July 28, 2020 7 min read

Let’s face it: none of us is getting any younger.

When we’re in the halcyon days of youth, we are impervious to injury, dauntless to danger, and insusceptible to self-preservation. We will throw ourselves into, onto, over and under any heaving wave that the ocean can throw at us.

But as time wears on and responsibilities rise in relativity to dwindling fitness and expanding waistline, we tend to be a little less invincible-slash-stupid.

There’s no fixing this - life is what it is and, aside from spending gruelling hours at the gym day in and day out, our levels of fitness are going to wane. This can have a big effect on our bodysurfing. Endurance is just down to breaking sweat and doing the time, but we’ve recently discovered a little hack that is easy to learn and quick to benefit; apnea.

Apnea is the cessation of breath

Apnea, so Wikipedia tells us, isthe cessation of breath...when there is no movement of the muscles of inhalation.Obviously, we hold our breath when we duckdive, cop a set on the head or go over the falls, so we’re already practicing apnea to some degree, but training in it, making your breath-holds better, longer and more comfortable, is an amazing and simple way to step up our bodysurfing game.

Most people come to apnea through want for freediving. Apnea training was developed to increase the human ability to stay underwater. Spearfishers also get great benefit from apnea training so that they can stay down for longer and improve their chances of nabbing tonight’s dinner. But bodysurfers don’t stay down that long, and the idea of holding your breath for two minutes plus is kind of pointless.

But apnea training is a twofold lesson. 

“There are two types of apnea training,” shares big-wave whomper and qualified apnea trainer Russel Pollard, “what we call O2 tables - where you have the same recovery time but you increase the length of hold - and then CO2 tables - where you hold for the same amount of time but you decrease the recovery period.

“For surfers, bodysurfers and anyone who is going to be in an ocean situation that could change rapidly,” he continues, “the training that suits you the most is the hypercapnic, the CO2 training.”

O2 training is great. It helps you increase your lung capacity, improves your cardiovascular fitness and elevates your stamina; all things that are very useful as a bodysurfer.

CO2 training, on the other hand, is a game-changer. With even some very simple, self-initiated training, you will find that heavy situations are infinitely easier. Rather than allowing you to hold your breath for greater lengths of time (which is an incidental side effect),

CO2 training allows you to be comfortable in the situations you need it most: wipeouts. 

When we get wiped out or held underwater and begin to panic and scramble for the surface, it’s not our need for oxygen that sends us into a spin, it is simply our body telling us we need to breathe, even though, at least initially, we don’t. When we hold our breath, especially when exercising, carbon dioxide and lactic acid build up in our bodies. Breathing out expels the carbon dioxide, breathing in oxygenates our muscles, relieving the lactic buildup. It is these - mostly the elevated CO2 - and not a lack of oxygen that tell our bodies we need to breathe. 

It’s a mind-over-matter scenario, Russel explains:

“As you’re paddling around, you’re burning oxygen, so you’re producing CO2, and CO2 is the trigger that makes you want to breathe. It’s not low oxygen levels, it’s actually high levels of CO2 that make your body say, ‘hey, it’s time to take an inward breath’.

"It is that trigger which causes people to panic, your heart rate increases, you burn more oxygen and it becomes a spiraling effect.”

That discomfort, that feeling of “I need to breathe” can be overcome. It is a knee-jerk reaction that takes place almost subconsciously, but one that comes much earlier than is necessary. Even when we’re out of breath on dry land, holding for 20 seconds is easy. But put your head underwater, in a situation where breathing isn’t an option, and even 10 seconds can seem like forever.

Funnily enough, Russel suggests, it’s in smaller conditions that panic can be more likely to take hold:

“When you’re out surfing large waves, you’re sort of mentally prepared for a flogging, so you are anticipating having to hold your breath. But when you’re surfing in smaller waves and they flog you, it really comes out of left field, and that moment that you haven’t expected and weren’t prepared for makes you panic. I’ve had some of my worst floggings in two or three-foot waves!”

Photo: Kalani Lattanzi, Nazaré

CO2 training overcomes the knee-jerk reaction, training your mind and body to be comfortable with increased levels of carbon dioxide in a safe, dry environment so that the next time you’re held down, all those feelings of panic and a desperation to breathe are both familiar and manageable.

