair amount of time in the water should do. The more we learn the safer we can be.’ Lucy H
‘Thanks again for your time and sharing your knowledge. Looking forward to getting held down to try the techniques out…sounds perverse when you write it… I discovered about the mammalian dive reflex, compressing the spleen to get more red blood cells, lung volume, and recovery breathing. The structure of the surf survival course was very good, the time went really quick and it was good to have people moving in the first session.
The benefits of doing the course would be improved confidence, recovery breathing, and enhanced understanding of physiology. I’d definitely recommend the course. It’s a pretty smooth all round package and something I am interested in.’ Andrew D
‘The key things I learnt were the MDR, spleen effect, how to breathe properly from the stomach and that breath holds are awesome.
The feeling of drifting off into space during the static apnea practice in the pool with a very close second being lying on my back in the pool.
Benefits other than being able to hold your breath longer? Stay calm in unexpected rough situations, perhaps the confidence to approach bigger waves and learn faster, general relaxation techniques that can be done at home and discovery of a new hobby.
I’d recommend the course. It was packed with useful information and more importantly, it works! An all round awesome course with awesome teachers, very attentive and encouraging and I had great time!’ Jon E
‘Thank you so much for the course! It was really interesting and informative. I learnt a lot about oxygen in the body and the process of breathing and how to manage and improve it. I also learnt how to apply this to surfing, which was great.
I specifically liked the in pool practice, it was really good to experience the feeling of holding your breath for a long time in the water whilst doing this in a safe environment.
Three benefits would be: it’s an introduction to freediving, it reassures you about potentially scary surf situations, and you get to meet likeminded people.
I would recommend the course to any surfer because I think having an understanding of the breathing process and holding your breath underwater would be beneficial to any surfer for situations where you are held under by a wave. Thanks again.’ Rick M
I’ve really enjoyed the course, thanks for doing an awesome job!
I discovered how to handle running out of air and I especially liked that we could try to go for a PB. Three other benefits of doing the course was that it is an introduction to a new sport, safety skills and a fun day.
I’d definitely recommend the course. It’s a great skill to have if you do water sports.’ Marcin P
‘I learned proper breathing techniques on the surf survival course. The course gave me confidence that I can stay under water (2 minutes 13 secs) for longer than I thought (30 secs) which should help me next time I get caught under water while surfing; however it also made me realise that this time can be improved some more so I’d like to pursue this a bit more in the future
I think the key benefit is the confidence that if I remain calm I can sustain a multiple wave hold down
I would recommend this course highly and I would love to do a more advance version of it next if time and location allow
Thank you to Emma and Heather for being very good teachers. I think this course should be a requirements for anyone who surfs; especially at more advanced levels for surfers who adventure into bigger waves’ Cave M
‘I just wanted to say thank you for organising the course. It was really useful and fun. Thanks!’ Alex T
Want to come on a surf survival course?
If you’re interested in coming on our next surf survival course, or bringing one to your club then please get in touch by emailing email@example.com. All we need is a classroom and a pool, and of course some surfers keen to improve their surf survival skills! And if you want to learn more about freediving skills and how to apply them to surfing, then come along to one of our two day beginner freediver courses