The turn-around is quick too. You don’t have to be training for years to get good at it. In fact, you’ll notice significant improvements within only a month or two.

The best news is that you don’t need to attend any classes, you don’t need a teacher and you don’t need any apparatus. You can practice it anywhere and all you really need is the stopwatch on your phone.

STAmina is an excellent app to track your progress and measure your sessions. The paid app gives you the option of both O2 and CO2 training, has auto-generated tables and is fully customisable. It’s a very convenient way to go, but a simple stopwatch will also do the job.

Here is a simple CO2 table to get you started. As this becomes easier, increase the length of your breath holds and the number of repetitions:


Find a relaxed position. Sitting, lying down - doesn’t matter - you just need to be relaxed.

Breathe easily for 1:20 mins
Hold for 1:15
Breathe for 1:10 mins
Hold for 1:15
Breathe for 1:00 min
Hold for 1:15
Breathe for 50 secs
Hold for 1:15
Breathe for 40 secs
Hold for 1:15
Breathe for 30 secs
Hold for 1:15
Breathe for 20 secs
Hold for 1:15
Breathe for 10 secs
Hold for 1:15

Repeat every other day.

“Aside from those biological benefits that you get from continual apnea training,” says Russel, “the real benefit to any bodysurfer or surfer is the ability to relax in a high CO2 situation and actually mentally know how long you can do it for.

“The reality is that most wipeouts don’t last for more than a few seconds really - it would be very surprising if it was anything like a minute.

"If you know mentally that, with very minimal preparation time, you can take on a little bit of oxygen and be able to deal with that discomfort, then you can pretty much sit out anything.”

There are other ways you can train as well, such as apnea walking. Find a nice, safe area, such as on a wide beach with soft sand. Sit and relax, take a deep breath and hold. When you get your first diaphragm flutter - that feeling of “I need to breathe” - get up and start walking. Go as far as you can until you absolutely have to breathe. Repeat this six to eight times, resting for a while in between and trying to walk a little further each time.


You’re holding your breath. You are trying to overcome the reactions and signals that our body has evolved over millions of years for a very good reason: to keep us alive!

With dry apnea training, unless you’re going to extreme lengths, the worst that is likely to happen is that you momentarily black out. But even this can be dangerous. 

If you’re near any hard surfaces, sharp edges or if you decide to apnea walk beside a road, even a split-second black-out could be dangerous.

“With apnea training as a whole,” warns Russel, “while anyone can download an app, you really have to be conscious of the fact that you are running your body down in terms of oxygen. So it must always be practiced in a safe environment. Any wet training - in a pool or the ocean - must be done with a qualified partner who knows how to recover people from a hypoxia situation [black out].”

Following a simple CO2 table in the comfort of your home is an excellent way to begin building your CO2 tolerance, and may well be all you want or need to step up your bodysurfing game. If you want to take it further on dry land, find someone also interested in apnea and search out a simple first aid course, so that you are trained for every possibility.

If you plan to do any wet training with your face submerged in any water at all, from your bathroom sink to the open ocean, you MUST seek professional help. Apnea courses are springing up all over the world in local swimming pools, and many diving schools are also now offering them.

“Especially if you plan to do wet training - anything where you’re submerging your face in water - you should definitely invest your time in going on a proper freediving course. Maybe you don’t want to do freediving at all, but the foundational elements you will get there, from how to manage your breathing to the safety aspect is essential. Even if you do everything right, you may be with someone who doesn’t and you never know when you may need to recover someone, so it’s always good to have that skill.”

So whether you just count the seconds while lying on your bed or take the plunge and invest in an apnea course, learning how to breathe - or more importantly, how not to - could be the simple trick you need to take your bodysurfing into new realms, bigger waves and with greater confidence.


Apnea, even in its simplest form, can be dangerous. If you have respiratory conditions, heart conditions, high blood pressure or other underlying issues, consult a medical professional before undertaking any form of breath training. Always practice apnea in a safe environment and ONLY practice wet training with a trained professional.

Follow Russel on Instagram @bornwithgills